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

Running time: 179 minutes
Director: Peter Jackson

Gracious, has this film actually been out for more than six months?

I recently completed what I think is my 10th viewing of the film, and was pleased to say that it’s still as exciting and lovely as the first nine (most of which were done in rapid succession). I can’t tell you how nice it is to go to a cinema and watch a mainstream, “hit” movie and not feel like lowlife scum afterwards.

I think it’s reasonably safe to say that The Two Towers ranks as one of the finest epic battle movies of all time. Even with the extensive number of films I’ve seen behind me, I’m hard-pressed to think of battle-oriented films that surpass this. There are a few, mind you, but they are exceedingly rare.

In case the reader is somehow not aware, The Two Towers is the “middle bit” of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of books (actually intended as a single work, broken up into three books by merciful publishers). Both as a book and as a movie, it benefits from all the scene-setting and character-introducing work done in the first book/movie (The Fellowship of the Ring). This means that there is little in the way of backstory and we get straight on into the action. Like the previous film, director Jackson wisely starts off with a bang, in this case a brief (incredibly brief) recap of the “climax” of Fellowship, the fall of Gandalf the Grey. Then there is a good-sized break in the action to update us on the progress of the other characters (Sam and Frodo trying to enter Mordor; Merry and Pippin held hostage by Orcs and Uruk Hai; Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in hot pursuit). This break also allows us time to properly introduce the real “star” of this second film, the stunningly-crafted Gollum.

Gollum succeeds where all computer-animated characters before him have failed; he convinces us totally of his physical presence. This is entirely due to Gollum having a physical presence during the filming. Played (and voiced by) the incredible Andy Serkis, Gollum is (pardon the pun) fleshed out and made whole. The other actors have something real to interact with, and they hear the voice we hear (one of the more remarkable vocal performances in many a year), and this makes all the difference. Praise should not be spared to the animators as well; though they had a remarkable (and undersung) actor’s performance as a strong starting point, they beautifully embellished it, expanding on Serkis’ unseen physicality and facial expressions in an eerie yet beautiful way. Serkis and the animation team should have been awarded a shared Oscar, for Gollum is the most fluid of collaborations between computers and man yet seen on screen.

Another area where Jackson succeeds on a staggering scale is in pacing. After spending the first half-hour playing catch-up (often literally), he deftly skips from set up characters to another, introducing new ones with ease and flawlessly running us up to the climax of the film (not the climax of the book, it should be noted): the battle for Helm’s Deep.

Lest the reader think me too mindlessly effusive, there are of course little nits to pick with this or that in the course of the film: casual viewers (ie people who haven’t actually read the book) will likely be confused by Theoden’s family ties and importance to the film (remember, everything in LOTR has at least two names — often more — and casual references to them are important to purists but confusing to normal people), some important foreshadowing is glossed over/underplayed, invented and contrived scenes are given longer than perhaps is strictly necessary, and the film doesn’t end where the book does (far short of it, in fact). But the point a lot of critics miss is that this is nit-picking: minor details, not major flaws. Obviously Tolkien fanatics will be displeased at some of the cuts/rearranging of the storyline (not to mention the blasphemy of inventing new scenes to expedite convoluted plot points), but then those people would be perfectly happy with three twelve-hour films, and part of the point of this exercise is to bring Tolkien to the masses. Once you accept that, you start to see the justification behind Jackson’s alterations and for the most part agree with them. Jackson and his co-authors have a real gift for “boiling down” long and complicated sections of the book into easy-to-follow (but not “dumbed down”), excitingly visual sequences.

As I was reading “The Two Towers” the most recent time, I often found myself wondering how the various “scenes” in the book would be realised. Almost to a fault, Jackson predictably compressed long sequences (such as the four-day hunt for the Uruk Hai by Aragon and company), lingered on beautiful but important plot points (like Edoras and of course Helm’s Deep), and barely touched on drawn-out or not-strictly-vital scenes and characters (there was a lot more about the Ents, their “conference” and of course Theodred, Eomer and Grima Wormtongue in the book).

The film is epic, sweeping, and utterly majestic throughout. There are very few spots where the spell is broken (Gandalf’s fall with the Balrog is, however, one such spot), and the cynic in us might wonder how so many dirty, filthy, unwashed people can be so damn good-looking. For my part, I thought the occasional bit of obvious comic relief (even in the height of the battle sequence, which takes up the entire third hour of the film) worked well and was not overplayed. In truth, the only thing that disappointed me was that the film did not end where the book does, though I accept that the battle of Helm’s Deep was an obvious finishing point from a filmic point of view.

Still, there is so much of the book (some fifty pages!) left over for the final film that I fear that Return of the King will either have to be at least half an hour longer that the previous two (and they clocked in at three hours apiece in their theatrical versions), or some important material in ROTK will have to be mercilessly expunged. Neither is a happy thought.

(It should be noted that as of this writing, the Fellowship DVD benefits hugely from it’s extra half-hour of re-inserted footage, but it’s clear that there will be no “addendum” to the ending of the second movie as their was the first.)

Still, if you are one of the people who haven’t seen the film either for fear of getting lost in the incredibly large cast and staggeringly minute plot, or because you missed the first film, fear not: even if you “get” little else out of the film, it’s overall qualities — friendship, good v. evil and above all kick-ass battle sequences — will be more than enough to tide you over. Grab it in the cheap cinemas while you can — this is one film that (even with extended footage and tons of extras) really loses a lot shown on the “small screen.” This is the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore — spectacle with a purpose, long for a reason, visuals and characters and stories with depth.

My rating: Mandatory.

Advertisements