The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King Theatrical Edition
starring Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, etc, etc, etc.
5 stars, duh

It's awesome. Of course. Nobody really had any reason to doubt it, and those of you who've already seen it know. It is awesome. I was awed;  I was filled with awe, pummelled and battered and destroyed and sent flying by the flick of a gigantic elephant's tusk in awe of this movie. You will be awed. You will say "aw!" as you see awe-inspiring things unfold in front of you. Awe is what's for dinner; grab a shovel.

Return of the King is a film of strange contradictions. Whereas The Two Towers was dark, night-time, filled with blacks and greys and blues, Return of the King is light, daytime, warm with yellows and golds and whites. And yet despite the light somehow Return of the King is grimmer, more despairing, with Jackson freely indulging his taste for horror. The film starts slowly, quietly, with a worm and a murder, and it takes a long time to get going, like some enormous winged beast flapping its way down the runway for an hour and a half before it finally gets in the air (though I gotta say there's an early scene that had me locked into my seat, rigid with tension). 

But once this film gets in the air, good god, nothing can stop it. The movie is big. Biiiiiiig. The attack on Minas Tirith makes the Helm's Deep battle look intimate. And I'm not just being cute, here; on the Two Towers commentary Jackson remarks on how he had to cut back to the heroes every three or four shots in order to keep the audience connected to the action. In Return of the King, none of our heroes have that ground-level involvement with the Minas Tirith battle, so Jackson compensates by delivering money shot after creamy money shot of jaw-dropping spectacle, like I'm talking slack-jawed "mwahh…" your-mouth-is-hanging-open-type shots, except he'll stack six or seven of those shots on top of each other until you just can't handle it any more. Catapults, seige engines, the father of all battering rams, shit flying through the air… truly, it's exhausting.

This is the kind of movie that knocks you out with the buildings alone. One of the huge centrepieces of this film is city of Minas Tirith, or should I say, MINAS TIRITH!!!!!!!! We've seen glimpses of Minas Tirith, the White City, the City of Men, in the previous two films, but here we see it in all its glory. And it is truly glorious.  If ever there was a Throne of Men, this is where it would be. We soar over its levels, up, up, up, driven by character and plot, up to the very top, and when you get there, and you see how it's arranged, what it looks like, the music soaring, you're just frickin' shaking your head at how stunning it all is.

Spectacle. That's what hits when you first see this movie. It is spectacular. In fact, it's such a purely sensory experience the first time around, such a barrage of sound and music and motion, it's possible to walk away with rather fuzzy picture of the quieter, more human parts of the film.  As a result, the first time you see it you may notice a lack of deep emotional scenes. I myself remember wiping away tears, but except for one moment on the slopes of Mount Doon, I can't recall when or where or what was happening, certainly nothing I remember with the clarity of Boromir's death, Sam swimming out to Frodo's boat or the blaze of day behind Gandalf and the Rohirrim.

I keep saying "when you first see this movie" because it's too big for just one viewing; I barely feel competent to review it having only seen it once. It'll take a few viewings just to get it set in my head, and even then, after all, it's still not the *real* film Return of the King. We've seen the other two films in theatrical and extended DVD release and each time it's clear that the extended version is the true film, and that in comparison the theatrical version is a hard, cut-to-the-plot, slam-bam blockbuster version of the movie that lacks the important character and pacing material of the real thing. Really, the film that's in theatres now is a 3 1/2 hour trailer for the real movie, the extended edition, and when it comes that 4 1/2 hour movie will feel warmer, funnier, deeper, realer, stronger, more beautiful and *shorter* than the theatrical version. 

So, Return of the King, Theatrical Edition feels long, quite long. And, true to the book, the characters and narrative are even more spread out and fractured than they were in The Two Towers. The first hour and a half is a breathless dash through all the places and people we've seen before plus introductions to places and people and things we haven't seen before. Jackson does everything imaginable to keep these things distinct, giving each location a distinct style and color tone --ash grey for the fallen city Osgiliath, smooth white and gold for Minas Tirith, menacing green for the tower of Minus Morgul-- but holy smokes, I've read the books plenty of times and even I was starting to get dizzy. 

And, with the first viewing of the film come the disappointments, the changes from the book that ring wrong the first time around. There are new inventions in the relationship between Sam, Gollum and Frodo that take some getting used to if you're familiar with the book. And it saddens me to say it, but when it comes to Shelob's Lair, possibly the greatest best scene in the whole story, this is the one time in the trilogy where Peter Jackson's imagination didn't blow mine completely out of the solar system. Too bright, though I guess that fits with the movie. I'll have to see it again.

And this isn't a criticism, but of the three films, it's actually grim dark blue Two Towers that has the most unalloyed moment of the triumph of victory. Even though Return of the King is the conclusion, it's bright with despair, and even the triumph is a loss. And it is a loss. As we give up the Ring, we have to give up the Lord of the Rings movies, the promise that there will be a new one next year. The story is ended, and it creates that feeling you get when you finish the book, that sadness that there's no more.

It's huge, it's overwhelming, it's complicated, it's confounding, it's Return of the King. It's all there and so much more. I don't want to spoil stuff, but holy cats when you see it you'll know, dear readers, you'll know what I'm talking about. The Palantir. The signal fires. Ruined Isengard. Legolas and that frickin' oliphaunt. Gentleness in an eagle's claw. The fall of the Black Tower. Eowyn's battle. Denethor's end. The slopes of Mount Doom. Gollum's end. Gollum's beginning. I could, believe me, go on and on and on, and I will, once you've seen it, so get to it.