Finally, the film that answers this question: Can Peter Jackson, after two of the most critically hailed (19 combined Oscar nominations), moneymaking ($1.8 billion worldwide gross) films in history, crown his victory with the third and final -- and most dramatic? He's got plenty of conflict to work with. As Frodo hobbles toward Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, Sam scuffles with that killer arachnid (a tussle originally intended for ''Two Towers'' that was booted to ''King'' to up the tension). Meanwhile, the forces of good fight for the future of Middle-earth in the massive Battle of the Pelennor Fields (remember ''Towers''' blood-spraying melee? That was just a warm-up). Most important, Frodo struggles for his soul against the corrupting powers of the Ring. ''It gets darker and darker -- the descent is complete and final,'' says Elijah Wood. ''I saw some of it recently, and it's scary to watch -- Frodo and Sam look so completely gone; Frodo is barely Frodo anymore. It's harrowing.''
As with ''Towers,'' the cast reconvened in New Zealand this past spring for three weeks of additional shooting. Wood, Sean Astin, and Andy Serkis -- who lends his voice and body movements to the CG character Gollum -- continued toying with the love-hate triangle of their characters. ''The changes weren't as strong as with 'The Two Towers,''' says Wood. ''[But] there were a few scenes where we increased the bond with Frodo and Gollum, so when Gollum finally deceives Frodo, it has more impact.''
Still, considering that principal photography on the trilogy was completed in 2000, the players were feeling a bit frayed. ''The best work I've done in my entire life is in the third film, and I did it years ago,'' says Astin. ''Then you go back and it's 'Put the feet on now,' and you're like, 'Oh, my God. I don't know if I can do this!'''
If Jackson's cast is feeling a bit weak in its collective furry knees, one might think the writer-director-producer himself is downright wiped out. One would be wrong. ''['Return of the King'] was always his favorite,'' says Wood. ''It completes the story and it has some of his favorite sequences, so there's a certain swagger to him at the moment.''
The Killer Moment Wee hobbit Sam (Astin) fights the fangy she-spider Shelob, a CG creature that could out-creep Gollum.