|Lord of the Rings, The - The Two Towers|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 26 August 2003|
“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” is the middle film in the cinematic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy about a war for control of a long-ago realm known as Middle Earth, with good humans, elves, dwarves and hobbits on one side and evil wizards, orcs and other nightmarish beings on the other.
The miracle of Tolkien’s books was that they managed to distill epic folklore tradition into a particular kind of high fantasy that has transformed an entire genre of fiction that followed. While the filmic adaptations may not have quite such sweeping consequences, they have unquestionably raised the bar for epic and/or fantasy filmmaking. Director/co-screenwriter Peter Jackson brought forth the opening installment, “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001, and it was widely and justly acclaimed as one of the best films ever made in any genre.
That’s a tough birthright for any movie to live up to, especially when the movie in question has a plot that is there to bridge all that has preceded it and all that is to come. Per its title, “Fellowship” chronicled the adventures of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and eight companions on a quest to destroy the One Ring. The Ring was forged by Sauron, the ultimate evil being, who means to use it to rule Middle Earth absolutely. The Ring has a terrible habit of corrupting all those who go near it. Frodo, a hobbit (a small and generally overlooked species in Middle Earth), is taken aback – indeed, terrified – by the responsibility of being the ring-bearer, but he bravely shoulders the task.
The title of “The Two Towers” refers to two separate strongholds of evil – Barad-Dur in Sauron’s hellish domain of Mordor, and Orthanc in Isengard, home of the treacherous wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). “Two Towers” hits the ground running, very literally, showing us a sequence that comes about two-thirds of the way into “Fellowship,” then veering off into an unexpected point of view of those proceedings before picking up the adventures of our heroes where we left them. Things are looking grim for the Fellowship, which has broken apart. One of their number, Boromir, has been killed by monstrous orcs. The wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has also fallen at the talons of a Balrog demon and is believed lost. Frodo and his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin) have slipped away from the main group (some of the others were becoming covetous of the Ring despite themselves) in order to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. Unbeknownst to Frodo, his other two hobbit companions, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have been captured by orcs, leaving human royalty Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and stalwart dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) to try to mount a rescue. Saruman is adding to the problems of all by making his own bid for the Ring via an army of Uruk-Hai, a murderous cross-breed of orcs and men.
As with Tolkien’s “Two Towers” book, Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair and Philippa Boyens cut back and forth between the four sets of main characters while introducing some new ones, principally King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill), his courageous niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and a very peculiar creature called Gollum (Andy Serkis voices the character and gave a physical performance on set that has been rendered into CGI). The result is inevitably episodic, with the lion’s share of the action going to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, the more nuanced drama – along with the Ring – being borne by Frodo and Sam and a mixture of near-horror and unusual adventure experienced by Merry and Pippin.
Inevitably, the structure gives “Two Towers” a rather episodic, “meanwhile …” feel. Fortunately, the episodes themselves are mostly engrossing, with utterly stunning battle sequences. There are some moments where a loud gasp of awe is the most probable audience reaction – when Saruman stands on a high balcony on Orthanc Tower and gazes down at 10,000 massed Uruk-Hai in Chapter 28, it is an extraordinarily visceral and realistic sight. Jackson makes us believe these creatures, in these numbers, are real and gives us a strong sense of what it would be like to confront a demonic army in combat. There are plenty of war movies that strive (and sometimes succeed) at putting the viewer in the boots of the lone soldier facing terrible odds, and plenty of fantasy films that aim to sweep us into their imagined worlds. “Two Towers” does both, giving us gritty, sweaty fear and a sense of wonder.
Sound is a huge part of “Two Towers” from the very first scene, when we see snowy, uninhabited peaks accompanied by faint sounds, which we gradually realize are coming from an almighty fight far beneath the surface of the mountains. As we enter the mountain and plunge down a seemingly endless tunnel with the combatants, the sound moves from left to right and back, as though we too are bouncing off the cave walls as we fall.
