Ok, y’all, I need to be honest upfront, because I’m also reviewing The Hobbit later this week. I used to be hugely obsessed with The Lord of the Rings. I’m talking recited the genealogy of Gondorian kings huge, memorized the poems and translated them into Spanish huge, held knowledgeable debates on The Silmarillion huge. I had one of *those* middle schools; and when it came out in 2002, I saw The Two Towers exactly eight times in theaters. Ten years later, the madness has thankfully subsided, yet the continuation of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s mythos still contains the best and the worst impulses of the trilogy, as well as one of the finest battle sequences committed to film.
When last we left Our Heroes, you’ll remember that whole fellowship thing hadn’t quite worked out as planned. Sean Bean had been killed, and Merry and Pippin captured by Orcs, with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in hot, scenic pursuit. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, struck out for Mordor alone (together). The Two Towers begins right where Fellowship leaves off, with The Ringbearer and his gardener traversing the jagged rock-faces of New Zealand, drawing closer and closer to the most disheartening goal ever, the fires of Mount Doom.
Wandering and very much lost, Frodo and Sam encounter the creature Gollum, a former hobbit twisted into monsterhood by long possession of the Ring. Under duress, he offers to guide them into Mordor, which is a suspect proposition considering how badly he wants “the Precious” back and how willing he is to wring Frodo’s neck to get it. If Two Towers is important for no other reason, however, it is because seventy years from now, that one scene – in which Gollum struggles with what remains of the good in him, an alter-ego named Smeagol – is going to be shown as part an honorary Oscar tribute to Andy Serkis, the father of Mo-Cap. Gollum really is a landmark of that technologically-enhanced mode of action, the first CG character who can truly be said to have given a performance, and a pretty good one at that. Serkis rides a pendulum between vulnerability and mania, even as Elijah Wood’s Frodo vacillates between disgust and pity at this walking reminder of what the Ring is doing to him. The former is much more interesting to watch than the sighs of the latter, but this dynamic is easily the best thing about Frodo and Sam’s storyline.
Meanwhile, a Man, an Elf, and a Dwarf walk into Rohan. One of the virtues of the LOTR films is how they use the scope of the books and the majesty of the New Zealand landscape in order to continually expand and deepen the world, and so convince the audience to believe and care about it. Thrilling aerial camera sweeps add exhilaration to a comparatively slow chase sequence. They meet Eomer, an orc-hunting horselord who informs them that Sauron and Saruman have begun acting on their evil plots, burninating the countryside and casting a spell on Rohan’s king, Theoden. Then, instead of finding Merry and Pippin, the three hunters discover Gandalf within Fangorn Forest. Easily one of the worst trailer spoilers ever, Gandalf, last seen falling into an abyss, nonchalantly returns with trimmed beard and straightened hair to recruit Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to help save the kingdom. The Rohan storyline is frankly the most interesting of the film’s three lines of action; and aside from the cool magical de-ageing of Theoden, the best part about it is the showdown between the Rohirrim and Saruman’s 10,000 Uruk-Hai at Helm’s Deep.
Unlike the fights in Fellowship, which are personal and revolve on group dynamics, or those in Return of the King, which are so blown up in scale they’re near inappreciable, Helm’s Deep is just the right size, masterfully paced and viscerally shot. At each juncture – and there are many developments and changed stakes – Jackson does a fantastic job of maintaining spatial and situational clarity, while still generating suspense, weaving in character beats, and paying off setups from both films. The action keeps the viewer with the characters (or only just slightly ahead) with the effect that the battle unfolds in a thrilling, participatory way, even as the balanced camerawork – there’s definitely some kineticism, but more often it stays still and lets you just enjoy major FX as they happen – and well-integrated CGI make it a visual feast, on par with any battle sequence in cinema.
For as good as the good is in this film, the bad is as bad. Both the direwolf Warg attack that sidelines Aragorn briefly and the Rivendel flashback of his blatantly manufactured relationship troubles with ladylove Arwen are in the picture for structural reasons, but don’t come off in execution; the first doesn’t because of the title of the third movie, the second because of the odd choice to let all the actors speak so much slower in Elvenhome. It’s like wading through a river of molasses with Enya on your iPod. The Rohan characters seem a little slowed too, if not in speech than in development. They come off as a mass of blonde…horsey people, if you haven’t read the books; if you have, you’re probably just as frustrated Jackson couldn’t find anything for Eowyn to do besides pout, either.
In terms of adaptation missteps, you can talk about the Elves showing up at Helm’s Deep, but probably the worst thing about Towers is what it does to the character of Faramir. Again, his seizure of Frodo and Sam and temptation to take the Ring for himself is in the film because, structurally, you can only have so much wandering around and swooning and Sam/Gollum humorous fisticuffs. By taking the three to the besieged city of Osgiliath, it gives them something like a showdown, which makes inter-cutting with Helm’s Deep easier. But I can tell you that turning the quietly noble Faramir into a whinier Boromir is one thing book fans hate about the movies, and as in all the films, the toll of carrying the Ring is mostly visually displayed by Frodo’s fainting fits (now there’s a nerd band name…) and the whole thing is intensely silly if you’re not absolutely invested in it.
Speaking of intensely silly things, let’s talk about Merry and Pippin. Their meeting and eventual alliance with sentient Tree-Lords (yes) known as Ents isn’t bad, necessarily, at all. Pippin has a moment of greatness where he convinces the Ents to attack Isengard, the fortress of Saruman, and the giant, enraged trees are actually pretty badass in action, the sacking of Isengard a setpiece executed quickly but still satisfyingly. The CGI is weakest here, however, and it’s also clear that this storyline was the one that suffered the most in editing, as a lot of it involves a lot of waiting around and/or traveling through a CG forest.
It stands better with the other films than on its own, but for its virtuoso CGI, final battle, and Sam’s inspirational speech at the end, The Two Towers definitely makes for a great fantasy film.
Take a Drink: whenever Legolas restates a fact or says something obvious.
Take a Drink: whenever Viggo Mortenson does one of his own stunts.
Take a Drink: when anyone starts speaking Elvish.
Take a Sip: for every closeup of the Ring.
Take a Shot: when you hear the Wilhelm scream.
Finish Your Drink: when we told him to go away, and away he goes, Precious!