About six hours into The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in what seems as if it might be the climactic scene, Frodo hesitates. “What are you waiting for!?!” yells Sam, Frodo’s longtime companion, and it’s a question all but the most faithful hobbitophiles will probably be asking themselves. The final installment in this fantasy trilogy actually lasts only about three-and-a-half hours, and it isn’t half so tiresome as the second chapter, The Two Towers. Still, the thing promises to end a half-dozen times before it actually does. It also includes dozens of moments that could someday be included on a special-edition DVD titled The Lord of the Rings: The Pregnant Pauses. Having led fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s adult fairy tale on a forced march through the first two books, director and co-writer Peter Jackson seems in no hurry to end it all.

To give Jackson his due, The Lord of the Rings is a remarkable technical achievement. One of moviedom’s longest and largest epics, it sets new standards for integration of live action and special effects. (The two recent Star Wars flicks don’t compare.) And because he and co-scripters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens didn’t have to improvise the basic story as they went, the series doesn’t lose its way in the manner of The Matrix—to name only one special-effects trilogy that foundered as it approached its conclusion. Indeed, The Return of the King is the best of the three Rings films.

Anyone who’s read the books—or slogged through the second installment’s accretion of complications—knows roughly what will happen this time. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) ascend Mount Doom, guided by the somewhat Michael Jackson-like Gollum (a digitally altered Andy Serkis), who has roughly as many personalities as he does strands of hair. The hobbits’ goal is to destroy the ring that somehow powers Sauron, Middle-earth’s embodiment of evil. Meanwhile, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), along with their many allies, prepare to defend Gondor’s cathedral-like cliffside capital from a huge massed army of orcs. (The subsequent battle is every bit as medieval—and 10 times as sweeping—as anything in The Last Samurai or Timeline.) The other hobbits, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), reunite with Aragorn and his buddies—which is a relief. The necessity of cutting regularly between the three parties was one reason The Two Towers’ rhythm seemed so mechanical.

Tolkien fans have praised his vision for its moral complexity: There is both—gosh!—good and evil inside all of Middle-earth’s inhabitants (except, of course, for the hundreds of thousands of purely evil creatures who serve Sauron). Yet as the subplots fall into place for the epic’s eventual conclusion, nuances collapse and the story turns cornier. This is, at least in part, because the filmmakers have stayed faithful to a book whose pseudo-legendary approach is now the stuff of mainstream entertainment: Tolkien’s reimagining of Celtic and Nordic myth overlaps many 20th-century pulp and pop creations, from Conan the Barbarian to Harry Potter.

Like the mythmakers of ancient times, Tolkien took his monsters from the natural world. Thus The Return of the King features menaces modeled on such animals as pterodactyls, elephants, and spiders. (Even the beasts who aren’t animals physically are derived from them etymologically: Sauron, for example, is Greek for “lizard.”) Some of these creatures, though well-rendered, are distinctly underwhelming: As giant spiders go, for example, the one that threatens Frodo and Sam isn’t bad, yet the sequence it features in can’t help but recall dozens of ’50s sci-fi or ’60s Marvel Comics battles with everyday critters supersized by atomic radiation.

The Return of the King’s gender roles also evoke the ’50s. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Arwen (Liv Tyler) appear briefly to offer encouragements and blessings and, in the latter’s case, realize that her destiny is to give birth to a son. Only Eowyn (Miranda Otto) dares don armor and sneak onto the battlefield, accompanied by the childlike but plucky Merry on a quest that ends with a joke borrowed from The Odyssey. The ancient Celts, evoked by numerous allusions to “the West,” had more enlightened sexual politics than Tolkien’s midcentury tribute to them.

As Jackson piles ending upon ending, he references everything from Camelot to The Wizard of Oz. The strangest of the many post-adventure asides are Sam’s worshipful gazes at Frodo. Even when Sam manages to find a bride—no small accomplishment in a world whose population seems to be about 97 percent male—it doesn’t stop him from mooning over his heroic master. As a companion piece to the The Pregnant Pauses, New Line Cinema might well also market The Lord of the Rings: The Adoring Glances.

