The End. What else could you have done in the time it took from The Fellowship Of The Ring's curtain-up to seeing those two words appear at the close of The Lord Of The Rings' climactic chapter? A good day's work? Stayed up all night dancing? Watched six football matches? Whatever it could have been, it's highly unlikely it would have left you feeling as emotionally sated, with such a rich, bittersweet sensation ebbing slowly from your consciousness as Peter Jackson makes sure The Return Of The King does. Sounds like an overstatement but some movies (and they don't come along very often) really make you feel that way - at least for as long as it takes to make that journey home, put the kettle on, slump into your favourite armchair and say to yourself: "Now that was a really great movie."
Cine-history logic dictates it really shouldn't be this way. From The Return Of The Jedi to The Matrix Revolutions, Part Threes are traditionally the weakest. All the creators' tricks have usually been yanked out of the baseball cap, the characters are stumbling tiredly down the other side of their overstretched arcs and the actors are almost sleepwalking through roles they've become too comfy with. Well, since he embarked on his almost foolhardily ambitious quest to turn Tolkien into blockbuster seven years ago, Peter Jackson's broken enough rules not to leave this one unsnapped too.
But then, this isn't just another franchise instalment. Rather it's the final, glorious act of a nine-and-a-bit hour movie. We've had so much time to invest our attention and sensation in this story; more than six hours already to be drawn in and made to understand precisely what is at stake for Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and Middle-earth. We've been pulled carefully - sometimes gently, sometimes violently - but always with the utmost care toward this. And virtually every moment of Return Of The King pounds the message home: This. Is. It.
For the first hour and a half, the tension is nearly unbearable. In fact, for the characters, it is unbearable, leading to a series of painful fractures: Pippin and Merry are pulled apart; Aragorn finally gives Eowyn the brush-off; shattered Gondorian steward Denethor sends his loyal son, Faramir, to certain death; and Gollum drives a splinter into Frodo and Sam's friendship. All this when they're so close to Mount Doom and when the walls of Minas Tirith start crashing down.
Then everything explodes, with the trilogy's brightest, most vertiginous highlight: the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Think Braveheart, Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan melded; now try to imagine that surpassed. As the combined forces of Rohan, Gondor and Aragorn's undead legions meet the orc hordes face on, your endorphins will flood your brain, leaving you blubbering like an overwhelmed child. The towering mumakil (basically giant war elephants) crush horses and riders underfoot. The screeching fellbeasts bring talon-shaped death from the skies. Fully armoured battle-trolls rampage through streets of the white city. And two armies, several thousand strong, swarm together, filling the multiplex screen from edge to edge with a clash of such power, you almost expect the canvas to rip.
There's not a lot of compromise on show here. For a start, this is in no way a snug family picture. When the orcs start throwing the heads of slaughtered soldiers over the walls of Minas Tirith, the tots will start snivelling. By the time spider-beast Shelob launches herself at the cowering Frodo, there'll be a chorus of wails. (We advise evening screenings.)
Of course, Jackson did have to compromise in some ways - hence the infamous excising of Saruman's scenes to keep things punchy. And, perhaps, he should have cut a little bit more; King's multi-episodic epilogue could definitely have benefited from some snipping.
Yet you can understand how hard it was for him, and for everyone involved, to let go. Even the soft-focus Wizard Of Oz moments are forgivable when you balance them against the sheer quality of everything else on show: the honed-to-pinpoint performances (Sean Astin's much-suffering Samwise towering above all), the soaring, operatic score, the sense of none-more-visceral spectacle...
And is it really The End, anyway? Yeah, Jackson's admitted he wants to do The Hobbit, but that's not what we're talking about. What we mean is, this movie will be rewatched, re-enjoyed and rightly revered for decades to come. All nine-and-a-bit hours of it.
A worthy conclusion to a modern epic. Don't worry that your expectations will be too high - Return Of The King will exceed them all.