Need I provide a pithy introduction to The Two Towers, the second installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy? It’s more hobbits, orcs, swords, and sorcery, so if you saw The Fellowship of the Ring (and why would you be reading this if you hadn’t?), you know what to expect.
And it’s expectations that director Peter Jackson has clearly found himself having to address in this movie. Given that all three films in the series were shot simultaneously, Jackson doesn’t have much opportunity to introduce new stuff with each movie. We’re well familiarized with the main characters and the primary settings, so much of the weight falls on the new people and creatures introduced in this episode to carry the story.
Far and away, that weight falls on Gollum, the creature and former ringbearer which tracked Frodo through Fellowship, always staying the shadows. In The Two Towers, Gollum (aka Smeagol) takes center stage as he catches up with a rapidly weakening Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), now separated from the rest of their party, and he becomes a guide for the hobbits in exchange for a promise that they won’t kill him. A completely CGI creation based on digitizing a real actor’s motion (actor Andy Serkis also did Gollum’s creepy voice), the pasty, scampering Gollum is quite well-executed and is given tons of screen time. While he suffers from the stilted movement of many CGI characters when seen in action shots, Gollum is painstakingly detailed and lifelike when seen in closeup. He’s one of the highlights of the film, and his loincloth is uncannily able to keep things discreet.
While Frodo, Sam, and Gollum continue their journey to Mordor, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) search for captured hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). This leads them to Rohan, a large kingdom bordering Mordor and Gondor and populated by horse-riding warriors. In fact, the bulk of the movie doesn’t concern Frodo’s journey at all, but rather the exhaustive preparation for war as Aragorn joins forces with Rohan to defend them against the 10,000-strong orc army being amassed by Saruman (Christopher Lee), in his attempt to wipe out man from the face of Middle-earth. This culminates in the battle at a mountain fortress called Helm’s Deep, easily the most anticipated part of The Two Towers. And while I was expecting yet another derivative battle sequence, the siege on Helm’s Deep is one of the most detailed and well crafted combat scenes ever put to film. I was reminded of Braveheart, only on an even bigger scale. Whether we see bits with live actors or ones created with CGI (as in the wide shots), the sense of an overwhelming and evil opposition 20 times stronger than the defenders is stiflingly real.
Alas, the final story followed in The Two Towers concerns the lost hobbits Pippin and Merry, eventually forgotten by Aragorn after he reunites with Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Pippin and Merry encounter a creature that could only come from Tolkien’s strange mind, an anthropomorphic tree-like creature called an ent. The ent has been a closely-guarded secret by the filmmakers and now we know why: because it is possibly the stupidest-looking fantasy creature ever to appear in a movie. I’m serious. This is Neverending Story stuff. This is almost Labyrinth stuff. With big, googly eyes, the ents (yes, there are many, each more embarassing than the last) always appear against an obvious bluescreen as they shamble through the forest with the hobbits. The effect is so horrendous it’s hard to believe it’s in the same movie as the battle of Helm’s Deep and the digital Gollum. Oh well, every series must have its Jar-Jar, it seems.
While I’ve paraphrased the three-hour plot considerably, that’s the gist of it. Aside from the awful, cornball ents, my only other complaint with the film is that it just doesn’t stand on its own. Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but Two Towers feels like a whole lot of middle — which of course it is, being the second of three books. (Don’t agree? Think of the way The Empire Strikes Back stands on its own without the two films bookending it.) But Tolkien’s literature holds together in ways that Jackson’s movies have not been able to. It weakens the movie since we’re really left dangling at the end; but it’s not a cliffhanger, either. The movie just kind of, well, stops. If Jackson wanted to make one long movie, he should’ve made this as a TV miniseries, not three films each released a year apart.
Much of this problem has to do with the massive trims made to the story this time around (not that I’m complaining; three hours is still way too long a movie, and with all the walking, skirmishing, and speechifying, there’s plenty of room for more cutting). While Fellowship was fairly faithful to the book, Two Towers gets very loose with the source material. Namely, Pippin and Merry remain lost with the ents throughout the film; in the book, they are reunited with Gandalf and co. and then have another showdown with Saruman (though this part of the story might be in the works for part three). More perplexing is that in the book, Frodo is befriended by Boromir’s brother and helped along on his way by him. In the movie, the brother captures the hobbits, threatens them with death, and tries to take the ring! The timeline in the movie is completely out of whack, though for the sake of drama, it works more often than not.
It’s also easy to see where Jackson will beef up the story when the inevitable extended-edition DVD comes out. A Rohan princess named Eowyn (Miranda Otto) seemingly falls in love with Aragorn within seconds of meeting him. The attack on Gondor that occurs simultaneously with Helm’s Deep is also very under-developed and is hard to make sense of without more context.
Despite the puttering out of The Two Towers, I’m looking forward to Return of the King. It shouldn’t be too hard to make it the best entry into the series (the finale should be one of the best endings in movie history), but for one more year Rings fans will have to content themselves with a middle that’s plenty good on the whole but far short of great. I ask only that somebody, please, burn all the ents.