From the very first sequence of Peter Jackson's The Two Towers a bravura opening that stunningly recalls and continues a central sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring we feel that we're in good hands. It's a promise the subsequent three hours deliver on imperfectly.
The second film of Peter Jackson's historic three-part adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings extends and in some ways deepens the achievement of the first film, but falls short of it in other ways. By almost any standard, The Two Towers is an immensely accomplished film; but the standard this film must be judged by is first of all Tolkien's book, and secondly Jackson's brilliant first film.
By that rarefied standard, Towers cannot be called an unqualified success. This film is also destined to be more controversial than its predecessor, as Jackson and co-screenwriter Frances Walsh have taken significantly more liberties with the text than before. Subplots have been changed or added, and many of the most memorable events from Tolkien's second volume have been deferred to next year's The Return of the King.
These changes are not without some rationale. Tolkien's third book, padded with appendices, tells a shorter part of the story than the first two; so it makes sense for Jackson, who rightly wants the third film to be the biggest and best, to enhance that story at the expense of this one. Also, whereas Tolkien's Towers includes, for example, a decisive confrontation with the evil wizard Saruman, in the films Saruman is useful as a more palpable villain than the incorporeal Sauron, seen only as a disembodied Eye; so this confrontation has been postponed.
Nevertheless, after watching Towers, I'm more conflicted about the end result than I was about Fellowship. Subsequent viewings of Fellowship have only confirmed my enthusiasm for that film; how this new film will hold up to multiple viewings remains to be seen.
Like Tolkien's book, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers is more spectacular and epic in scope than its predecessor. As the members of the Fellowship go their separate ways, the simple, episodic storyline of Fellowship gives way to multiple plot threads running from one end of Middle-earth to the other.
Hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin) head toward the dark land of Mordor, seeking to destroy the Ring, while their countrymen Merry and Pippin (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) are taken prisoner by the forces of Saruman (Christopher Lee), who don't know these aren't the hobbits they're looking for. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), with the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli (Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies), seek to rescue Merry and Pippin, but their paths continue to diverge.
The oppression and struggle ominously foreshadowed in Fellowship is here fully realized. The forces of Saruman, no longer limited to marauding bands but now vast armies, march relentlessly through Middle-earth, destroying and subduing. Combat sequences previously limited to skirmishes here give way here to full-fledged war in one of the most ambitious battles ever committed to film, the siege at Helm's Deep.
We see here more of the spectacular vistas of Middle-earth, from the endless rugged terrain of Rohan and Gondor, to the tangled interior of Fangorn Forest, so different from Lothlórien, to the rustic Norse-looking architecture of Edoras, the capital city of Rohan, to the fearsome outsize construction of Black Gate, the doorway to Mordor, to the massive stone walls of Helm's Deep, the ancient mountain fastness of Gondor.
While this film has nothing to compete with the charm and beauty of the first film's visions of the Shire and Rivendell, The Two Towers isn't meant to compete with Fellowship but to build on it, to presuppose it and go from there. Jackson has already established what is at stake if the Shadow triumphs; this is not a film about light, but about the battle against darkness.
The one great exception, foreshadowed in the opening sequence, is the glorious return of a departed character a moment flooded with as much light and hope as one could wish. In this moment particularly the underlying religious themes intended by Tolkien shine with exceptional clarity. (For more on this see my article, Faith and Fantasy.)
In addition to the established cast from the first film, there's a host of new characters, from wretched Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis), to those most outlandish and unimaginable denizens of Middle-earth, the tree-shepherding Ents, to grey-bearded King Théoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) and his martial niece and nephew, Éowyn and Éomer (Miranda Otto and Karl Urban), to Faramir of Gondor (David Wenham), brother of Boromir (Sean Bean), who was slain at the climax of the last film.
Gollum and the Ents rank among the most astonishing triumphs in the series to date. Gollum, in particular, goes far beyond a special effect, not only for the breathtaking realism of his appearance and movements or his seamless integration with the physical actors and environments, but for Andy Serkis's textured, conflicted vocal performance. (Serkis also contributed to Gollum's physical performance via motion-capture technology, creating a more organic and natural sense of motion than totally computer-created movements.)
As for the Ents, Jackson and his effects team have simply filmed the unfilmable. Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies, who also plays Gimli), with his wonderfully arboreal face and peculiar high-stepping gait; the swaying communion of the Entmoot; and above all the colossal consequences of the rousing of the Ents are among this film's most vivid and memorable accomplishments.
