Last year “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” was the finest piece of filmmaking the world saw. While the focus is incredibly different in this year’s model, the effect is the same. Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers” is more than just the best escapist film of the year; it is the year’s best film.
Without reprising, recapping or reiterating the major events of “Fellowship of the Ring,” Peter Jackson’s “Two Towers” instead opts to deposit viewers right into the tumultuous Middle Earth, and deep inside the Mines of Moria where Gandalf battles the Balrog of Morgoth in a dizzying effects demonstration.
Ringbearer Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his loyal companion, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), carefully navigate through Emyn Muil, a treacherous series of razor sharp rocks en route to Mordor, where the ring must be destroyed. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) track a party of Uruk-hai westward across the plains of Rohan. They are following an accosted pair of hobbits in Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) headed toward Isengard, by way of Rohan. The two halflings escape, falling into company with an Ent named Treebeard (John Rhys-Davies provides the voice).
It is from these three primary character groups that the narrative of “The Two Towers” bounces around, partitioning its time heaviest toward Aragorn.
The wise (now white) wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) returns to the fold in the film’s first hour in a scene that would have been far more potent, had it not been shown in the film’s trailers. He rejoins with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas as they venture deep into Rohan.
For all of the exposition in “The Fellowship,” “Towers” introduces viewers to a number of new characters very quickly and with minimal pace-altering explanation.
We meet Theoden (Bernard Hill), king of Rohan suffocated under the mind-poisoning spells of Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). Grima rules Rohan through Theoden’s decrepit form with Saruman (Christopher Lee) presiding over the two. Only when Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas arrive in the Golden Hall is the spell on Theoden broken and the age and tear of Saruman and Grima’s magic washed away.
While Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas encounter an unexpected guest of their own in the reborn Gandalf the White, Frodo and Sam gain a party member of their own, Gollum. The paper-thin gangly creature, tracking the Fellowship since the Mines of Moria, finally catches up with the Ringbearer. The very same Ringbearer who gets busted temporarily by Faramir (David Wenham), captain of Gondor and little brother to “Fellowship”‘s best character, Boromir.
As much as the fate of Middle Earth hangs in Frodo Baggins’ hand, the success of “The Two Towers,” and perhaps even the final film “The Return of the King,” hung on Peter Jackson and his team’s ability to create a believable and realistic Gollum, a computer generated character fully integrated into the film. Gollum is everything he needs to be, and everything the digital characters of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels should have been.
Andy Serkis provided the movements, voicing and the basis for Gollum’s facial expressions. The raspy voice of Gollum slides from venomous to sugary as he wages his own internal war. The strife is between Smeagol, a loyal, relatively harmless personality and a shadow of the evil of which Gollum himself is capable. One dazzling sequence, a shot-reverse-shot between Gollum and Smeagol simultaneously showcases Serkis’ acting and the technological feats behind the character.
Like Gollum himself, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy hinges on the tender meeting place between technology and acting. They function in symbiosis both propelling the story, neither capable of standing without the other. Like it’s predecessor, the performances in “The Two Towers” give the film gravity in the environments of Middle Earth.
Ian McKellen is painfully absent from much of “The Two Towers,” making each moment he is on screen that much more of a treat. Elijah Wood’s big eyes more and more resemble Gollum each time we return to him. Where “Fellowship” was Frodo’s movie, “The Two Towers” is wholly Aragorn’s. The future king of men is played wonderfully by Viggo Mortensen, who brings legitimate humanity to the role. Aside from Gollum, the film’s best introduction is Theoden, king of Rohan. Bernard Hill’s king is misguided and blind to reality, resembling Lear at some corners, and Arthur at others. Brad Dourif’s Wormtongue and Christopher Lee’s Sauruman are more than adequate manifestations of human corruptibility.
Surprisingly powerful are the sequences between Arwen Evenstar (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn. While not contained within the actual text of “The Two Towers,” much of the love story between the two is outlined in the work’s appendices. From those appendices, writers Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and newcomer Stephen Sinclair adapt the love story beautifully, placing it in “Towers” as a series of flashbacks, memories and dreams.
Despite Jackson reliance on familiar character archetypes (the anti-hero, the comic relief), the bond between Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas is established perfectly in “Towers.” Viewers get a sense of this comaraderie, whether through jokes between characters, or Legolas staunch defense of Gimli in the face of the Riders of Rohan.
Howard Shore’s score is responsible for as much of Middle Earth’s atmosphere as the film’s visuals. In addition to the revisitation of themes from “Fellowship,” Shore has crafted a new series of themes tracking the fractured fellowship into the world of men. The violin theme of the Rohan plains almost equal the melody “The Ring Goes South” from “Fellowship.”
“The Two Towers” is not above reproach. The quality and cinematography is on par with “Fellowship” (as well it should be, the trilogy was filmed concurrently). But, the story of “The Two Towers” isn’t as compelling as “The Fellowship of the Ring.” This is no fault of Jackson’s, or that of anyone involved in the project. The middle “Lord of the Rings” film isn’t nearly as emotive as the first film. There are no moments rivaling an empty, solitary Frodo wishing the ring had never come to him while Gandalf’s voice echoes in his mind. There is nothing comparable to the moments in the wake of Gandalf’s fall into shadow, and certainly nothing on par with Boromir’s death.
The battle of Helm’s Deep, an incredible sight to behold (and largely the product of the computer program MASSIVE) shows Uruks moving too quickly up ladders, looking somewhat jerky, erratic, and unfortunately, generated. Which is not to say that the sequence isn’t an amazing portion of an even more amazing film – but it is flawed.
Even more than last year’s “Fellowship,” the narrative of Tolkien’s “The Two Towers” needed a makeover in order to succeed on film. Were it simply a strict adaptation, the battle of Helm’s Deep would’ve wrapped up midway throughout with the latter half of “Towers” being Frodo, Sam and Gollum’s approach toward Mordor. Criticizing Jackson’s interpretation and selective editing of Tolkien’s text is fruitless. The changes made to the text only improved it, making an otherwise un-filmable book an inconceivable filmic masterwork.