The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

A Film Review by Michael Rankins

It’s tough to be the middle anything: the middle child, the middle seat in the airplane row, the middle of a doughnut. Especially tough is the challenge of adapting to film the middle book in a trilogy from classic literature. Not only does the second installment lack an inherent beginning or end — it’s merely the bridge between Parts One and Three — but it’s also saddled with the most unwieldy portion of the story. After all, its source material is a “middle,” too.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is no exception to this rule. Following one year after director Peter Jackson’s triumphant opening to the series, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers is a darker, less accessible film than its predecessor. From a literary perspective, this makes perfect sense: the second book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark fantasy is rather grim and ponderous. However, viewers familiar with the tale of the One Ring only from Jackson’s previous film — not from reading Tolkien — may find this latest picture dense and frustratingly complicated. And Tolkien aficionados are likely to take issue with some of the creative directions Jackson has chosen in this continuation of the legendary saga.

When we left our cadre of heroes at the conclusion of Fellowship, noble Hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his sidekick, horticulturist Samwise “Sam” Gamgee (Sean Astin) had separated from the rest of their comrades to continue their journey to the land of Mordor. There, in the inferno beneath Mount Doom, Frodo plans to destroy the seductive One Ring. Two other Hobbits, Peregrine “Pippin” Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) were kidnapped by Orcs, gruesome minions of the evil Sauron, who seeks to dominate Middle Earth using the power of the Ring. Hot on their heels were three other members of the Fellowship: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a Human knight-errant; Legolas, an Elf skilled in archery; and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a Dwarf who swings a potent battle-axe.

As Frodo and Sam wander toward Mordor, they encounter Gollum (a computer-generated creation brilliantly voiced by Andy Serkis), from whom Frodo’s shirttail relation Bilbo first acquired the Ring. Once a Hobbit-like being named Smeagol (Tolkien is notoriously vague on the question of Gollum’s origins) before his corruption by the Ring, Gollum is now a sniveling, desperate shell of a creature torn between his lust for “the Precious,” as he calls it, and his earnest desire to aid Frodo, the first person to extend him mercy and kindness in many years. Sam remains suspicious of the schizophrenic Gollum’s motives, but the Hobbits need a guide to Mount Doom and this weaselly varmint knows the way.

Meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli track down and defeat the Orcs who captured Merry and Pippin, only to discover that the Hobbits have already escaped into the forest. Continuing on to the village of Rohan, the trio teams up with the forces of King Theoden (Bernard Hill), who lately has been crippled by a mind-altering spell cast by Sauron’s wizard underling Saruman the White (Christopher Lee). Theoden’s sanity is restored by an unexpected benefactor — the good wizard formerly known as Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen), believed dead after an encounter with a fiery Balrog at the climax of Fellowship, but instead (as shown in the opening sequence of The Two Towers) translated to the next level of wizardry and reincarnated as Gandalf the White. With Aragorn and friends at his side, Theoden leads his people — including the comely warrior maiden Éowyn (Miranda Otto) — to the fortress at Helm’s Deep, where they and a platoon of Elven archers will wage an apocalyptic battle against Saruman’s legion of ten thousand marauding Uruk-Hai (Orcs in urgent need of attitude adjustment and hygiene instruction).

Again meanwhile, Merry and Pippin have taken refuge with Treebeard (another CGI character with the rumbling bass voice of John Rhys-Davies, the actor who also plays Gimli), a member of a race of giant treelike beings known as Ents. Incited to action by the Hobbits, Treebeard and his people must decide whether to join the battle against evil, or continue their laissez-faire life in the woods.

There’s plenty more — this is, after all, a three-hour film — but you get the idea.

Tolkien’s book The Two Towers divides this complex narrative into two discrete parts: the first half deals with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, and those of Merry, Pippin, and the Ents; the second records the travels of Frodo and Sam toward Mordor. (Tolkien’s original concept called for six, shorter books, instead of the more voluminous trilogy that resulted at the publisher’s insistence.) Peter Jackson’s second film intertwines the three plot threads into one, cutting back and forth episodically between them. In terms of filmmaking, I’m not certain Jackson could have chosen differently — it would stop the film cold to follow one storyline for ninety minutes, then simply end it to pick up another story for the rest of the picture. However, it leaves the director frequently abandoning one set of characters just at the point when the audience becomes emotionally invested in them. For this reason The Two Towers feels longer and more cumbersome than The Fellowship of the Ring, even though the two films’ running times are almost identical.

