The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) November 25, 2008

The Two Towers is packed end-to-end with helter-skelter action, jaw-dropping New Zealand scenery, standard-setting animation, a lush and provocative soundtrack, and enough adventure for three or four typical films of its genre.

Do you need more information? My review is at ChristianityToday.com.

But if you want the detailed review … the mad ramblings of a Tolkien fan and a nit-picker … settle in for a long read. These are the thoughts that buzzed in my head after I caught the sneak preview on December 10th.

THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

BACK INTO THE FRAY

The Two Towers opens with a cliffhanger – literally – and when a hero falls, an adrenaline rush begins that never lets up. “It’s getting heavier,” Frodo says of the Ring, and it is.  As the temperature rises, fires of spiritual conflict that ignited in Fellowship eventually explode into war.

If you need a quick review of the story so far, here you go:

Journeying to destroy a weapon of mass destruction – the Ring of Power – our dysfunctional fellowship of heroes has scattered in desperate quests.

Hobbits Merry and Pippin, kidnapped by orcs, are pursued by three companions: Gimli the Un-tossable Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and Aragorn, reluctant heir to the kingdom of men. But these would-be rescuers are soon diverted to a different task…

King Theoden needs help saving his people before Saruman’s orcs lay waste to his kingdom. Their victory in this battle depends upon the ability of Aragorn and a strangely familiar wizard to rouse the depressed king into action.

But that’s just the battle. The war depends on Frodo the Ring-bearer. Frodo, with Samwise at his side, is wearily trudging across blasted Mordor miles. The Ring draws villains down upon them from all directions. Gollum creeps up behind. Winged devils patrol the skies. Sauron’s watchful Eye never blinks.

Dire straits indeed. If this was a video game, you’d just hit “START OVER.” As Galadriel said to Frodo, “The quest stands on the edge of a knife.” But hope remains….

THE HIGHLIGHTS

So many things set Two Towers apart as one of the year’s best films, I don’t know where to begin. How about the location? The breathtaking views of New Zealand alone justify the high price of your movie ticket.

In the middle of that scenery, designers Alan Lee and John Howe continue to dazzle us with convincing creatures, castles, and environments. The fact that the house of Edoras, set in a valley surrounded by mountains, is actually real instead of a digital creation makes all the difference. You’ll believe that kingdom exists, and you’ll be making your vacation plans.

As with Fellowship, several episodes from the novel become unforgettable spectacles onscreen. An argument amongst orcs becomes a violent circus. Jackson gleefully exaggerates Gandalf’s healing of King Theoden, making it one of movie history’s most harrowing exorcisms. Visions of the Riders of Rohan, a host of warriors on horseback, bring a natural beauty to the screen we haven’t seen in decades. Gollum’s debate with Sam about the proper way to eat rabbits is a hoot.

Battle scenes unsurpassed in scale and intensity will leave you in awe. The film’s climactic conflict at Helm’s Deep makes Braveheart and Gladiator seem tame by comparison. As it unfolds, so much is happening onscreen you hardly know where to look. Thanks to some remarkable technology called MASSIVE, orc armies look convincingly vast and unstoppable. a force of 10,000 that surges up against the walls like an ocean. Our heroes seem as outnumbered and intimidated as a Seattle sports franchise in the playoffs. But they fight anyway. You’ll need a shower when it’s over.

Fortunately, Peter Jackson – the director responsible for the goriest film ever made (Dead Alive) – admirably restrains himself here. The action is violent enough to convince us of terror and tragedy without the indulgence of Gladiator.

THE PERFORMANCES

A few performances distracted and disappointed me in this chapter. Towers doesn’t give us nearly enough Gandalf, so it is hard to comment on Ian McKellan’s performance except to say that he gets the job done. Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd’s appearances here are so brief as to be forgettable; they’re confined to riding around on Treebeard’s shoulders, smiling dreamily. Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving make surprise appearances as Galadriel and Elrond, but their melodramatic line-readings are becoming tiresome.

