So in the precious few moments between the lights in the theatre dimming at 00:05 and the feature presentation of Return of the King commencing at around 00:15, the fine folks at Regal/UA cinemas gave us advance notice and/or warning of the following possibly diverting entertainments coming Soon to a Theatre Near You:
- Spider-Man 2 — Appropriately enough, they led off with a trailer for the other decades-overdue marquee franchise series based on a beloved pop culture property starring a diminutive and improbably soulfully-eyed male lead and directed by a former maker of gleefully violent zombie films. And it’s a corker of a trailer: a carefully staged character moment between Peter and Mary-Jane, and then the cars start flying. It looks like Raimi got to spend a lot more time and effort on the effects for this one: the web-swinging shots are much better-looking. Hopefully the extra effort also extends to the scripts, and Dr. Octopus will be a less arbitrarily-motivated villain than the Goblin was in the first movie. But who am I kidding? They’ve got my $10 already.
- Hidalgo — Urk. That crashing sound you hear is Viggo Mortensen’s charisma and charm colliding head-on with his questionable taste in projects not involving hobbits. From all appearances, this is an ill-advised mish-mash of The Black Stallion Returns, Seabiscuit, Lawrence of Arabia, Raiders of the Lost Ark and, well, every race movie ever made but let’s peg the approximate quality level here and say The Cannonball Run. Starring Viggo as a blonde Native American who talks to his horse, who whinnies a lot. Based on a true story, like that’s any excuse.
- The Chronicles of Riddick — Well, er, hm. The trailer doesn’t mention this at any point, but this is the 5-times-the-budget sequel to 2000’s Pitch Black. Pitch Black was an agreeable-enough B flick that wore its Aliens derivation like a badge of honor, hummed along efficiently, and somehow established Vin Diesel as a probable star. I liked it fine, and a lot of the same players are returning for this one. Still, there’s a weird whiff of overeagerness/overdesign about the trailer’s visuals; call it the “Stargate Syndrome”. And are we really sure we wanted to see this much more of Vin Diesel, this soon? On the other hand, bonus points for casting Judi Densch in a big-budget stupid sci-fi film. Maybe a matinee.
- The Mask Returns — AKA “Look Who’s Masking” I guess. The silence in the theatre after this one wrapped up was as if everyone had simultaneously discovered a dog turd in their popcorn. But alas, the stench of failure was emanating from the screen in front of us. There have certainly been less essential sequels made (cf: the entire straight-to-video animation market, e.g. “Snow White 2: Happily Ever After“), but quite possibly none so addle-brained. See, it’s like The Mask only the Mask is a baby this time! No, I’m not kidding. No really. I feel embarrassed just admitting that this exists. Let us never speak of it again.
- The Butterfly Effect — So like, dude, Ashton Kutchner is this dude who can, like, go back in time and like change the future, only like, he keeps fucking it up and having to go back and do it again and dude, each time it gets worse and there’s this bit where his totally hot girlfriend turns into this total crack ho skank, and then he’s gotta talk to this dude in prison about how it all sucks, and like Ashton looks totally wigged out I guess cause the prison dude isn’t like instantly making Ashton his girlfriend! I kid. Sort of. I guess this is proof that we have all now been “punk’d” by Ashton. My one actual criticism, and it’s an oblique one: if we’re gonna keep almost making film versions of Replay, would it kill Hollywood to, uh, actually make a movie of Replay one of these years? I’d like that a lot.
Okay, and then…
Return of the Jedi, Godfather Pt. III, Matrix Revolutions, Alien^3, Jaws 3-D, Terminator 3…
…Return of the King is nothing like any of those films.
I can’t even pretend to be able to give a coherent review of this film now. I saw the midnight showing with a group of friends, got home at 4am, and was completely unable to sleep, because my brain was still swimming in images from the movie, wanted to process them, and Would. Not. Disengage.
There are other films that you can compare this to, but none of them come off the better for it. Every other fantasy film of the last decade looks like a shoddy toy in comparison, and I can’t think of many “non-genre” films that fare better. It’s not sui generis: it wears its influences proudly. But the standard for quality and scope has now been officially and irrevocably set once again. This is the bar that everyone else gets to measure up to from now on.
This movie, put simply, kicked my ass up one side of the theatre and down the other, then took my lunch money and started dating my sister. Go see it. A lot.