Less prodigious (and less organized) than Peter Jackson, French-Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand took 17 years to produce the sequel to his biggest U.S. hit, the talky, sexed-up Decline of the American Empire, a smorgasbord of middle-class sexual revelations and recriminations. As its title suggests, The Barbarian Invasions is also about rampaging hordes that threaten civilization, although their identity is ambiguous. Facing a painful death from cancer, once-promiscuous and still-leftist college professor Rémy (Rémy Girard) refuses to leave Montreal for the superior care at Johns Hopkins University Hospital lest he be “killed by the Mohammedans” who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Other invasions are also mentioned, including the infiltration of hard drugs into the promised land of good weed and fine wine. But the real barbarians seem to be creatures that are the direct responsibility of Rémy and his fellowship of 50-somethings: their children.

The film opens with a long tracking shot through a chaotic hospital, where a nun attempts to dispense communion wafers to various patients, only to discover that her benediction is seldom welcome. (Are Quebec’s recent non-Catholic immigrants also barbarians?) Among the people who rebuff the nun is Rémy, who’s being tended by Louise (Dorothée Berryman), now his ex-wife. (She bluntly tells the nun she left him for “humping coeds.”) Next to arrive are their son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a frigid financier who lives in London, and his French girlfriend, Gaëlle (Marina Hands). The narcissistic Rémy is not close to his children: Sébastien seems to barely know his father, and the young capitalist’s sister is literally at sea, capable only of sending the occasional video postcard. Initially, Sébastien seems lost, but once he sees improving his dad’s plight as a potential transaction, his skill set automatically takes over. He bribes hospital administrators and union workers to get better quarters for Rémy and summons the dying man’s old friends and lovers—the cast of The Decline of the American Empire.

Yet the focus remains on Sébastien. Informed by a doctor friend that heroin is the best thing for intractable pain, he visits some narcs to learn how to score. That doesn’t work, but Rémy’s old colleague—and former lover—Diane (Louise Portal) has a daughter who’s into smack. Enter Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), Canada’s prettiest, best-groomed heroin addict. She bonds with Rémy and—to the degree this is possible—with Sébastien, nearly becoming one of the gang. (For Nathalie, hanging out with Rémy’s pals is complicated by the fact that she’s not speaking to her mother.) Like Sébastien, Nathalie is brittle, hollow, and uninterested in anything outside her little world, but she knows how to get things done.

In depicting the randy characters of The Decline of the American Empire chastened by declining libidos and death, The Barbarian Invasions feigns being self-critical. As he reminisces with his colleagues, Rémy admits to being a sucker for various left-wing horrors, notably China’s Cultural Revolution. Yet the real point of this anecdote is for the dying Marxist to remember his brief meeting with a visiting Chinese professor, revealed in a quick flashback as perhaps the most stunning spokesmodel for Chinese learning in that country’s 7,000-year history. Rémy also recalls his early pop-culture crushes, which allows brief appearances by ’60s beauties Françoise Hardy and Julie Christie. Gaëlle—who’s lovely, of course—is given a narratively extraneous assignment just so she’ll have more time to showcase her cheekbones, and such walk-ons as a masseuse and one of Rémy’s students are equally striking.

Perhaps this virtual harem is designed to comfort Rémy in his final days, but it seems just as likely that Arcand is indulging his own tastes. Not that the character and his creator are all that different: Rémy is clearly the director’s onscreen alter ago. No one watching The Barbarian Invasions will suppose for a moment that Arcand identifies with Sébastien. Indeed, the film shares the bewilderment of reverse-generation-gap musical Mamma Mia!: Our kids turned out OK, but jeez they’re boring. Rémy and his peers are smug, pretentious, and not as profound as they (or Arcand) think they are, but at least they’re not dull.

They’ve even become a little likable. If the sex-crazed boomers’ latest outing can’t be recommended to those who were allergic to The Decline of the American Empire, it is the most amiable of its director’s exported films. Rémy may not live long enough to overcome his smarmy self-regard, but on the evidence of The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand just might. CP

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