If there's a single leavening touch of humour in the third part of Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy, it's the opening shot: a close-up of an earthworm. This is an outrageously misleading start to a film which otherwise has little time for anything much smaller than a rhinoceros, and which builds up to the most flamboyantly apocalyptic spectacle ever filmed. The Return of the King climaxes with a quasi-nuclear blast, the earth cracking open, rivers of gushing lava and the triumph of good over evil - all this after nearly three-and-a-half hours. One thing you can say with relief is that - unless producers New Line dare to play fast and loose with Tolkien's cosmology - we won't have to suffer a sequel. Two years ago, Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring disarmed criticism, for it genuinely looked like nothing ever seen. Far more extravagant, more painstakingly artisan-like than previous digital epics, it created a self-contained universe that felt entirely true to the spirit of Tolkien's books, even refusing to skimp on all that saccharine elf business. Whether or not Tolkien meant anything to you, you had to admire Jackson's evangelistic fervour and staunch refusal to cut corners. But now the trilogy is in its final stretch, it's much harder for non-believers to be objective: the question with part three is how much we can stand to see more of the same, albeit on a bigger scale.
The Return of the King stages the final showdown in which the forces of good defend the citadel Minas Tirith against the evil hordes amassed by fiery eye-in-the-sky Sauron; meanwhile, plucky hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) ventures into the dark mountains to destroy the baleful Ring. This time, mercifully, Jackson mostly loses those time-wasting elves, though Hugo Weaving still raises a titter, looking like Leonard Nimoy's sulky sister. Unfortunately, he also loses Christopher Lee's evil Saruman, the most commanding human presence in the cast.
Also lost is the element of surprise, especially when it comes to Gollum, so carefully teaser-trailed in part one. This film's one surprise is its opening flashback, showing how Smeagol (a scurrying lank-haired wretch, played by Andy Serkis in human form) was transformed by junkie-like addiction to the Ring into a wasted, glaucous-eyed salamander thing, still the most humanly expressive figure here.
Where Jackson surpasses your everyday blockbuster directors is in his love of the grotesque. His Orcs are arrestingly hideous, especially one with a head like a mouldering truffle; so are the huge grey pterodactyl things they ride, which shriek at such piercing frequencies that Jackson must have managed to turn his sound mix up to 11. Less memorable, and awkwardly played for "Behind you!" panto thrills, is a giant spider, while the army of dead warriors - this film's macabre answer to the US Cavalry - rather had their thunder stolen by the jollier ghouls of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Amid all this, it's hard for humans to make a real mark. The rustic hobbits are largely required to be stoutly of good cheer, though Sean Astin's grouchy Sam makes a robust foil to the increasingly pallid Frodo. Miranda Otto makes a strong showing as a Pre-Raphaelite damsel turned scrappy warrior. But the real scene-stealer is John Noble as crazed Denethor, father of Boromir and Faramir (understandably, a very confused man), who gives a superb no-holds-barred display of scenery-chewing, especially impressive given that much of the scenery is digital.
The meaning of Tolkien's Manichaeism has been much commented on since the trilogy was first published, but given the mood of our own age, there's something not quite palatable about all these intrepid, largely beautiful Europeans boldly fending off the nameless, numberless hordes from the other side of the world, legions of dark-skinned sans-culottes with tribal drums. Hearing Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) giving his rousing God-for-Harry speech before battle, calling the "men of the West" to stand firm, you feel that either this is a very nasty film altogether or that, more likely, Jackson simply isn't interested in the overtones. This atavistic Christians-vs-Moors narrative doesn't belong in the present day, and that's no doubt why so many people are addicted to it: it's so ideologically overstated that it can easily be brushed off as harmlessly quaint escapism.
Aside from this, there's plenty to be offended by on an aesthetic level: the film's self-important solemnity, its hyperbolic over-insistence. As the masonry crumbles, the fireballs fly and the swooping aerial shots grow ever more vertiginous, you wonder where - and more pressingly, when - it will all end. It's with the entry of the giant elephants that you know you've reached an outer limit to the possibilities of epic: any film which can stage multiple elephant collisions has simply gone too far.
Not long ago, it was considered a joke that anyone ever thought it worthwhile to make films as sprawling and overgilded as Cleopatra, say. Such films look like small fry now that CGI has allowed epic cinema to set its sights higher. What's horrifying in Jackson's vision, however, is not just the gargantuan scale of things but the excess of detail. Where even George Lucas is content to make his batallions of stormtroopers pretty much identical, in Jackson's obsessively multiple world, no two Orcs amid an army of some 200,000 seem to look alike. How many Orc stylists were needed to make this possible? How many artists, technicians, gigabytes did it take to create all the equestrian statues, all the carvings on palace doors? It seems to require all the skill and labour of the Renaissance to perfect just one shot.
Critiquing such a film is like critiquing a religion: you either believe or you don't. If you believe, you'll never want the rapture to end; if you don't, then too bad - the holy writ was never addressed to you in the first place. But looking at the trilogy objectively, I'd say that its concluding slab is too much of the same, expanded beyond tolerable limits. Amid all the obsessive detail, the relentless multiplicity, there are no empty spaces, no gaps for thought, no real stimulus to the viewer's imagination. The film has no idea when to stop, either, with its multiple codas and final dying fall into beatific cosiness.
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Overwhelmed, you either yield absolutely or you don't, which seems to me a fair description of totalitarian cinema. Certainly, there's no denying the vision, the integrity and the technical brilliance of the enterprise. But I can't help feeling Jackson's trilogy goes further towards absolute imaginative domination of its audience than cinema ever should. I suspect there will come a saner time in film culture, which will look back on Jackson's achievement as magnificent but futile, perhaps even as a dreadful warning. Meanwhile, some of us pray for a little calm, a little restraint - a little minimalism please in 2004.
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