The rest, though, are assured, improved, and entertaining.

Elijah Wood makes the slow deterioration of Frodo’s mind a troubling process. When he sees Gollum, we realize he is looking into a mirror that shows his future. He lurches between weariness, rage, fear, and despair. We can already catch glimpses of the monster he will become. At his side, poor Sean Astin is reduced to two modes – pouting and delivering inspirational speeches – but he pours himself into it.

While the burden rests on Frodo, he is not the center of this film. As Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen dominates the action, a hero burdened with responsibility and a complicated romance. I was not completely convinced by him in Fellowship of the Ring. I had always pictured an older more authoritative Aragorn. But Viggo dedicates himself to the character so whole-heartedly, showing such authority in battle, such tenderness in relationships, that I finally believe Jackson made the right choice in choosing him.

John Rhys-Davies became one of cinema’s most memorable supporting characters as Sallah in the Indiana Jones films… he’s managed to carve an even more memorable figure here as Gimli the Dwarf.

Orlando Bloom amazes us again as Legolas the Elf with his athletic grace and confident combat skills. Legolas performs a stunt with a shield that will earn some groans, but he makes up for it with a unique way of jumping on a horse that earns perhaps the biggest cheer of the whole film.

Bernard Hill is perfection as King Theoden. He is burdened with loss and years of frustration. But coaxed by Gandalf, he shows true kingly quality. He is dignified, valiant, steely in battle, but with a heart large enough to care for each of his suffering subjects.

Miranda Otto is feisty and energetic as his niece Eowyn. The script cleverly emphasizes her repression, setting us up to to celebrate the unleashing of Eowyn the Warrior in the third film. You can bet she’ll inspire more than a few girls to join the armed forces.

AND WHAT ABOUT GOLLUM?

Tolkien tells us that the little monster called Gollum survived for centuries beneath the mountains while the power of the Ring warped his body, mind, and soul. He could be described as the central character of Tolkien’s whole mythology. After all, it is Gollum who lost the Ring to Bilbo, and it is Gollum’s lust to get it back that will be the turning point of the entire trilogy. Thus, fans of the series have been on pins and needles, hoping his big screen manifestation does the character justice.

Wow. This Gollum comes to life in a brilliant fusion of animation and acting. He’s everything we could have asked for. Okay, so the digital animation still isn’t ENTIRELY convincing. But this Gollum has so much heart and personality, all but the most unforgiving nit-pickers will accept him. Even better, viewers will come to care for him. And this is the most important achievement of Jackson’s movie: Gollum gains our sympathies.

The actor behind the animation — Andy Serkis — could almost be called a contortionist, giving Gollum spastic bursts of violence and emotional complexity, invigorating the animation that conceals his real face. He also gives a great voice the old wretch. (Still, I prefer the voice of Peter Woodthorpe in the excellent 13-hour radio drama of the series.) If the Academy had any integrity left, or any courage, voters would nominate Serkis for Best Supporting Actor; in a perfect world, he would win.

THE PROBLEMS

I would be dishonest if I said I was entirely happy with this installment.

This movie clearly posed a formidable challenge to its screenwriters. Fellowship followed a motley crew through trial and tribulation; Towers tracks three sets of characters – four, if you count Saruman’s behind-the-scenes meddling. Some stories gallop, others only amble. Thus, this episode feels fragmented. The pace becomes, to borrow a line from Tolkien’s Treebeard – “too hasty.” Watching it feels a bit like channel-surfing.

Jackson complicates matters. In Fellowship, he wisely pruned branches of plot to emphasize the Ring-bearer’s quest, shoehorning enough story for a six-hour film into three. This time he replaces important character-building episodes with unnecessary action tangents. Thus, we lose some of the intimacy we had with Fellowship‘s major characters: Gandalf’s too busy to chat. Merry and Pippin get stranded off-camera. Legolas is an action hero, nothing more. Gimli the Dwarf is reduced to comic relief (but unlike C-3PO in the Star Wars prequels, this sidekick is actually funny. In fact, he’s hilarious.)