As characters, on the other hand, the Ents get short shrift. One of the film's most glaring weaknesses is the way it keeps returning to redundant footage of Treebeard with Merry and Pippin in his branches, striding through Fangorn en route to the Entmoot a walk that seems to last half the film or more. Again and again Jackson returns to this image, not wanting us to lose track of Merry and Pippin but having nothing for them to do. It's clearly a holding pattern, and quickly becomes monotonous and frustrating.
It's unfortunate, because had Jackson (so to speak) axed some of this walking footage, he could easily have made room for other, more interesting parts of Merry and Pippin's story-arc, such as the intrigues and complications of their escape from the Uruk-hai, only gestured at in the film. Even if Jackson had simply chosen to prolong footage of the Entmoot rather than the walking, it could have served as a kind of character development, since the important point about the Ents is how deliberate, even vegetative, they are in everything they do.
Treebeard's journey to the Entmoot isn't the only place where The Two Towers feels less taut and efficient than it might have been. The Fellowship of the Ring had a narrative urgency that came from Jackson's efforts to do justice to as much of Tolkien's narrative as possible; every scene, every moment had to advance the story, without a moment wasted. At times it even felt rushed, but in a way that suggested the richness of the underlying material. It was easy to imagine the same events being treated at much greater length a potential partly realized by the extended-edition DVD released last month.
With The Two Towers, on the other hand, events no longer feel rushed, and at times even feel stretched out (“like butter scraped across too much bread”). The build-up to the battle at Helm's Deep, for example, is awfully long, with lots of footage of warriors girding for battle.
It seems melancholy to say it, but short of restoring the scenes presumably deferred till the next film, it's not easy to imagine an extended version of this film running thirty or forty minutes longer without seeming padded. Of course, we'll have to wait and see what Jackson finally does to know for sure.
One character who could easily benefit from more screen time is Saruman; despite his importance as a tangible villain, he's given virtually nothing to do. In fact, his most noteworthy moment is a fleeting appearance glimpsed during a startling interpretation of the rousing of Théoden one of the most intriguing creative contributions the filmmakers have to offer.
Because the climactic episode of The Two Towers Frodo and Sam's confrontation with the ancient, bloated evil of Shelob is among the events deferred till the next film, it was necessary to invent another climactic event for them. Jackson and Walsh accomplished this by significantly altering the role of Boromir's brother Faramir in the story. Of all the changes to the story, this is the one that may prove most disconcerting to Tolkien fans, since Faramir's very character is substantially affected.
Other changes, including the addition of another death-and-rebirth subplot and the inclusion of more material inspired by an appendix about the romance of Aragorn and the Elf-princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), are easier to roll with; and a much-discussed Arwen-Aragorn-Éowyn “triangle” turns out to follow the book's treatment quite closely (which is to say, Éowyn is drawn to Aragorn, but his heart belongs to Arwen).
In addition to the relative lack of narrative efficiency, there's something else lacking in The Two Towers less easy to quantify. The most fearful images from Fellowship the terrifying Nazgûl; the dread Eye of Sauron seem somewhat diminished here.
In Fellowship, the Eye was a disorienting, overwhelming vision that filled the screen for brief instants at a time. In Towers, it's become a special effect hovering between two prongs atop Barad-Dûr tower (looking, as a friend commented, not unlike a “power coupling” from Attack of the Clones). The Nazgûl, too, are still ominous but no longer the stuff of nightmares.
Against these misgivings must be weighed the film's great strengths, notably the superb realization of Gollum's inner conflict and outward appearance, the magnificent two-part conclusion of the episode that began at the bridge of Khazad-Dûm, and the staggering sieges at Helm's Deep and Isengard, as well as the many smaller moments and elements successfully brought to life from Tolkien's story.
As with the “middle” films of many trilogies, final judgment of The Two Towers may have to await the final chapter, next year's The Return of the King. What I can say now is that, along with Fellowship, this film delivers much of what is great about the book, and remains an order of magnitude above all previous cinematic efforts at “fantasy” or epic fairy-tale mythopoeia.
Intense, sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and goblins and other “fell creatures.”
US Conference of Catholic Bishops: A-III, Adults.
Overall Recommendability: A- (Between Recommended and Highly Recommended)
Artistic & Entertainment Value: 3 ½ stars (out of four) – Between Well-made and superior
Moral and Spiritual Value: Positive
Appropriate Audience: Teens & Up
For more information on this movie's ratings, visit the Decent Films Guide at the link below.
Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.
(c) 2002 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.