These are major achievements. The Matrix trilogy failed on exactly these points, with a pretentious opening succeeded by the drowning-not-waving tread of Matrix Reloaded and the panicked serial-style bang-bang of Matrix Revolutions. But you don’t need an utter failure for comparison. In pure cinematic terms, Jackson easily outstrips George Lucas’s and Steven Spielberg’s efforts at trilogies.
The superfluity of a plot description is so obvious that you won’t get anything here but the bare bones: the Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his helpmate Sam (Sean Astin) come to the most arduous and final leg of their trek to destroy the evil ring by pitching it into a live volcano inhabited by at least one giant, man-eating spider. Meanwhile, every other surviving character gathers at a lovely, towering white fortified city, Minas Tirith, with a huge army to fight the monstrous legions of Sauron, embodied in the film by a satanic eye, the chief villain of the piece.
Frodo and Sam are accompanied by Gullum, the morally, mentally and physically contorted little goblin who was once an ordinary Hobbit, but who was transformed by the power of the ring. The opening sequence is dedicated to Gollum’s transformation from happy Hobbit Smeagol (an opportunity to see the actor Andy Serkis in his natural, non-altered state).
The scene is as good as can be expected, but it’s also a moment that suggests subtle disproportions to come. After all, why show the origins of Gollum when it’s perfectly clear from his present what sort of past he had? It doesn’t take one of the written trilogy’s ardent parsers to infer from the goblin’s ravings that he was once a merry little fellow back in the Shire. And a deviation from the necessary is no small matter for a 200-minute movie.
Perhaps the answer lies in the film’s opening shot, which is a big, big close-up of a tiny bait worm. Jackson’s puckish sense of humor is perfect for the trilogy, so it’s hard to fault him for starting off with a visual joke. He’s magnifying a small object to giant size as a prelude to a film which feature huge panoramas crammed with literally thousands of warriors into a single frame.
OK, clever. But this love of grandiose gesture does upset the thematic applecart for those who don’t have a lifetime of discussing the book behind them. Although The Return of the King features some pre-battle skullduggery amongst the good guys and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan, an annoying ham) explains that the battle itself will serve as an indirect aid to Frodo, the movie never satisfactorily explains how this particular battle occurs at this particular time and at this particular place.
Yes, a large battle might certainly distract anyone, even a nearly invincible force of evil. But nothing has tied up Sauron intellectually up till now; why should he suddenly get all flustered? Why at this beautiful white city? And how does it come to be a siege by the forces of darkness wasn’t the initiative supposed to be the bad guys.
It’s not a question of there being answers to these questions. It’s that Jackson decides to ignore them. As far as The Return of the King-the-movie goes, the battle takes place because it’s a ripping good sequence. The white city forms the backdrop because towering white cities are quite photogenic. The timing can be laid up to it’s being in the concluding film, which is the best time.
Everything about the battle which takes up about an hour, cross-cut with Frodo’s climb is presented backwards. The movie starts with the battle, then comes up with reasons for having it.
Jackson has enough equanimity not to scant Frodo’s lonelier sequences. True, there’s the battle with a giant spider and Gollum keeps trying to pull a nasty trick or two, but essentially we see Frodo and Sam undergo a true inner struggle. One hesitates to say spiritual, since the allegorical elements of the story are frail. But there’s clearly something important going on inside and between them (nothing subliminally sexual, by the way; these Hobbits are childlike and pre-sexual). All the inner heat comes from this pair.
One element does disturb, though. At one point, a regiment of specters is drafted into the heroes’ service. These are the spirits of warriors who had failed to heed the call to arms in an earlier life. To break the curse that holds them to their broken walls, they march against evil.
Even in Tolkein’s post-World War I era, this would be distasteful. Soldiers are presented as dead before they ever enter the fray. Since they are dead, one can order them into harm’s way with a clear conscience. One can even be proud of oneself, as their souls ascend to a better place. Senior officers then and now can hide behind this logic. If it were presented as an odious attitude, that would be one thing. But the movie exults in the notion of dead-already fighters who slaughter their ugly opponents.
These faults are no doubt buried in both the nature of contemporary filmmaking and in the words of the books. Taken with the movie’s virtues, they don’t sink what is a successful epic in an un-epic world.