NOTHING travels quite so fast down the bush telegraph as the word sensation.
The final instalment of Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings trilogy landed at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand, and it has apparently exceeded every expectation. It needed to. During the schematic sprawl of The Two Towers, much of Tolkiens magic seem to wither before the eyes. The ambition and pulsing horror of Jacksons opening salvos in The Fellowship of the Ring were diluted by complicated wars, bedraggled cameos and splintered story lines. There was little visceral satisfaction, but critics and fans alike have clung to the story like Gollum.
The annual gaps between the films have been a frustrating and unusual wait. The imminent sense of closure is a strange, and curiously communal, phenomenon.
The whiff of success 12,000 miles away has reignited that sense of national anticipation. Stony US critics and Academy Award members who were privileged enough to see previews of The Return of the King in advance of the 2004 Oscars have jammed internet sites with schoolboy raves. British critics will judge when the first prints of the film arrive in London next week. In rugby parlance, the climax has the dramatic potential of Jonny Wilkinsons dropped goal in the last minute of the World Cup final. The difference is that one is mere sporting history; the other hardcore fantasy.
If Jacksons last reel is the success that it is predicted, and primed, to be, it is destined to become only the second film, after Titanic, to crack the $1 billion dollar mark at the box office. Its an extraordinary conclusion to perhaps the greatest gamble a Hollywood studio has yet made. Jacksons greatest hits include Bad Taste, a feature about space invaders who turn humans into hamburgers; a drug-addled spoof of the Muppets (Meet the Feebles); and a zombie flesh-eating masterpiece called Braindead. New Line, a minnow of a company which pushed Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh into making all three films at the risk of putting themselves out of business for ever, cannot be faulted for what on paper must have seemed an insane investment particularly when the costs escalated to a queasy $310 million.
Sequels are as common, and illuminating, as muck. Film trilogies are rare unicorns. The Lord of the Rings is, without a shred of doubt, the greatest organic three-part cinema epic made. Apart from George Lucas with the Star Wars films, no director has dared shoot back-to-back blockbusters using the same cast to relate a single story to such uniform and powerful effect.
Some perspective is needed. Lets not forget that prequels such as The Phantom Menace are rolling in 22-odd years later. Coppolas Godfather trilogy took 20 years to make, with the result that the individual segments are as compatible as chalk and cheese. The French art-house Trilogy by Lucas Belvaux, currently playing in cinemas around the country, is a generic trick that pales by comparison.
The Matrix is essentially a cartoon, and is mapped out as such. Its a glorious biblical interpretation of a sci-fi dystopia, and it threatened to be the trilogy by which all others must be measured. It failed at the second fence. Film ingenuity supplanted, then smothered, any signs of organic growth.
Jacksons triumph is that he uses realism like scaffolding. His trilogy couldnt exist without relationships and enmities capable of withstanding a pair of size 12 boots. Making all three films at once using home-grown New Zealand nous reduced the costs radically. It also put his dreams in the hands of some terrific actors. The actors paid him back in spades.
The bewitching luck of Jacksons strategy has not escaped Hollywood. Whether anyone dare follow him is another question.
Trilogies are as old as Greek tragedy, but the concept of film trilogies is utterly daunting. Jackson has exploded many myths about the subject in the seven years it has taken him to deliver. Directors such as Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) are taking cues from the wisdom of three-film shoots. But the physical and emotional cost has yet to be recognised.
Mark Ordesky, the chief operating officer of New Line, was recently asked about the possibility of shooting The Hobbit. He was spookily enthusiastic. It would be an insult if Jackson were not asked to direct it, but I seriously wonder whether he has any juice left.
Three years of post-production on the Rings trilogy was apparently harder than the shoot itself. The 42-year-old looks like the bearded Owl of Greyfriars, aged 63¾. One fears for his mental health. Perhaps a crop of Oscars will provide some creative Viagra.
Three years ago I predicted that The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be crowned as one of the seven wonders of the cinematic world. I doubt Ill be asked to eat my words.