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

D: Peter Jackson
S: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen

The second part of director Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's series of novels is a bridge between the slow burning introduction of The Fellowship of the Ring and the resolution provided by The Return of the King. It is characterised by the broadening of the scope of the action, an enlargement of the cast of primary players and a fragmenting of the narrative into multiple story threads designed to come together as the war of the ring reaches its climax in the subsequent film. As such it is difficult to fully appreciate the merits of Jackson's vision of the story until the entire trilogy has run its course. Ivan the Terrible Part Two it is not, but The Two Towers is demonstrably part of a bigger whole which defies precise weighting until the picture is complete.

Critics are of course not allowed to stand back and get away with that kind of qualitative hesitation. Readers are eager to get some sense of how minds attuned to the intricacies of movies and moviemaking have responded to what they themselves have responded to on their own terms already. As such this review of The Two Towers requires a critical position, and as such it is necessary to point out that it is a film which offers too few rewards in itself and upon first viewing.

The story picks up where it left off in The Fellowship of the Ring. Well, not quite. In the first of Jackson's now characteristic flourishes, the film backtracks to the turning point of the first film, the 'death' of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), following his individual story a little further as he plummets into the core of the earth locked in mortal combat with the Balrog. From this moment on the film begins to establish distinct though interlocked plot lines following the adventures of varying combinations of characters in different locations throughout Middle Earth. Their paths are deliberately divergent and incorporate a number of new characters who in turn trigger off new threads of plot and characterisation which enlarge the scope of the story. Frodo and Sam continue their journey to Mordor, guided now by the previously lurking presence of Gollum (a remarkably realistic computer-generated character). Though Merry and Pippin find themselves in the company of a race of tree-like creatures known as Ents who will eventually turn on Orthanc, most of the other major characters are drawn to a climactic battle at a place called Helm's Deep, where the last remnants of a great tribe of great horsemen from Rohan take a stand against Saruman's hordes of Uruk-Hai.

The fragmented narrative of The Two Towers, further fragmented by flashbacks and sub-plots aplenty which attempt to draw in characters from The Fellowship of the Ring including Arwen and Elrond, leaves Jackson juggling too many characters and too many stories, sometimes to the detriment of each and all of them. Many of the principal roles are underdeveloped and some of the new characters are ill treated by what seem unwise changes to the novel. Most disappointing of all in this latter respect is the character of Grima Wormtongue, perfectly cast and very well played by Brad Dourif but reduced to less than a lackey of Saruman by a significant change in the nature of his influence over King Theoden (Bernard Hill). The Ents are also uninspiring. Too little used and in shards of story too small to give them much dignity, their entire sub-plot actually comes to seem like an afterthought amid the frantic action being shown taking place elsewhere in Middle Earth. Jackson cuts back and forth between story threads successfully enough to hold it all together, but at a cost to its depth and richness.

It is an epic spectacle, to be sure. It moves at a terrific pace for a three hour plus movie and, as before, it boasts of some breathtaking action sequences. The siege of Helm's Deep is a grandiose affair with many bravura moments. The rain-drenched mountain battlefield is a startlingly realistic environment, and the use of computer generated characters and buildings is completely seamless. Jackson is even able to rise above simply presenting mere mayhem with several deliberately timed moments of pause which call to mind anti-war epics of the silent screen. The film is careful not to glorify adventure to an extent which robs heroism of its social value, and though many of the vignettes which give the novel its substance have been omitted or reorganised (and some scenes have been entirely invented for the movie), there is still a sense of that a nuanced and textured world is being explored and unfolded before our eyes amid a story of ever-increasing magnitude.

Part of the problem with this is that there is some not undue frustration on the part of the audience during the lengthy preliminaries. The film is full of detail, yes, but it moves so fast that much of it whizzes by at a pace that makes it incomprehensible unless you have some knowledge of the books or a really, really concentrated mind. The story of Frodo and Sam meanders more than it should, and is enlivened only by the brilliant animation of Gollum (which far exceeds the clumsy integration of Jar-Jar Binks into Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace). Awkward changes to the character dynamics make Frodo's moments of madness as the ring takes hold of his mind too abrupt to be effective, and the changes to Faramir which extend the adventure a little bit longer actually seem like padding in a film which certainly doesn't need any. It takes a long time before the movie settles down to a sustained sequence of set pieces building towards a recognisable climax, and there is some level at which this is not good storytelling.

Overall there is a definite sense that a unifying vision had determined this not altogether pleasurable shape and form though. The Two Towers is a progression from The Fellowship of the Ring. Its scope is bigger, its palette of characters is increased in appropriate ways and the ebb and flow of the narrative does create a sense that this story is still in progress and getting increasingly perilous for all concerned. Jackson has retained his vision of a realistic fantasy world in which inspiration by the novel remains paramount without disrupting a genuine cinematic interpretation. Given the differences between the theatrical and the DVD edition of The Fellowship of the Ring it is probably worth saying that the film will benefit from similar treatment if it helps to flesh out many of the truncated scenes and half-realised characterisations, though, as always, this may be a matter of extreme indifference to the majority of cinemagoers. The Two Towers is epic filmmaking on the level of its predecessor and on an even grander scale. It should fulfil the expectations of fans of the first and give audiences accustomed to the increasingly worthless ramblings of the Star Wars franchise something to really respond to. It is not without its flaws, but should most definitely stand up to repeated viewing. In fact repeat viewing is probably essential, and will really only make sense when there is more material here to respond to in a single sitting following the release of the final version of the third in the series.

Let's wait for The Return of the King.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.