Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett
Directed by: Peter Jackson
“Gandalf didn’t mean for us to go this way.”
“Gandalf didn’t mean for a lot of things to happen, Sam”
–Frodo and Sam, lost on their journey toward Mordor
Middle books in trilogies (real trilogies, not the Interminable Fantasy Sequence) are hard to pull off. The author has to set up the seeds of the last book, continue the threads of the first, and still complete a story within the volume. Tolkien experts will point out that the three volume division of the LOTR is abitrary, I have seen versions where it is split into smaller volumes. And the “chapters” in Tolkien’s work are not called that, they are called books. So, Tolkien’s Two Towers is not strictly a middle book in a trilogy.
However, the movies are a different story. This is the second movie of three, and thus must follow those rules I outlined above. After the enormous box office and critical success of the Fellowship of the Ring, the anticipation for the second movie has been uniformly high. The thing to remember is that all three movies are already in the can, so to speak, the director has done most of the work already, his vision was already in place.
And thus on a Saturday where I was feeling unwell, I sat down in a theater to another three hour epic. The movie starts off with a controversial choice, there is absolutely no setup or prologue or “what has gone on before”. The information isn’t even really enfolded. The movie expects that you have just finished watching the first with picking up of the second. The hypothetical person coming in cold to this movie will wonder just how Merry and Pippin were captured by Orcs, for example. Later, with brief scenes involving Elrond and Galadriel, the names of the characters are not even mentioned.
Anyway, the movie is another long epic installment, with this movie both much more martial and more focused on Aragorn. The hobbits, whom many will argue are the real center of Tolkien’s universe, the viewpoint by which we see his world, frankly get less screen time than Aragorn’s story arc. But what a story arc! We see Aragorn do much in this movie, tracking the Orcs who are carrying off Pippin and Merry, doing a “CSI investigation” of a battle scene to determine that, yes, Merry and Pippin survived the massacre of those very same Orcs despite initial appearances to the contrary. Gimli and Legolas, however, stand in the shadow of Aragorn, and seem relegated to bit players with just a quirk or two to distinguish them.
And the battle scenes. In the book, the defense of Helm’s Deep is not really a big deal, Tolkien does not linger on it at all, describing the death of the orc horde in almost spartan terms. In the movie, it becomes the centerpiece and the main thrust of most of the movie–the evacuation of Theoden’s people to the redoubt, and the defense of that redoubt against a truly massive horde of Uruk-hai. I’ve never, ever seen a medieval battle executed and filmed better than this one. I was going in to the movie afraid it was just going to be a senseless, monochromatic slaughter without any real angst, or terror, or polish.
I was dead wrong. We see the orcs use siege weapons (including a secret weapon I will not reveal here) and attack the fortress intelligently. Likewise, the defenders do not merely stand and die, they scheme, plan and try to foil the plans of a force which outnumbers theirs by a factor of 10. I warn you now, if you don’t like watching this sort of thing, you will be disappointed in LOTR II, it dominates the movie.
It’s not the only thing in the movie, of course. There is Smeagol-Gollum, the best CGI character yet created (better than Nobby, far better than Jar-Jar). The scenes where he shows schizophrenic indecision over what to do with the hobbitses are some sorely needed comic relief. Frodo and Sam’s journey deviates from the book, however, purists will howl when they wind up making a detour into Gondor with Faramir. The meeting with the Ents by Merry and Pippin is very good, John Rhys-Davies gets some compensation for Gimli getting short shrift by doing the voice of Treebeard. The Ents’ march on Isengard is well imagined if again not quite according to the book.
The cinematography is excellent, the CGI is top notch. In many scenes, most of what we are seeing is computer-generated, but its believeable. I finally can, for example, envision Worg riders in a way I couldn’t quite before, seeing this movie. Middle Earth, as seen in New Zealand, once again looks like a real place you can visit, the landscape shots will once again blow you away.
The movie doesn’t quite merit 5 popcorn kernels, because I think a couple of the contextual changes to the books are somewhat dubious in nature, and the lessened characterization of every character but Aragorn and Gandalf also hurts the movie a bit. But see it? Go, go, go. See it again? Yes.
Rating: Four and a half popcorn kernels out of five