The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Director: Peter Jackson. Cast: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Bernard Hill, Ian McKellen, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Brad Dourif, Miranda Otto, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Karl Urban, voices of Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies. Screenplay: Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Peter Jackson (based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien).

By contrast to the generous précis of Middle Earth history that began The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers begins with a reprise of a single, crucial scene from the earlier picture. The event in question is Gandalf’s apparent death in the Mines of Moria, truly one of the narrative crises that made Fellowship such an arresting emotional experience. The visual terseness of Gandalf’s exit—suddenly he was there, hanging for his life over a yawning chasm, and then, just as suddenly, he wasn’t—was unique in a film so fluent in grand spectacle and cutting-edge visual effects. Indeed, that very contrast in style was eminently responsible for the tremendous power of this scene and of that which followed, a wordless fugue in which the surviving members of the Fellowship exited the Mines with their hearts and hopes choked.

The Two Towers has things a little differently. Once more, Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins is seen howling with grief as Gandalf vanishes—but then Gandalf doesn’t vanish. Instead, we follow Gandalf’s plunge through the abyss and watch him grab a weapon with which to smite the lethal Balrog, engaging for the better part of a minute in a free-fall battle with the fiery beast, until they both land in a deep underground pool. Later, we see that the epic combat between creature and wizard culminates atop a steep mountain precipice. The environmental mismatch is partially attributable to competing points of view: the opening sequence is Frodo’s nightmare, while the second is a visual illustration of Gandalf’s own recounted memory. A deliberate invocation of Dante’s Inferno gives the scene allusive weight—readers will remember how Dante’s Pilgrim falls through the ninth circle of hell on Geryon’s back only to emerge on the other side of the world—and, on top of everything, the incidental incongruities in Frodo’s vision and Gandalf’s reportage belong to a handful of slippages and enigmas scattered throughout The Two Towers that imply that this new Gandalf, “Gandalf the White,” may not be quite what he says.

All of these resonances allow the scene to echo meaningfully through the rest of the picture, but there is a larger problem with the sequence that far outweighs, as far as I can tell, the sum of its benefits. In short, I didn’t want to see it, a statement I never thought I would make after the operatic majesty and pathos of Fellowship. The core screenwriters for the Lord of the Rings films—Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and director Peter Jackson—seemed fully aware in their first outing that the psychic and moral catastrophe of Gandalf’s departure is a thousand times more compelling and important than the mechanics and pyrotechnics of his fall. The magic of Gandalf’s eventual return is certainly diminished by the foretaste provided in The Two Towers’ preamble, and it doesn’t significantly expand our sense of Frodo’s desperate grief at his mentor’s death, since that mood is already so limpidly visible on Elijah Wood’s face, in his second superlative performance as Frodo. In short, a key narrative juncture with gigantic emotional implications in Fellowship has become, in The Two Towers, an extra-narrative epigraph with a lot of digital razzle-dazzle. Even the Mine itself, one of the first film’s most exquisitely tangible physical locations, reappears to us here as a speeding flash, a CGI blur not incompatible with the hyperdrive universe of George Lucas.

Several critics that I know and trust, many of them avid Tolkienites, have by now registered their enthusiasm for The Two Towers as an achievement equal, if not superior, to The Fellowship of the Ring. For my part, though, whatever its local rationalizations, the disparity in texture between Gandalf’s two death scenes is emblematic of a noticeable and lamentable decline from the first installment to the next. No warlock could have surpassed Jackson or his collaborators in the depth, color, vitality, and aplomb with which The Fellowship of the Ring introduced and initiated a three-phase passion play on the imperiled life of Middle Earth. Breathtaking vistas of actual New Zealand locations, swooping plunges through fire, snow, mud, and stone, and the incontrovertible sincerity of the actors’ performances made the fate of the Ring of Power—as well as, of course, the contingent fates of its handlers and pursuers—the weightiest, most astonishing tale in the populist cinema since the Titanic re-sank five years ago. Plus, this time the dialogue was better! People like me, wholly unfamiliar with Tolkien’s literature, are precisely those who expect to attend a film like this and exit with no clear sense of why we should care. (The X-Files movie was a good example of this experience, or a bad example, depending on how you want to look at it.) But The Fellowship of the Ring was that rare treasure, a movie that makes it impossible to understand why anyone wouldn’t care.

