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Stuck in the Middle (Earth)

 

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Peter Jackson, New Zealand, 2002

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: December 21, 2002

By Laurence Station

After the 2003 release of The Return of the King, its final installment, The Lord of the Rings will finally get the chance to be viewed and judged as a whole work. Which is as it should be. Much like the book upon which it's based, the film version of Lord of the Rings (a near ten-hour epic), is broken up into three parts. The reasoning behind this is both logistical and practical; allowing viewers to see the saga in stages builds anticipation -- and who wants to sit through a ten-hour film (or read a thousand pages) at once? But this approach also unavoidably exposes the series' second installment to the problems of "middle child syndrome." As part of a larger narrative, The Two Towers understandably contains neither the exhilarating freshness of the first chapter nor the climactic resolution of the last. (The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the original Star Wars films, is the exception that proves this rule.) It's important to keep that in mind with director Peter Jackson's second Rings entry, and to try to judge it not as a sequel but as a continuation of Rings' broader storyline. That being said, The Two Towers is -- as is the case with the middle section of J. R. R. Tolkien's epic -- the weakest link in the chain, due primarily to a broken fellowship that results in a dampening of any particular plot thread's overall dramatic impetus.

The Two Towers picks up right where 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring ends, and concludes just as things are really heating up in Middle Earth. In between, there are some stirring battle sequences, new character introductions and the increased physical and psychological burden placed upon ring-bearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) as he moves ever closer to the hoped-for place of the One Ring's destruction. Like its source material, Two Towers jumps around between three main storylines, which proves its main detriment. Frodo and his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin) continue their arduous trek to Mordor, aided by the tormented Gollum, who previously owned the ring and is desperate to remain close to his "precious." These scenes are driven by Frodo's empathy for Gollum, and the knowledge that the ring's constant temptation would ultimately yield him a similar fate. The CGI Gollum is marvelously rendered and given great schizophrenic character by Andy Serkis, as the demented wretch wrestles with whether to faithfully serve the hobbits or lead them to their deaths in hopes of reacquiring the ring.

Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and woodland elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) track their captured hobbit companions Merry and Pippin (abducted by orcs at the end of Fellowship), only to learn that the orcs have been slaughtered by a roving band of human warriors from the kingdom of Rohan. The adventurers, joined by the resurrected wizard Gandalf (a masterful, regrettably little seen Ian McKellen), pitch in to aid the besieged kingdom, which culminates in a last stand against Saruman's forces at the mountain fortress Helm's Deep. This sequence, far and away the most action-oriented, proves the heart of the film. Technically, Richard Taylor and the special effects crew at Weta Digital do a marvelous job rendering the 10,000-strong orc forces of Saruman as they march on the keep, while Jackson and his production crew ably heighten the impending sense of hopelessness inside the walls, as the overmatched defenders ponder what seems humanity's last stand against the forces of darkness. Viggo Mortensen shows off some heroic chops as Aragorn, combining bravery with an appropriate sense of melancholy over his group's predicament, while Orlando Bloom does a nice job revealing the immortal Legolas' growing affection for his mortal companions. Not all of the actors in this thread fare as well: Rhys-Davies, has little to do but play Gimli for laughs, while Miranda Otto's Eowyn exists primarily to offer a competing beauty for Aragorn, who pines for the elf maiden Arwen (Liv Tyler).

Lastly, the hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape capture at the hands of the orcs, and spend most of the film being carried around by Treebeard (nicely voiced by Rhys-Davies), member of a giant race of sentient tree-men known as ents. In the most egregious alteration from the source material, the hobbits "trick" Treebeard into stumbling onto Orthanc Tower at Isengard, hoping the horrific sight of Saruman's rape of the surrounding woodlands will spur the ents to join the rest of Middle Earth against the evil wizard. This is patently ridiculous. Treebeard is the oldest living creature in Middle Earth, and thus is not prone to rash decisions. In the book, he debates with his fellow ents about Saruman before deciding that they should indeed take action; Merry and Pippin are bystanders throughout, serving mainly to give the reader a glimpse at some behind-the-scenes power brokering. Having the hobbits dictate, or contrive, the reaction of Treebeard is a cheap way of forcing the assault of Isengard. Effects-wise, however, the actual scouring of Saruman's war machinery by the towering ents is mightily impressive.

While individual moments, particularly regarding Frodo and Gollum and the battle at Helm's Deep, prove dramatically satisfying, The Two Towers is unfortunately undercut by Jackson's constant jumping back-and-forth between the divergent arcs. In Fellowship, the audience followed a single party to the film's conclusion, helping to create the feeling of a rich and satisfying journey. Here, just as the action heats up at Helm's Deep, with countless bloodthirsty orcs scaling the walls, we cut back to Merry and Pippin sitting in a giant tree, or Sam, Frodo and Gollum trekking through the jagged foothills outside Mordor. The effect is jarring and critically stunts the film's dramatic thrust. Occasional, bridging voiceovers by various characters help to ease the sudden transitions, particularly a scene in which Sam gives a speech about good prevailing in the end no matter how hopeless things seem; it's a modest but emotionally powerful statement that adds much-needed resonance to the action-heavy proceedings.

But it's in those action sequences where Two Towers works best, a pure cinematic spectacle of battles both internal and external that nicely set the stage for dramatic dénouement in the concluding Return of the King. On adrenaline alone, it will probably rank first among the three films with fans. Its herky-jerky narrative approach (an unavoidable legacy carried over from the book) hampers attempts at character and plot development, detracting (albeit modestly) from an otherwise intense, chaotic and incredibly thrilling ride.

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