Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 12/20/02 02:05:32

"Now then, where were we?"
5 stars (Awesome)

Ah yes, 'The Fellowship of the Rings'. Almost universally adored, critically loved (obviously snubbed at the Oscars), a modern classic and the reason for Peter Jacksons elevation to demi-God. And now comes 'The Two Towers' the middle part of Tolkien's epic. The bad news? There's more flaws than 'Fellowship'. The good news? It hardly registers as the standards set in the first movie are continued here.

But in terms of plot where are we? Frodo and Sam are still trekking towards Mordor to dispose of the ring, and are about to encounter the previous ring-bearer, Gollum (Andy Serkis). The other Hobbits Merry and Pippin are in the hands of the Uruk-Hai, while Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are tracking them down. Gandalf meanwhile has somehow survived his tumble down the mines of Moria with the Balrog and has come back as Gandalf the White, to aid the broken Fellowship, as it is now that Saroun's and Saruman's plans to wreak havoc on middle Earth are coming to a head.

If you've seen 'Fellowship' it's best that you can recap the events of that in your head, as there's no 'Star Wars' style convenient summing up of previous events. Instead we're plunged straight back into the plot. It's perhaps because of this that the beginning feels fractured and it takes a while to settle into the rhythm of the film. While 'Fellowship' could be said to have a definitive beginning and next years 'Return of the King' will have a definitive end, 'The Two Towers' has neither. So while 'Fellowship' set up the characters and defined the world they live in, 'The Two Towers' is the film that broadens the themes and defines the evil threatening Middle-Earth. You can't remember who's who in this epic? Tough. 'The Two Towers' rightly avoids re-introducing characters in favour of moving the plot along and meets this difficult challenge with considerable style and swagger.

Once the film has settled itself into simply continuing the story, more characters and fresh dangers are introduced. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli find themselves at Rohan led by King Theoden (Bernard Hill). Theoden however is under the influence of court adviser Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) who is a spy for Saruman. Theoden's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) knows this but cannot do anything until Gandalf arrives. Once he does however a greater threat is revealed: a ten-thousand strong army of Orcs that Saruman has dispatched to rid the world of men and Rohan in particular.

While 'Fellowship' was centred on Frodo, 'The Two Towers' splits its storylines and focuses more on Aragorn and his rapidly approaching role of King of men. Mortensen was the standout in 'Fellowship' filling Aragorn with a sense of danger, intelligent and total commitment to the cause. Here, at the centre of attention for the most part, Mortensen grasps the part even better and fills the screen like he's been an established leading man for ten years. He hasn't, but the case he's making for himself now as an actor of real power is becoming more and more irrefutable. Likewise, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) get more screen time here and have a great rivalry running throughout the film, with Rhys-Davies in particular bringing some humour to a dark film.

Beacuse where 'Fellowship' started off in the brightness of the Shire, there's no such comfort now as we're in a unremittingly dark world of destruction and death, with some scenes guaranteed to give under 12's nightmares for weeks. Even when Merry and Pippin find themselves lost in Fangorn Forest and accompanied by the Ent Treebeard (voice of John Rhys-Davies) it's a gloomy forest being systemically burned by Saruman. Anyone seeking lighter moments should be advised that they are now very few and far between.

One thing that's perhaps missing from 'Thw Two Towers' is the initial sense of wonder that was there in 'Fellowship'. Knowing that Jackson filmed all three at once, we're expecting the same standards and immense acheivements as before. Jackson certainly doesn't dissapoint, but we knew he wasn't going to. That shouldn't overshadow what he's done though. Jackson handles sweeping geography, huge battle scenes and the intertwining of personal stories in a way that the great David Lean or John Ford would do today if they had pixels at their fingertips.

Epic is a word far overused today. Is a film epic because it spans continents, has danger at every corner and a vastness of characters? If so, I guess 'The Mummy Returns' qualifies. No, an epic is an ability to tell an immense story with a multitude of characters, events and themes while still being to pay attention to the small details. 'Lawrence of Arabia' does that. 'The Searchers' does that. And Peter Jackson can certainly add his first two installments to the list. There's heart here, whether it be Aragorns torn feelings between his duty and heritage, and his feelings for Arwen or Sams efforts to save Frodo from the effects of the ring that 'Star Wars' could only dream off.
There's more in a heart-felt glance between Aragorn and Eowyn than in any of Lucas' ham-fisted dialogue.

And the additions in 'The Two Towers' all work superbly. Dourif forgoes his usual ham to make Wormtongue a slimy and at times surprising character (check out his reaction to the size of Sarumans army) while Hill is suitably regal as Theoden.

However 'The Two Towers' will be remembered for two things. First is the astonishing appearance of Gollum, by far the most realistic CGI character ever rendered. If Gollum had been a pantomime Jar Jar creation, than 'The Two Towers' would be fatally punctured. Thankfully he's not which is also due to a great vocal performance by Andy Serkis, who makes Gollum evil, pitiable and comical, frequently at the same time. This is most prominent in a chilling scene where Gollum and his previous self Smeagol, argue amongst themselves for control of his schizophrenic self.

Secondly, there is the battle of Helms Deep, where the 300 forces of man attempt to hold out against the 10,000 Orc forces. Jackson surprises by not unleashing the battle all at once, but instead intercuts it with the other various plotlines happening elsewhere. Initially distracting, this however results in an incredible assault on both the two towers of the title, and on a seperate city of Gondor. Jackson is quite simply masterful in his control of mass action (the Orc army pouring into Helms Deep) and the personal action (witness Legolas sliding down steps on an Orc shield whilst firing off arrows at the enemy). You could argue that it's all show, but you'd be wrong. It's the time that we and Jackson have taken to invest in the characters that make these battles count. Just remember the words 'Helms Deep' and when it was you first saw a classic, genre re-defining cinema take place.

So after all this slavering praise is it perfect? No, and it's debatable whether it's superior to 'Fellowship'.
Essentially 'The Two Towers' is a continuation of a bigger story and at times has difficulty asserting it's own identity as a film
in its own right. Some of Tolkien's weightier dialogue is too much of a struggle for some of the actors, and for all the depth of Gollum there's some horribly obvious blue-screen work with Treebeard.

But these are the smallest nits to be picked if we're to nit-pick. I, like other critics. have compared the trilogy sofar to others such as 'Star Wars' or even 'Harry Potter'. But it's time to stop that and recognise these films as magnificent achievements in their own right that will be rightly looked back upon as classics. Peter Jackson and the previous film both lost out at the Oscars last year. This year I've seen nothing that compares to them, so if it happens again I really am going to have to burn something down. Hell, this film's worth going to prison for.

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