Directed by Peter Jackson, starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler and John Rhys-Davies.

After a year of over-hyped but underwhelming blockbusters ('Pearl Harbour', 'Tomb Raider',' The Mummy Returns'), it seems fitting that 2001 should end on the highest note with the first of Peter Jackson's adaptations of Tolkien's cherished 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. The scrutiny the New Zealand director has faced since deciding to shoot a troika of three-hour epics in his birthplace over 15 months at a cost of $300 million has been - and continues to be - intense; but his debut gamble has paid off as 'Fellowship...' runs, well you know what, around its mega budget peers. You may have liked 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', but after seeing this, the Hogwarts' hero just looks like the warm-up guy for the main act.

Many Tolkien fans have grumbled at Jackson's decision to trim some characters and fatten up others, but the argument about whether any director could have done better would appear to be over before the film has barely begun. Leading us gently into the beguiling Middle Earth, Jackson has created a universe, which relies as much on stunning scenery and landscape as it does on production design and state of the art special effects.

We're introduced to hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Holm), now about to celebrate his 110th birthday and joined by wizard Gandalf (McKellen) for the festivities. Bilbo however, is troubled. A relic from a previous adventure, the One Ring, has prolonged his life but its dark power is such that he feels he must exit his hobbit homeland to escape it. He leaves the Ring to cousin Frodo (Wood) and soon the youngster finds the weight of destiny and responsibility thrust upon him as Gandalf explains the awesome but corrupting history of the 'gift'. As the armies of evil grow, aware of the Ring's whereabouts, Frodo, Gandalf and their motley crew of Middle Earthlings (Mortensen, Astin, Bean, Rhys-Davies) begin their epic quest to destroy it.

Critics who have said that Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien is heavy on set pieces but thin on plot (only to dismiss the author's work as stuffy and verbose the sentence after) should think of history, and the lesson a young George Lucas taught us all in 1977. Sitting there, living this film is the closest rush you'll feel to the first time you saw a light sabre or the Millennium Falcon all those years ago. And as the final credits roll, you'll be left with the same feeling: of wanting more as soon as possible.

What Jackson's film may lack in narrative subtlety it more than compensates for in excitement with some of the finest action sequences in cinema history. In the thick of it, battling orcs, black riders and whatever comes their way are Wood's naive but brave Frodo, McKellen's troubled wizard and Mortensen's star turn as fearless warrior Strider. While they may give the film's best performances, not one actor seems out of place, Jackson has assembled a brilliant cast and one which suggests that shooting all three films together was the wisest of moves - after this everyone's price tag will go up a peg or ten.

While the dialogue constantly focuses on the powers of good and evil, it is Jackson's ability to move from warmth to chills and humour to terror, which compensates for any deficiencies in the script. The opening half hour is pure fairy tale but the images and emotions Jackson evokes seem very far away as our heroes must fight their way out of a ruined dwarf city towards the film's closing stages. It's a fearsome battle, high on body count and ear-screeching sound but unlike many other event movies, you never feel that the heroes are safe. There's a fatalism that underscores their every move and the supremely downbeat ending promises that more tragedy is to come in Jackson's take on the follow-up books - 'The Two Towers' and 'The Return of the King' - over the next two years.

Children and many adults will leave this film wanting to read the books which, in an age where movies constantly sully the good name of their source material, can only be a good thing. Once you've got your breath back one thought will prove hard to escape: George Lucas might have a few sleepless nights between now and 2003.

Harry Guerin