Even before I saw The Return of the King, the movie haunted my dreams. Having read J.R.R. Tolkien's original Lord of the Rings trilogy a couple of times, I wasn't exactly losing sleep over whether intrepid hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) would fail in their quest to destroy the nefarious ring of power.
Instead, like many a geek, I didn't want to be disappointed by a King unworthy of the prior two films. I almost never dream of the things I write about, but in the months leading up to The Return of the King's release, anxieties invaded my slumbers. One dream found Frodo and Sam in the dusty utility room of the Mordor's dark kingdom, trying to ruin the ring by feeding it into a Cuisinart.
I should have rest assured. The Return of the King lives up to standards set by director Peter Jackson and his splendid creative team. The New Zealand director has called King his favorite, but the film itself doesn't invite such comparisons.
Instead, The Return of the King feels like the culmination and crescendo to a superb single film that's more than nine hours long. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, like such classic works of the imagination as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Tolkien's own books, unfolds like a dream shared by our whole culture.
Compared to the historic, Middle-Earth-shaking events that introduce The Fellowship of the Ring and the breathtaking duel that kicks off The Two Towers, King begins quietly, with a simple flashback that has intimations of Cain killing Abel and reminds us of the ring's corrupting power.
For the film's first half-hour we gradually get reacquainted with now-familiar figures like the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler, little-seen here) and the valiant human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), reluctant heir to the throne of the human kingdom of Gondor. It's not until we reach Gondor's capital city of Minas Tirith, a tiered metropolis seemingly hewn of marble and ivory, that King really begins.
Minis Tirith is the first target of Mordor's infernal forces, so Gandalf musters its defenses, despite opposition from the city's callous steward, Denethor (a seething John Noble). When signal fires ignite from mountaintop to mountaintop, it's as if an entire continent is called to arms.
Yet for all the pivotal battles, which include troops on horseback facing savage flying reptiles and elephants the size of battleships, the film's human conflict remains with the trio of Frodo, Sam and the scheming Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis). As Gollum casts suspicion between the two friends, the give-and-take of greed, paranoia and loyalty feels like Treasure of the Sierra Madre relocated to hell itself.
It's possible that no epic film can exceed King for sustained intensity. The director is unquestionably King's star, and he alternates between the combat thrills of a war movie and the suspense of a horror film. You gasp at the siege of Minas Tirith, which includes POV-shots of catapulted boulders crashing into buildings or squashing platoons. Then you squirm at the finely drawn tension when Frodo is stalked by the nightmarish spider Shelob.
King proves such a cascading experience, so full of shocks and miracles, that it's almost too much of a good thing. There are nearly too many skirmishes for your eyes to see, too many fantastical settings for your mind to contain in a single sitting. And remarkable as the special effects may be, they reach their limits. Too often we can tell when amassing armies are computer generated, and while a horde of ghostly soldiers make an unnerving sight, they look a bit too much like extras from The Haunted Mansion.
You wish the fine cast had more chances to shine amid the spectacle. A lucky one is Billy Boyd, who shows how foolhardy Pippin finds wisdom in the face of possible annihilation. One of the most memorable moments has Pippin singing a mournful tune as noble troops ride to certain death.
King proves the most moving of the three films, not least by marking the end of a journey not just for the characters and the filmmakers, but the audience itself. During its codas, we see reunions and resolutions of events established two years ago, and the scripters don't let excessive dialogue get in the way of the enormous feelings of release and closure. Lord of the Rings isn't cinema's first fantasy trilogy, but more than the Matrix or Star Wars films, it fully realizes the potential of the serial epic for emotional payoff.
And it's not quite over. In 2004 the Extended Edition DVD of Return of the King will include some of the character moments the theatrical release rushes past. We already know that King's most conspicuous loose end, the fate of Christopher Lee's vicious Saruman, will be on disc. Perhaps the DVD won't improve Return of the King, but nor will it dim the film's newly claimed status as an essential. The circle will be unbroken.