Jackson also struggles with the sheer volume of characters he must juggle; inevitably, some receive short shrift. Although The Lord of the Rings is ostensibly Frodo’s story, the portions of the film dealing with Frodo and Sam feel secondary to the parts about Aragorn’s battles — which, it must be admitted, make for more exciting cinema. (Hardcore Tolkienistas will doubtless howl at some of the traits the script by Jackson and his co-writers apply to the two main Hobbit heroes.) The brief interludes featuring the Ents all too often seem like needless, momentum-shattering interruptions to the other stories. (Jackson further complicates matters by inserting flashbacks to Aragorn’s relationship with the Elf maiden Arwen, played here as in the first film by Liv Tyler. These additions, which are unique to the film, only serve to slow the pace further.) Again, it’s hard to envision how the plot could have been structured any other way. The end product, though, is a second film more disjointed and more tiresome to follow than the first — and one that a judicious editing hand might have improved.

But now the good news, and there’s an abundance of it.

First, The Two Towers is a visually spectacular motion picture. Indeed, many aspects of the production are as astounding as anything ever seen on film. The CGI characters, Gollum and Treebeard, are nothing short of amazing, as is a sequence involving a Ring Wraith mounted on a flying creature. Gollum, especially, is stunningly lifelike, from his goggle eyes straight out of a Keene painting to the texture of his sallow flesh. Actor Andy Serkis, who provides Gollum’s fingernails-on-chalkboard voice, physically performed much of the character’s body language, which Jackson’s special effects team then used as a model for their digital creation. I watched Gollum closely for the moment when the illusion would break, when I would not believe I was looking at a real being on the screen. That moment never arrived.

The effects throughout the rest of the picture are almost as arresting. In some of the long shots of the battle at Helm’s Deep, and in Gandalf’s opening clash with the Balrog, the capabilities of computer animation get stretched slightly beyond their current limitations. But such distractions are few. Overall, The Two Towers showcases the state of digital cinema circa 2002, and an impressive state it is indeed.

The practical elements of the picture also serve admirably. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s camera work presents breathtaking vistas and achingly intimate close-ups with equal power. The chaotic warfare scenes (warning to the squeamish: there’s ample swordplay and bloodletting on display here) are majestically staged. The actors — who, frankly, are not the reason most people will attend this movie — perform their tasks with aplomb, even when called upon to do and say things that feel a mite inappropriate to their characters. (This latter problem most afflicts John Rhys-Davies as Gimli, who is reduced to comic relief all too often.) Viggo Mortensen commands the screen as Aragorn, and Sean Astin has matured nicely into the pivotal role of Sam. Newcomers Bernard Hill as the benighted Theoden and Miranda Otto as plucky Éowyn bring color and dimension to their underwritten roles. I was sorry not to see more of McKellen’s Gandalf, or the villains of the piece: Christopher Lee’s sublimely evil Saruman and his undercover agent Grima Wormtongue, played with slimy nastiness by veteran character actor Brad Dourif. (Here’s a tip for all you future kings and queens out there: never hire an advisor named “Wormtongue.” You get what you pay for.)

Think of The Two Towers as the middle bite of a fantastic Oreo cookie…sometimes, you’ve gotta eat a little filling so you can appreciate the crunch. Fans of The Fellowship of the Ring, prepare for a bumpier ride, but one still well worth taking. Devotees of Professor Tolkien’s writings, prepare to grit your teeth at the way some of your favorite characters are dealt with, but also be prepared to be dazzled by Peter Jackson’s continued evolution of the Trilogy. Movie lovers, prepare for numb backsides after three solid hours in a theater seat. And everyone, prepare for The Return of the King next Christmas. You won’t want to miss seeing how this epic fantasy turns out.

Dynamic and vigorous enough to overwhelm your senses, and most — though not quite all — of its own weaknesses. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers rates 3-1/2 happy Hobbits out of a possible four.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a New Line Pictures film, directed by Peter Jackson. The screenplay was written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair, adapted from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. This film stars Elijah Wood, Sir Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Dominic Monaghan, Christopher Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, and Cate Blanchett, and features the voice talents of Andy Serkis as Gollum.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is rated PG-13, for intense and violent battle scenes, and scary fantasy creatures. It would be questionable viewing for most pre-teen children. Running time is 179 minutes.

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