The revision of Faramir’s character has me puzzled. Why take a kindly character and make him sinister and annoying? His presence only made me long for Sean Bean’s brilliant Boromir to return.

Here’s a question: The arrival of heroes at the end of the battle of Helm’s Deep is certainly a thrill, but how do they manage to turn the tide of the battle? We see them go charging in, but that’s not enough to win, based on what I’ve seen so far. The arrival of a bunch of warriors on horseback outside the Keep can certainly entertain those orcs still waiting to get inside the walls, but the enemy has already gone pouring into the Keep. The movie just asks us to assume that somehow the battle is miraculously won, but it never tells us how. That’s a gaping hole.

The biggest disappointment is Jackson’s treatment of the Ents. We see Merry and Pippin riding around on Treebeard’s shoulders for a large portion of the movie. Days pass, battles are fought, lengthy journeys are made, and when we go back to Merry and Pippin… they’re still just riding on Treebeard’s shoulders. Is he running laps around Middle Earth?

The special effects on Treebeard are okay, but his fellow Ents have goofy Muppet-like faces, almost like those whimsical puppets from Labyrinth or The Neverending Story. It’s not just their looks that are a problem. Their intelligence is also diminished. They seem lazy and naïve, a far cry from Tolkien’s magisterial “shepherds of the trees.” Apparently, all it takes is a lecture from an angry hobbit to change their minds. And it seems a whole portion of their woods has been cut down without their noticing. Newcomers won’t blink, but fans of the books have yet to see Tolkien’s authoritative Ents properly manifested.

Also disappointing: Two Towers has no truly scary villains. Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) is properly loathsome, but he makes an early exit. Saruman (Christopher Lee) only makes a couple of cameo appearances. The new batch of monsters fail to frighten us the way Fellowship‘s Cave Troll, Balrog, and Black Riders did. The Nazgul… they should strike terror into the hearts of humans as well as hobbits. Here, they’re just another spectacle.

Hopefully, the extended DVD edition, due next November, will strengthen the film. But I must insist that the film is not ruined by these flaws. They’re just enough to provoke a few winces and a few sighs as we imagine what might have been.

A MEANINGFUL MYTHOLOGY

Towers will have moviemakers striving to match its brilliance for years to come, but they will only succeed if they recognize that this saga’s greatest strength is its spiritually resonant story. Tolkien made every character’s heart a battlefield between desire and Christ-like selflessness, and Jackson underlines and boldfaces this theme. Call it Soul Wars, Episode Two.

Our heroes are all saviors in their own way – Frodo and Gandalf most of all. Gandalf returns from death’s edge, a risen savior, bathed in Easter light … just as he did in the novel. (And some Christian reviewers are calling this “New Agey”?) Arwen surrenders her immortality in the name of love. Aragorn wrestles personal demons, preparing to fulfill prophecies as a messianic king. Samwise, patient and forgiving, helps Frodo carry his cross.

The fiercest struggle takes place in the tortured soul of Gollum. Smeagol – Gollum’s original, hobbit-like self – struggles feebly to overcome his ravenous, lustful alter-ego like a timid child trying to slay a dragon. We come to hope that, by Frodo’s stripes, this poor creature can be healed.

CONCLUSION

In a season when critical favorites (Adaptation, 8 Mile, Gangs of New York) tell fractured tales of heroes with broken moral compasses, it is encouraging to watch Tolkien’s triumphs, tragedies, and consolations coalesce in the most compelling adventure film of 2002. But here’s the good news… Jackson ends the film early, with much of Two Towers’ most exciting episodes delayed until the next movie. What of Gandalf’s arrival at the fallen Isengard? What of Frodo and Sam lost in Shelob’s Lair?

2003’s The Return of the King certainly has the potential to be the most exciting, dramatic, and profound of the series.


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