Friday, January 6, 2017

Best of the 2000s: The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King

1.5 Stars

My reviews of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers focused fairly exclusively on how those films played as individual movies. In this review of the third and final chapter, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, fans might rightly argue that I should finally consider these films together, since the trilogy itself is the work. After all, Tolkien's original novel was conceived of as a single work and divided for publication, and when Jackson adapted this work, he conceived of a three film adaptation from (at least very near to) the beginning. There's some truth to this argument. No film series has ever been conceived so entirely as a franchise from its inception.

I firmly reject this view. A work of art's presentation matters, and every single one of The Lord of the Rings films was presented as an independent film. I certainly wasn't offered the opportunity to pay one third of the price for each film because I was only seeing one third of the auteur's intended work. Consequently, I will continue to review these films as they were presented - one film at a time.

Looked at as an individual film, Return of the King is a failure. Anyone coming to this film without seeing the previous two movies would be completely lost. There is no exposition in this film. Why are Frodo (Elijah Wood), Samwise (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) on a mountain in perpetual twilight? What is the Ring? What exactly does it do? Return of the King gives you no answers to any of these questions - it assumes that you have watched the previous films in the franchise.

Much of the first hour is spent attending parties celebrating the end of Two Towers. Incidentally, those scenes would have made a great conclusion to Two Towers and avoided the previous films horrible, mind-numbingly stupid, cliffhanger of an ending. Worse, the narrative that does materialize from this extraordinarily haphazard beginning has a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. Three hours of walking, hiking, and scrambling through the darkest stretches of Middle-Earth worrying about the forces of darkness descending upon you, and the final obstacle is a slap fight with a CGI Andy Serkis? Are you kidding me?

Meanwhile, Return of the King's parallel narrative, the one that gives it its title, is no better. The parallel narrative focuses on Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the King-in-exile of the nation of Gondor, leading the remaining members of the erstwhile 'Fellowship of the Ring' as they ride to the defense of Gondor at the city of Minas Tirith. In order to successfully defend the city, he will need to take command of the combined armies of the men of Middle-Earth and, more importantly, reclaim his throne from Denethor (John Noble). Of course, when it's phrased like that, a viewer might expect that Aragorn would return to Minas Tirith, confront Denethor, reclaim his throne, and lead the armies of Middle-Earth against the forces of Mordor - the same enemy that defeated his ancestors. That doesn't really happen. Instead, he mopes around the neighboring country of Rohan while Gandalf (Ian McKellen) deals with Denethor. Aragorn isn't even around for most of the battle of Minas Tirith. He shows up only at the very end, and the battle of Minas Tirith (the moment that this entire franchise has been building towards) is a huge disappointment. This battle isn't won by tactics or strategies - the tide of battle turns five times based on who made the most recent totally radical entrance.

That said, even if I were to judge these three films as a whole trilogy - I'm sorry, they are a disaster. The dialogue is too earnest and self-serious. The characters are incredibly poorly defined. The Ring of Power only uses its powers when its convenient, and two different individuals find it at the bottom of a river. Give me a break. But more fundamentally than that, these films lack the basic necessity of a great dramatic piece - a strong confrontation between protagonists and antagonists. The antagonists of these movies are almost never in the same place as the protagonists. The protagonists never (or almost never) meet Sauron (Sala Baker) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), and they certainly don't confront them in any meaningful way at critical moments in the story. Instead, the protagonists spend their whole lives fighting random orcs and uruk-hai. The whole fellowship was only together for - maybe 40 minutes of screen time. And yet, this final film acts like their reunion is some kind of long awaited moment that should bring the audience to tears.

The actual worst thing about this movie - and this trilogy - is the ending. Sorry, endings. The last seven scenes of this movie each end in a fade out signaling that this monstrosity is finally over. Each scene is more self-important and treacly than the scene that preceded it. It's exhausting. It's frustrating. It's just obnoxious.

So what movie did everybody else watch? I want to see the Best Picture winning high fantasy epic that everyone else raved about called The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. That movie sounds awesome. For the record, 9 of the 37 surveyed listed it as one of the top ten films of the 2000s and 2 listed the trilogy as the best film of the decade.

In the end, I can’t recommend these films either individually or as a combined trilogy. As an individual film, Return of the King is a deeply flawed film, and easily the worst films I have reviewed so far in my quest for a classic among the best films of the 2000s when I review the next film on the list, No Country for Old Men.

From Out in the Void,

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