The sound balance in the theatrical release is excellent, and the DVD release maintains the standard of quality. Even if you have neighbors who complain about loud noises emanating from your home when you’re listening to things like clashes of human and demon armies, you can balance “Two Towers” so that you can still feel the impact of hooves and arrows while picking up whispers of characters speaking in low tones. Chapter 12 is a superb example of this, with a thunderous, frightening explosion of sound from the Nazgul, the monstrous flying mounts of Sauron’s Black Riders, as they circle all around us, screaming in the rears, while Frodo, Sam and Gollum confer in hushed murmurs.
Chapter 26 has terrific hoof and pawpad impacts, as Aragorn and Company clash with orcs riding creatures called wargs, ostensibly wolves but really more like Ray Harryhausen monsters. Arrows shoot from front to rear and the animal growls sound very authentic.
Chapter 34 has startlingly lifelike hooves clattering along cobblestones in a narrow castle keep, with doors that open strikingly in the rears. Chapter 35 renders equally convincing rustles of leaf and branch as trees move about. A seven-minute battle sequence in Chapter 39 gives us directional rainfall and precisely-placed grunts from the attacking orcs. Chapter 41 features an explosion that isn’t deafening, yet gives us incredibly detailed fallout, with individual pieces of wood and rock plummeting down separately through front and rear speakers.
The CGI is quite remarkable – besides Saruman’s armies (individual Uruk-Hai are played by actors under heavy makeup) and a variety of running and flying monsters, the embodiment of Gollum quickly persuades us that this is as compelling a character as any in the story, conflicted and tormented, with an endless capacity for both spite and vulnerabililty. Serkis’ work in mapping out Gollum’s movements is almost an argument for creating a new Oscar category – Outstanding Performance by an Actor Augmented by Computer-Generated Imagery, perhaps?
On the somewhat more conventional acting front, Wood remains a perfect choice for Frodo, a genuinely good person in danger of losing his way and his mind. Astin is as affectingly straightforward as before, while Mortensen and Bloom are the epitome of heroic fantasy figures – we really do think these guys are up to saving the world, even if they harbor doubts. Rhys-Davies puts Falstaffian energy into the hearty dwarf and Monaghan and Boyd are charmers in roles that seem to have been edged into being slightly more forceful and shrewd than in the books, albeit they never lose their hobbit qualities. Otto is ardent and beguiling as the young noblewoman, Hill conveys the weight of kingly responsibility and if you want a wizard who seems like he may very well get hold of the world and torture it into a misshapen inferno, Lee is the actor to play him. The standout, though, is McKellen, who makes some surprising and joy-inducing choices, showing us that great power need not necessarily equal great grimness.
The production design by Grant Major and the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie are as magnificent as before, though the vistas are generally darker and stonier throughout than they were in “Fellowship.” Howard Shore’s score introduces some new themes while making excellent use of those introduced in the first film.
In a marketing move that can be seen as reflecting either the wisdom of Gandalf or the evil of Sauron, New Line Home Entertainment is releasing two (at least) editions of “Two Towers.” This first one contains lots of nice extras, including two separate, informative documentaries: “On the Set – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which originally aired on Starz Encore, and “Return to Middle-Earth,” which originally aired on the WB. (A bit of trivia: Ghost of the Robot’s Steve Sellers composed the music for the latter.) There’s also eight separate featurettes originally made for theonering.net website, a charming short film made by Astin (and co-created by Monaghan), shot on everybody’s day off and starring the “Lord of the Rings” director of photography Andrew Lesnie, with a cameo by director Jackson and a music video by Emiliana Torrini. However, a special extended version of the film, with substantial material not included in the theatrical release, is due out on another DVD set later this year, with a whole batch of new extras. This two-disc release is made for those who can’t wait and/or those who want a copy of the film exactly as it played in theatres. To make this edition extra tempting, there’s a 10-minute behind-the-scenes trailer for the last installment, “The Return of the King,” a preview of the Electronic Arts “Return of the King” video game (the preview is narrated by Rhys-Davies and features snippets of the film’s actors recording their dialogue for the game) and, in a true bid for that second purchase, a trailer for the special extended edition of “Two Towers.”
“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” ultimately and appropriately makes us identify with the characters. Like them, we feel as though we’ve come a long way with a long way to go, but we’re so completely occupied with what’s going on all around us that we’re too awed, scared, angry and moved to feel tired or impatient. For awhile, the experience seems less like watching a movie than partaking in a way of life.