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Entries in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers [2002] (1)

Sunday
Dec092012

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

Adventure to the Ent Degree

When The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out ten years ago, I somehow convinced my girlfriend and roommate to see it with me in the theatre. I told them that the early reviews I'd read on-line were incredibly positive, and that even the few critics who'd had problems with the overly expository Fellowship of the Ring found the sequel to be very exciting. None of us were fans of the first film, but my enthusiasm was, I guess, persuasive enough that I didn't sit through the sequel alone.

The problem with trusting critics is that they can sometimes lead you astray. In fact, the only pleasure I got from The Two Towers was giggling at the red-hot death stares coming from the seats on either side of me. For two-and-a-half hours, we squirmed, groaned, and prayed for death amidst endless shots of sweeping landscapes; plodding, mush-mouthed CGI tree creatures; and what looked to be twenty-seven separate battles involving characters who may or may not have been in multiple places at once. To this day, I consider the fact that I still have relationships with these people to be proof of God's existence and infinite love.

I'm glad I wasn't a critic back then--at least not one with a forum. Otherwise, my short-sighted impressions of this terrific second chapter would have sat in an archive for all to see and ridicule. As with Fellowship, I've come around to The Two Towers after recently watching the Extended Edition on blu-ray. I still have many of the same problems with the story as I did a decade ago, but in most every other respect, I feel as though I've just seen the film for the first time.

I won't rehash the essential plot elements here, as not much changes between films one and two. The major development is that evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) has unleashed a thousands-strong army on Middle-earth. It's up to Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to rally the disparate kingdoms to arms. That's easier said than done, and easier watched than explained.

In my Fellowship review, I remarked at how well the filmmakers mapped out their fictitious geography and drew clear lines of good versus evil. All that gets thrown out in the second movie, with kingdoms and characters springing up out of the woodwork, talking about politics as dense as the outlying woods. Jackson and co-writers Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Stephen Sinclair do very well telling personal stories, such as Aragorn's attempts to save King Theoden's (Bernard Hill) kingdom from the clutches of Saruman's slimy henchman, Grima Wormtongue (Brad Douriff), and the unrelated tale of prince Faramir (David Wenham), whose eagerness to get back in his father's good graces following the death of his brother, Boromir (Sean Bean), leads him to nearly hand the ring of power to Sauron by mistake.

The five or so main stories in The Two Towers are handled well as snapshots, but I had a hell of a time piecing them all together into a cohesive big picture. I found it easiest to just slip into the story stream and trust that the guys with beards and helmets were good and would eventually work out whatever it was they were squabbling over, and that the bad guys were the growling things with curved machetes and razor-sharp teeth.

Arguably, J.R.R. Tolkien's works planted the seeds of modern fantasy storytelling, but I really do have to give the advantage to those who studied him. George Lucas, for example, populated an entire galaxy with diverse races and conflicts, but I never felt lost during the original Star Wars trilogy--never felt like the story was being artificially inflated so as not to become too soap-y. I got that impression here, and it's to Jackson's credit that his handling of the various dramatic segments were strong enough to support rather weak connective tissue.

Speaking of weak, I should mention what continues to be my least favorite part of The Two Towers:

Hostage hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape their captors and stumble upon the Ents, a centuries-old race of sentient trees. They spend much of the film trying to convince the literal fabric of Middle-earth to rise up against Saruman's army--no small feat, considering introductions can take the better part of a day. Though their storyline is one of the most profound in the film, it also carries the excruciating weight of filler--as if the writers wanted to build bathroom breaks into their story. Sure, the first couple of scenes with the talking greenery are cute, but there are at least two more identical ones before anything actually happens with this storyline. You won't miss anything by ducking out for a minute.

Yeah, I'm ragging on the film a bit, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. All of the stories come to a head in the spectacular battle at Helm's Deep, the last-resort fortress at which Theoden and Aragorn lead a group of three hundred ill-equipped soldiers against ten thousand savage orcs and uruk hai. The film's climax is a thrilling, moving, utterly believable fight to the death that's rendered with all the care and attention to accuracy of real-life historical events. This sequence is a marvel of digital special effects, sound design, and acting, and I kept having to remind myself that the hordes of people charging each other were created largely on a desktop.

Strangely, my highest praise is also the source of my greatest criticism. The special effects are so convincing that they run counter to the filmmakers' desire for full immersion into the story. The Two Towers was a technological milestone thanks to WETA's achievement with the Gollum (Andy Serkis) character. In this movie, he steps out of the shadows and becomes a bona fide presence, fully interacting with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) in ways no one had ever seen before. The motion-capture and digital-painting artistry are unbelievable, but instead of becoming fully invested in Gollum's inner struggle, I kept thinking, "My God, how the hell did they pull this off?"

Some of this odd effect is lessened by the fact that Frodo develops a personality in chapter two. Granted, much of that stems from negativity, doubt, and fear brought on by the ring's influence, but these things at least shade the hobbit's lackluster identity. His relationship with Sam is tested, and Sam's loyalty to the mission and his best friend strains under the desire to outright kill Gollum. Though this really is Aragorn and Theodin's movie, I was glad whenever the narrative checked back in on these squabbling travelers.

Perhaps Jackson's greatest feat of wizardry in The Two Towers is making the film feel like its own movie, rather than just a franchise bridge. If asked, I'd be hard pressed to describe all the factions, their goals, and their major accomplishments/setbacks--without the aid of a cheat sheet--but I get what the movie is trying to say. The greater themes of temptation, friendship, and courage come through as brilliantly as that crystal thing on the end of Gandalf's (Ian McKellen) staff. It's just a shame that I spent ten years wallowing in ignorant darkness before figuring that out.