The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The second installment of the Rings trilogy picks up exactly where The Fellowship of the Ring left off. No introduction. No voiceover catch-up. The hobbits Frodo and Sam have struck out on their own, trying to reach Mount Doom deep inside Mordor to destroy the ring of power, entrusted to Frodo by his uncle, Bilbo. The threatening Gollum is hot on their heels, and seems to have bad things on his mind. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are in pursuit of a band of bloodthirsty, mutant orcs who have abducted the other two hobbits, Merry and Pippin. The power granted to the evil Saruman by the really evil Sauron is growing, and one by one the peaceful kingdoms are falling to his hordes of orcs. Gandalf is presumed lost after falling in battle with the demon Balrog in the previous film.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the most costly film production ever undertaken due to Jackson's insistence that all three installments be shot as a single, monstrous endeavor. Two-thirds through delivery, it's clear that the adaptation could not have succeeded otherwise. Strictly speaking, The Two Towers isn't a sequel--it's part two of three. (The original epic by J.R.R. Tolkien was divided into three books by the publisher, not the author.) By shooting the entire series in one extended sitting, Jackson avoided the continuity problems that undermine similar franchises. The Harry Potter series, for instance. The actors haven't aged significantly, and there are no scheduling conflicts or deaths that cause roles to be re-cast. The director, cinematographer, screenwriters and art director will be the same throughout, thus avoiding aesthetic and tonal incongruities between the films.
That's not to say that the films are without flaws. Like the original books, the first two adaptations are dense, plodding and often obtuse--the work of an Oxford linguistics professor--and one can reasonably assume that the third film, due in one year, will follow suit. The Fellowship of the Ring, was saddled with an overwhelming number of characters and histories and plotlines; The Two Towers shoulders the responsibility of bringing them all together. Those not familiar with the books were a bit lost in the first movie, and they may be bored by the second.
It's tempting to say that reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring could stand in for reviews of the second, but that's not quite true. This is a bloodier film, and even though orcs suffer most of the indignities in the battle scenes, there's a fair share of dead humans and elves. To his credit, Jackson is unapologetic. He's not afraid to kill the good guys, sometimes in nasty fashion. Recall the murder in Beautiful Creatures, one of Jackson's previous films. Now imagine that disturbing ten-second scene expanded to five-, ten- and sixty-minute engagements between infantry, cavalry and archers. The action is stunning.
Good thing, too, because just about every bit of tension and suspense in The Two Towers is derived from violence. The last hour is filled with bloodshed, and one needn't be a historian to see the metaphor in the climactic battle scene, in which an alliance between elves and humans defend the Rohan nation in the isolated, island-like stronghold of Helm's Deep. As Salman Rushdie pointed out in The Guardian earlier this month, Tolkien dismissed analogies between Sauron and the Nazi war machine, but more than sixty years later, it's ridiculous to allow Tolkien this protest. The allegory comes through, accidental or not, and is particularly striking now.
Like a certain other trilogy-based franchise, The Two Towers has a major flaw in the form of an annoying animated character. At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gollum was offered up as a teaser and audiences were juiced to see one of fantasy-lit's most-loved characters come to life. Tolkien's original Gollum is creepy and conniving, a fallen everyman. Gollum is the walking despair of addiction, his thirst to once again hold the ring of power trampling any compassion that may still exist deep inside his soul.
In Towers, Gollum is Jar Jar Binks after spending a few years living in a squat strung out on heroin. His schizophrenic monologues are long distractions, doing little to explain and expand the conflict that Tolkien's original character embodied. Even though a flesh-and-blood actor originally performed Gollum's role--presumably against a screen on a New Zealand soundstage--the digital exaggerations make Gollum one of the few weak visual links in an otherwise beautifully rendered fantasy film. It's a shame, and might be the only flaw to be attributed to the adaptation process.
The Two Towers is effective entertainment. Despite some minor plot changes and unfaithful character interpretations, fans of the books will be thrilled; one can safely assume that this was Jackson's main goal. Those who enjoyed the first film enough will enjoy this film enough, though they're not likely to buy the DVD box set unless there are children involved. Newcomers to the trilogy run the risk of being completely lost. Those in the last camp should be prepared to sit back and enjoy the fight scenes, as there's little else on offer.