[box cover]

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen,
Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom,
John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee,
Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving,
and Andy Serkis

Written by Frances Walsh
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien

Directed by Peter Jackson


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Review by Dawn Taylor                    


I'm sure you'll forgive this reviewer for gushing in considerably less geektastic detail about Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers than in the previous review of Fellowship of the Ring. It's not for lack of enthusiasm, as will become clear as the review progresses. No, it's really more of a conservation of energy — The Two Towers is, if possible, even better than its predecessor. To lavish even more praise on it than on Fellowship would be extremely time-consuming and inevitably exhausting. Then, when Return of the King — which promises to be the very best of the three — is released, the adulation would have to be commensurately gushier. It's just too much work to contemplate. So let's just say the middle picture of director Peter Jackson's massive trilogy is spectacular, and move on from there.

Where Fellowship of the Ring laid the foundation of Tolkien's tale, The Two Towers splits up the characters and sweeps them into separate, epic adventures. Thankfully, Jackson knows that we've seen the first film and that this is really the middle of one big story, so we're spared the usual flashback-slash-"in our last installment" drivel at the beginning of the film, which opens with Gandalf's plunge after wrasslin' with the fiery Balrog and then leaps straight into the three simultaneous quests of the divided Fellowship. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) are slowly making their way to far-off Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power. Meanwhile, Aragorn (the yummy-butch Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (the yummy-androgynous Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (the not-especially-yummy but wonderful John Rhys-Davies) are trying to track down wayward Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who are in the custody of some nasty Orcs. The light and dark sides of the Force, if you will, are represented by Gandalf (Ian McKellan), risen Phoenix-like with greater powers, and Saruman (Christopher Lee), a sort of anti-Gandalf, who's pledged allegiance to the dark lord Sauron.

*          *          *

The story of The Two Towers is dreadfully complicated, but Jackson manages to make it all make perfect sense (this only seems like a Herculean task when you yourself are sitting at a keyboard trying to figure out a simple, cohesive way of recounting the film's plot.) As part of Sauron's quest for dominion, Saruman is building a staggering army of mass-produced Uruk-hai — scary, ugly, über-Orcs who carry huge honkin' slabs of steel in their slimy paws. Saruman sends them first to Rohan, whose king, Théoden (Bernard Hill), has been rendered senile by wizardy Saruman groupie Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). With the help of the new-and-improved Gandalf, however, Aragorn and company — along with the king's sword-wielding niece (Miranda Otto) — are able to revive the king, round up the townsfolk and get them to the fortress at Helm's Deep to, hopefully, withstand the onslaught of Saruman's goblin army.

Just when you've forgotten all about the Hobbits, Jackson catches back up with Frodo and Sam, who are following the lead of their "guide," that freaky, Ring-crazy Gollum (Andy Serkis). You know all about Gollum, you know all about the motion-capture CGI technology, you know that he's the most amazing gosh-darn character to have ever been created on a computer. And you know what else? He may be the best character in the whole damn movie. Dwelling in a cave for centuries alone with the Ring, Gollum devolved from a Hobbit-like fellow named Smeagol into the pathetic creature we see on screen — and he's also, understandably, two palm trees short of an oasis due to all that exposure to the Ring. While Sam, being the more down-to-earth Hobbit, doesn't trust Gollum, Frodo, however, bonds with the creepy mutant — perhaps because, as Frodo himself starts to get a taste of the effect that the Ring has on its possessor, he can appreciate Gollum's dual nature. And that duality is displayed in one of the movie's best scenes, with Gollum's two sides arguing over which path to take — whether to kill the "tricksy Hobbitses" or recapture what tiny sliver of his humanity he may have retained by helping them with their quest. It's a scene as genuinely heart-wrenching as it is funny, and actor Serkis deserves as much credit for the sequence as Jackson or the animators.

Elsewhere, Merry and Pippin have quite an exciting time wiggling away from the Orcs, and they escape into the deep, dark forest where they meet the Ents, a race of ancient, sentient trees. The Hobbits slowly convince the Ents to join the fight against Saruman — okay, they really come to that conclusion when they see what havoc the wizard bastard has wreaked on the surrounding landscape — and all roads finally lead to the battle at Helm's Deep. It's 40 minutes of spine-tingling, swashbuckling excitement, with an army "ten thousand strong" laying siege to the most amazing miniature castle and CGI warriors that have ever graced the screen. More importantly, however, you'll forget that it's camera trickery and find yourself holding your breath as our heroes fight what appear to be insurmountable odds … and cheering as the tide miraculously turns in their favor. It's flat-out amazing filmmaking by a director who's invested more of his heart, soul, and enthusiasm in a project than any director to ever come before him. The battle — hell, the entire movie — is, simply put, magical.

As far as the more human element goes, the film's hero is most definitely Aragorn this time around. In The Two Towers we see him grow from a shifty rogue who hides his true identity into a man beginning to accept the destiny of his birthright. Mortensen is superb, his acting subtle and seemingly unremarkable, but dammit, he gets the job done — Aragorn's turning into a king before our very eyes, even if he himself hasn't figured that out yet. He even gets a bit of a love triangle, with Théoden's niece, Éowyn, giving him the eye — although he can't see it because he's still obsessed (mostly through flashbacks) with his elfin love Arwen (Liv Tyler). With all this focus on Aragorn and the battles, some characters seem to get short-changed, unfortunately — Gandalf and Legolas, especially, with even Saruman left with little to do by film's end but stand on his balcony and watch the destruction (this is, I'm informed, pretty much the way it works in the book, too, but it still sometimes seems like they've been forgotten.) Sam — who is, in many respects, the film's heart — seemingly has little to do as well, but his presence is so large that one can't wait to see Astin take the character into the final chapter of the story. It sure would have been nice if his role had a little more meat to it here, though.

And, frankly, those are petty complaints. The Two Towers, like Fellowship of the Ring, is such a grand movie experience that there's almost nothing that can be said to fault it. It was the film of 2002, a dark, astonishing, moving continuation of the saga, with more battles and excitement than could possibly be recounted here and moments of soaring emotion that bring tears to the eyes. As a stand-alone film, it's a breathtaking accomplishment. As the center of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's part of the most extraordinary project in cinematic history.

*          *          *

As with the first Lord of the Rings film, New Line's DVD release is very, very good. Certainly not the same as seeing it on the big screen, of course — this is a huge movie and deserving of a huge screen — but heck, even in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) on your home television, it's beautiful. Visually, this is a dreary movie in many places, with swamps and shadowy canyons and the entire Helm's Deep sequence taking place in the dark, rainy night. You don't miss a thing on this DVD, with even the darkest, dankest scenes offering extraordinary detail and depth. The Dolby Digital EX 5.1 audio is impressive, again giving a workout to the lower registers with all those clashing swords and grunting Uruk-hai and Howard Shore's majestic, rich score (and there are, if you want ‘em, English or Spanish subtitles and English closed-captioning available.) So, basically, if you're a big enough fan and you have a big enough bank account, you ought to just run out right now and get an enormous flat-screen TV and a top-of-the-line sound system.

There are, of course, extras. As with the Fellowship release, the disc has a light smattering of mostly pre-release publicity stuff, saving the more delectable goodies for the later four-disc release. But there are some nice goodies, regardless:


— Dawn Taylor



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