Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (US, NZ 2003)

The final chapter in this epic story and its an all out conquest that most probably gave all Games Workshoppers a joygasm. The last film was for battle whores where as this film is most surely for the complete war sluts.

There isn't really all that much story left in this final segment, the way Jackson has arranged it. Its merely about the last struggle up to Mount Doom for Frodo and Sam and lots of battles for everyone else. I have watched the extended cut so this way you get to see what happens to Saruman and Wormtongue which is rather stupidly left out of the theatrical version. Without this sequence you basically have no idea where these two guys go.

The only main thing that happens to Frodo and Sam until their important final act is the scuffle against Shelob the spider. Now the CGI has improved somewhat over the course of these three films and finally its looking pretty nice times. The whole battle against this massive spider is really well done and creepy enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. I liked the corpses entwined in cobweb and dangling from the cave ceiling and Shelob moves perfectly which is pretty terrifying for any arachnophobics.

Lets not beat around the bush here, this film is about war, full on axe swinging, sword wielding, arrow in the gut wrenching waaaaar!. This is enforced by the fact that half the film centres around the battle at Minas Tirith. Pretty much the same deal as the battle at Helm's Deep but this time its in daylight and with a few more baddies to content with. Personally I actually preferred the Helm's Deep battle with its dark rain swept visuals and the fact the good guys are really pushed right back to the limit.

That's not to say the Minas Tirith battle is no good, far from it, its very good. The design of Tirith is also really nice and unique, dare I say slightly Star Wars-like with that landing platform type section. Its the siege to top all sieges as orcs, trolls, deformed cross breeds and Nazgûl atop their flying steeds led by the Witch King hit the walls of Tirith. Its balls to wall as thousands of orcs slam every side of the mighty Tirith walls with battering rams, catapults and mobile turrets. Can't fail to be impressed by the shear scale of this battle and the wonderful imagination involved, the sight of masses of orcs scaling ramparts whilst huge trolls use the wolf's head to batter down the main gates is pretty darn epic, without trying to sound too cliched.

At the same time you have the smaller battle at Osgiliath where Faramir is getting whipped pretty good but looking heroic in the process (shame he's played by Wenham who always comes across a bit wet if you ask me). Cut back to Tirith and like the previous big battles Jackson likes to swing the odds as the good guys appear to be winning only to be knocked back time and time again. Lucas must have been kicking himself.

Just as you're pausing for breath the next stage of the battle kicks into gear with the Haradrim (who look suspiciously like ancient Persians) on their massive elephant-like war machines. This sequence did feel very much like a rip from 'The Empire Strikes Back' and the Battle of Hoth. Éowyn and Merry charge around on their horse through the legs of these massive beasts of burden just like Luke in his snowspeeder.

The whole sequence is highly imaginative yet possibly one of the worst looking sequences in the film. This is where the dreaded bluescreen issue raises its head again folks. It doesn't really look much better than the quality of the speederbike sequence on Endor in ROTJ, its very obvious. All the CGI horses look a bit jerky, especially when they are tossed in the air and the fact that Éowyn is able to simple take down one these ginormous creatures merely by slashing its tree trunk like legs with a puny sword is stretching it.

The sequence where Legolas jumps onto one elephant (I'll call it that for now) via its tusk then proceeds to leap around its body like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cutting all the straps and harnesses whilst killing every Haradrim warrior on board, then killing the elephant, then calmly sliding down the tusk to safety was completely not needed and horrible to watch. Both in terms of the awful CGI and the over the top, glossy action movie conception of it. Things like that can spoil a perfectly good sequence.

The only other sequence I must moan about is the army of Dead. Now this has had some complaints and rightly so to be frank. You have this massive scale war where the good guys are on the brink of defeat, its top notch entertainment and keeping you poised on the edge of your seat. Then up pops Aragorn and his new army of ghostly mates who promptly wipe out every bad guy within minutes, that's it, done, game over, finito and the good guys win.

This kinda ruins the climax of this grand war to beat all wars. It also leads you to think, why the hell didn't they just do this in the first place? Elrond could have given Aragorn the sword Andúril right from day one and they could have gotten the help of the ghost army to wipe out all the bad guys. This would have spared all this heartache and death surely, ah what do I know.

To be fair apart from that most of the effects are much better in this film, well gotta over look the dodgy CGI horses. The Witch King looked nicely evil and his flying steed always did look good, Shame he had such a weak ass death. The final part of the film on Mount Doom is a excellent visual feast and is a much better looking volcano/lava sequence than Lucas offered in Episode III. Boy does it look really hot in Mount Doom! really impressed with the visuals for this part of the film. The design work on such simple things such as the jagged knife like rocks that project from the ground around the base of Mount Doom look awesome, almost Giger-esq.

Gollum looks much tighter and sharper in the whole film, the fire in his eyes throughout this emotionally draining finale is near pixel perfect. Finally the scrawny creature actually looks right against his live action companions. I must admit despite the fact I was sick to death of seeing Wood's huge teary puppy dog eyes in this film he and Astin do deliver the pain and anguish of this scene to the viewer in a first class parcel performance.

Of course having lots of war also means some magical moments of dialog delivery from the cast, there are some good emotional hooks here. The sequence where Pippin sings to Denethor as his last son Faramir surges towards certain death in a last ditch cavalry charge of Osgiliath is haunting and reminds me of some proper historical epics. Théoden's rousing final speech as his Rohirrim army sits perched on the brow of a hill ready to tear down towards the massive waiting orc horde (William Wallace eat your heart out. I actually believe riding down the front line and tapping every mans spear before a cavalry charge is accurate, I think).

Of course this could only be topped by the speech from Aragorn to his last remaining men at the Black Gate. Then with the knowledge that Frodo appears to be dead and facing the end he turns and sprints towards his unknown fate only to be followed by his friends, one last glorious push. 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends once more!' is what came to mind at this point.

The film is a bum number can't deny that, it feels like an age for the film to finally wrap up!. I don't think I've ever seen so much fighting in one film either, its none stop virtually. Admittedly it lacks the in-depth character building and dark intensity of the first film or the story development of the second, its more of an all out free fall Dungeons & Dragons style.

Would Tolkien be happy with this trilogy? I'm sure he would have been despite much alterations and bits cut out. The story is so deep it may be impossible to film it completely. The first film is probably the best for story, atmosphere and lore, whilst the second is rather dull apart from Helm's Deep at the end. Overall I liked this third film even if it did feel a bit like a toy merchandise dream and almost too big at times if that makes any sense. I think I was battle weary at the end of it all.

The end?