But, as Jackson and Co. take the second lap in their tour, The Two Towers inherits Fellowship’s sizable lead over the bulk of commercial spectacle, all those featherweight Spider-Mans and inscrutable Signs, only to fall disconcertingly back toward the middle of the pack. Radiating unease that this middle chapter in Tolkien’s saga mostly consists in getting various characters and populations from Point A to Point B, Jackson fills the interval with neither ominous quiet nor a particularly well-layered pandemonium. What we get instead is an Action Movie, a successive series of clashes interspersed with diaphanous conversation and a confusing revolving door of casts. As the film’s tone simultaneously pursues new dimensions of horror and pluckier accents of comic relief, the title The Two Towers starts to sound like a metaphor for the movie’s bipolar commitments to the human and artistic gravity of its conception and the Hollywood conformism of its swords and axes and catapults that go clangety-clang-clang for three draggy hours. It feels too often like a movie someone else could have made. Peter Jackson came to Hollywood, and the clones attacked. They haven’t won him over yet, but who even knew it was a contest?

The Gandalf rehash is but one early sign of trouble. The actual first images of the movie, as Andrew Lesnie’s camera performs its wonted swoops around the tops of snow-swept mountains, followed by an equally characteristic plunge through the rock face and into the caverns, feels laminated, unearthly. The Lord of the Rings need not be “realistic” but it cannot risk feeling unreal, a threat too closely courted by these matte-looking wide shots and stuntish camera flights. A little later, as Jackson catches us up on the various predicaments of his now-fractured Fellowship, we find that stampeding band of snarly Uruk-hai, who surprise us first by halting for a breath and surprise us further by talking. Why, oh why, are the Uruk-hai talking, especially if they have nothing better to say than, “What do you smell?” Recent cinema has been hard-pressed to yield a more chilling image of implacable, murderous fury than these genetically engineered super-Orcs, all from the Earth’s womb untimely ripped, and then sent bounding after Frodo’s gang with a rip-snorting, indefatigable monomania. Jackson restores us to this dread in later sequences when the Orcs and Uruk-hai, phalanxed at different locations around Middle Earth, slam their clubs and shields against the hard-packed soil, in a single-handed defense of digital stereo sound. But giving dialogue to the Uruk-hai strips them of considerable power, for multifarious and costly reasons: (1) it individualizes them, disrupting our view of a mindless army bred for slaughter; (2) it takes Jackson away from one of his signature gifts as a craftsman of wordless visual poetry; (3) it exacerbates the film’s quietly troubling class and racial affinities—since the Orc armies, already figured as dark marauders upon tearful Nordic types, uniformly speak with working-class British and Australian accents, by contrast to Gandalf’s and Galadriel’s King’s English; and (4), since the Orcs and Uruk-hai never say anything half as terrifying as what they do or how they appear, their conversation banalizes Saruman’s army of bottomless evil into a throng of especially furious Fraggles. This may seem like a strange point to spend any time on, but in my two experiences of watching The Two Towers, its disappointment lies precisely in an accumulation of details that don’t feel right—as opposed to the first movie, where the nuances and small touches were the recipe for my total, unchecked belief.

More examples. Almost the first line in the whole movie is a tongue-twister from Sean Astin’s Sam—“The one place in Middle Earth we don’t want to see any closer is the one place we’re trying to go, and the one place we can’t get”—that unfortunately sets a trend for verbal clinkers spread through the picture. Gimli, the dwarf played by John Rhys-Davies, has downgraded from an object of subtle derision for the elves and humans into an increasingly distracting source of comic relief; the grave preamble to the climactic siege on Helm’s Deep is interrupted for not one but three cutaways to the same extended joke about Gimli’s small size. Meanwhile, a much ballyhooed effort to redress Tolkien’s gender imbalances by making Liv Tyler’s Arwen and Miranda Otto’s éowyn more important to the story has resulted in, for Tyler’s part, a lot of crying, and for Otto’s, a competitive amount of crying, plus a thankless job of “leading” her population to safety by calling out things like, “Everybody stay together!” Both of these women have by now been certified to us as accomplished riders and fighters, but the Towers script hasn’t stretched itself quite so much as to make more of those talents.

