The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 203 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 14
[See Japan Times movie listings]

It's February, so we must be in Middle Earth. The annual magical mystery tour through Tolkien's fantastic realm has become a fondly anticipated ritual, and we'll miss it when it's gone. No other blockbuster has delivered the goods so consistently when it comes to jaw-dropping, eye-popping spectacle, sustaining its mood and mystery while keeping the naff bits to a minimum. Certainly not the underwhelming "Matrix" sequels.

"The Return of the King," the final installment in director Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, almost needs no review. If you liked, or disliked, either of the first two films, this one offers more of the same, with the emphasis on the "more." Suffice to say that Jackson really pulls out all the stops. There are masked witch kings flying on serpentine Fell Beasts, plucking warriors off the battlements of the besieged city of Minas Tirith and hurling them to their doom; Shelob, a giant spider silently stalking Frodo and Sam as they slip through slimy tunnels into the barren land of Mordor; literally hundreds of slavering, leprous Orcs, each one a throwaway wonder of makeup and art design in itself. And then there is Gollum, emblematic of the "Ring" films, a wondrous mix of spectral digital wizardry and tangibly fleshy performance.

Gollum's hissy fit -- "We wantsss it, we needsss it!" -- could apply to our own cravings for a film that took seven years to make. (Stop a moment and really let that register.) This may be Jackson's most enduring contribution to cinema: The idea that extended, multi-installment, 10-hour-plus narratives can be realized in the context of the movies. Sure, there have been TV mini-series, but always with far less lavish production quality. And, yes, there have always been sequels, but it's Jackson who has trailblazed the notion of filming one long story, cohesive from the outset, and releasing it in installments. It wasn't so long ago that pundits were wondering whether interest could be sustained for the follow-on films; now everyone's rushing to join in. (With "Kill Bill" being the weakest trend-hopper: Its two parts together aren't even as long as "The Return of the King.")