The New Zealand terrain is one of lively lumps and bumps, blue jags of mountain, green scoops of valley. The sky is mischievous: Storms tumble off the ocean, loosing rain as hard and bright as rice. Curvy clouds bob so low that if one stood on tip-toe, they might be lickable. The wind has a wicked streak. And the gnarly island trees? They have faces. In the violet gloaming, you can hear them plot.
Welcome to Middle-earth.
Or, to be more precise, welcome to the stand-in location for J.R.R. Tolkien's mystical realm. For more than a year, Kiwi director Peter Jackson and his merry band of thousands tromped over hill and dale, shooting the Lord of the Rings trilogy for New Line Cinema. In keeping with the source material, the stakes are high: With more than 100 million copies sold since their publication in 1954-55, Tolkien's tales have a massive, opinionated, and possessive fan base -- which has been in a collective frenzy over the films. But that's the least of the concerns. With a near-$300 million price tag for the trio -- and a slew of tie-in deals and reported back-end cuts -- the films need to be blockbusters. Especially the first one: The Fellowship of the Ring (opening Dec. 19) will be the bellwether for its two already-filmed follow-ups. A hit gives New Line a virtual guarantee of smashes for the 2002 and 2003 holiday seasons; an outright flop could trigger a crash-and-burn not just for New Line but for its global distribution partners, its myriad toy and merchandise licensees, and dozens of careers. Middle-earth, meet Millennial Hollywood.
But to the beginning, which, as fans know, means the One Ring itself. In 1937, the Oxford-educated Tolkien published The Hobbit, which introduced the forgotten history of Middle-earth and the title character, Bilbo Baggins, a humanlike creature of furry feet, small stature, and cozy nature. Coerced into an Adventure, Baggins comes into possession of an ominous golden ring.
The trilogy picks up years later, when it's discovered that the ring possesses the ultimate power of evil, and must be destroyed by the fires that created it -- in the cruel land of Mordor -- before the Dark Lord Sauron can recover it. Frodo Baggins, Bilbo's heir, is fated to be Ring Bearer. Thus is formed the Fellowship, representatives of the do-good races of Middle-earth -- human, elf, dwarf, hobbit -- and the wizard Gandalf. The nine heroes must reach Mordor without being corrupted by the ring, all while being tailed by orcs, trolls, and their Mordor counterparts, the nine Black Riders.
And so an epic journey begins, one that has inspired generations...of cheesy imitations from Willow to Legend to Beastmaster. ''Fantasy has a history of misfires,'' says Jackson, 40, who read the trilogy as a teen. ''For every other genre -- Westerns, war -- you can name truly amazing films. So fantasy is interesting, because there aren't really any cliches. It's [a chance] to give an audience an original experience.''
At first glance, Jackson is hardly the likeliest suspect to helm a triumvirate of event films. The laid-back navigator of Middle-earth -- a guy who basically owns one pair of shoes and two identical shirts -- would hardly be at home cruising the slick streets of La-La Land. No film-school grad, the New Zealand native got his start directing and writing (and sometimes starring in) cheap indie splatter flicks. ''Zombie films are fantastic because you can make an impression on audiences for not much money,'' he says. ''If you're prepared to be outrageous.'' Jackson's first feature, 1988's Bad Taste -- about aliens who discover New Zealanders to be tasty yet nutritious -- gained a cult following and set him on his way to a fine career featuring pedal impalement (Bad Taste), bloodthirsty puppets (1989's Meet the Feebles), and well-blended brain stems (1992's Dead Alive). Call it film abattoir.