What is more surprising, these small gaffes in dialogue and characterization are accompanied in The Two Towers by lapses in visual and rhythmic judgment; the only principal Fellowship technician who’s gone missing this time out is editor John Gilbert, and the change shows in irksome ways. That old Hollywood staple of the menacing jaws/blade/claw/etc. coming closerclosercloser to a sympathetic character until, whew!, they are saved in the nick of time, reiterates itself a few times too often. Legolas, the fleet-footed and flaxen-haired archer, is repeatedly forced to deliver a clunky expository line midstride—a quadruple head-scratcher, since the results are ungainly shots at awkward moments of the series’ weakest actor communicating redundant ideas. This kind of moment, eminently cuttable, stands in direct contrast to such magisterial passages in The Fellowship of the Ring as when the heroic cadre rowed down the river from Lothlórien in long, circling overhead shots, cross-cut with the Uruk-hai’s threatening advancement along the shoreline. The topographical vagueness—we couldn’t know in that scene how close, exactly, the Orcs had advanced upon the Fellowship—was in fact an asset, since Fellowship scaled its conflicts and tensions so grandly: evil was out there, and its force was perpetually but untraceably felt. Saruman’s power was discernible not just in his fearsome armies, then, but also in the tightly pulled faces of those who resisted him. So a film like The Two Towers that is so frequently jerry-rigged with false and local suspense—has Pippin just died beneath a horse’s hoof? Who is the white wizard in the forest? Will those cryptic, kohl-eyed humans marching into Mordor uncover Sam and Frodo beneath that cloak?—inevitably, even when these scenes are executed with panache, feels like a more miniaturized tale. The Ring which, after all, has caused all the fuss in Middle Earth, and which was such a commanding presence in Fellowship, is much more rarely seen in The Two Towers and, correspondingly, more rarely felt.

Add all these things together, and one’s overall enthusiasm for the film slakes alarmingly. Then again, no matter what’s disappointing about The Two Towers, one shouldn’t mistake it for a wholly unpedigreed or unaccomplished piece of filmmaking. There are notable successes to be savored, such as the fascinating work on Gollum, a degenerated Hobbit-like form whose bilious longing for the Ring he once owned is a white-hot streak of need and desire in a film that elsewhere feels distant and pro forma. The persuasive digital animation of Gollum aside, his kaleidoscopic emotions are the film’s most successful reminder of the Ring’s corroding power, and Elijah Wood does a beautiful job of empathizing with this creature even as his own psychic integrity is being worn away while he’s in Gollum’s company. The brief scenes with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and a single monologue by Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel also remind us of the high stakes and dark futures innate to what we’re watching, though of the more showcased performances, only Wood and the soulful stoicism of Viggo Mortensen are comparably credible.

And there are still moments of weirdly fantastical vision—a mile-wide black iron gate cranked open by massive trolls, the frightful upward trajectory of spiky iron siege ladders swarming with crossbows and shields—that remind us of how handily Peter Jackson can create images that move or incite us, quite apart from any narrative context. He’s a born filmmaker, of a unique breed, and I hope that The Return of the King, like The Fellowship of the Ring, confirms that reputation with more than sporadic regularity. So far, though, there is only one tower in this cinematic trilogy. Let’s pray that we still have another ahead of us, and that the rocky, uneven qualities of the current film will ultimately be revealed as merely a tortuous pathway on the route toward resurgent triumph. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Art Direction: Grant Major; Dan Hennah & Alan Lee
Best Film Editing: Michael Horton
Best Sound: Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, and Hammond Peek
Best Sound Effects: Ethan Van der Ryn & Mike Hopkins
Best Visual Effects: Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cooke, and Alex Funke

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Peter Jackson

Other Awards:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Costume Design (Ngila Dickson & Richard Taylor); Best Visual Effects
Satellite Awards: Best Ensemble Cast; Best Visual Effects

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