And it's expectations that director Peter Jackson has clearly found himself having to address in this movie. Given that all three films in the series were shot simultaneously, Jackson doesn't have much opportunity to introduce new stuff with each movie. We're well familiarized with the main characters and the primary settings, so much of the weight falls on the new people and creatures introduced in this episode to carry the story.
Far and away, that weight falls on Gollum, the creature and former ringbearer which tracked Frodo through Fellowship, always staying the shadows. In The Two Towers, Gollum (aka Smeagol) takes center stage as he catches up with a rapidly weakening Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), now separated from the rest of their party, and he becomes a guide for the hobbits in exchange for a promise that they won't kill him. A completely CGI creation based on digitizing a real actor's motion (actor Andy Serkis also did Gollum's creepy voice), the pasty, scampering Gollum is quite well-executed and is given tons of screen time. While he suffers from the stilted movement of many CGI characters when seen in action shots, Gollum is painstakingly detailed and lifelike when seen in closeup. He's one of the highlights of the film, and his loincloth is uncannily able to keep things discreet.
While Frodo, Sam, and Gollum continue their journey to Mordor, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) search for captured hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). This leads them to Rohan, a large kingdom bordering Mordor and Gondor and populated by horse-riding warriors. In fact, the bulk of the movie doesn't concern Frodo's journey at all, but rather the exhaustive preparation for war as Aragorn joins forces with Rohan to defend them against the 10,000-strong orc army being amassed by Saruman (Christopher Lee), in his attempt to wipe out man from the face of Middle-earth. This culminates in the battle at a mountain fortress called Helm's Deep, easily the most anticipated part of The Two Towers. And while I was expecting yet another derivative battle sequence, the siege on Helm's Deep is one of the most detailed and well crafted combat scenes ever put to film. I was reminded of Braveheart, only on an even bigger scale. Whether we see bits with live actors or ones created with CGI (as in the wide shots), the sense of an overwhelming and evil opposition 20 times stronger than the defenders is stiflingly real.
Alas, the final story followed in The Two Towers concerns the lost hobbits Pippin and Merry, eventually forgotten by Aragorn after he reunites with Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Pippin and Merry encounter a creature that could only come from Tolkien's strange mind, an anthropomorphic tree-like creature called an ent. The ent has been a closely-guarded secret by the filmmakers and now we know why: because it is possibly the stupidest-looking fantasy creature ever to appear in a movie. I'm serious. This is Neverending Story stuff. This is almost Labyrinth stuff. With big, googly eyes, the ents (yes, there are many, each more embarassing than the last) always appear against an obvious bluescreen as they shamble through the forest with the hobbits. The effect is so horrendous it's hard to believe it's in the same movie as the battle of Helm's Deep and the digital Gollum. Oh well, every series must have its Jar-Jar, it seems.
While I've paraphrased the three-hour plot considerably, that's the gist of it. Aside from the awful, cornball ents, my only other complaint with the film is that it just doesn't stand on its own. Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but Two Towers feels like a whole lot of middle -- which of course it is, being the second of three books. (Don't agree? Think of the way The Empire Strikes Back stands on its own without the two films bookending it.) But Tolkien's literature holds together in ways that Jackson's movies have not been able to. It weakens the movie since we're really left dangling at the end; but it's not a cliffhanger, either. The movie just kind of, well, stops. If Jackson wanted to make one long movie, he should've made this as a TV miniseries, not three films each released a year apart.
Much of this problem has to do with the massive trims made to the story this time around (not that I'm complaining; three hours is still way too long a movie, and with all the walking, skirmishing, and speechifying, there's plenty of room for more cutting). While Fellowship was fairly faithful to the book, Two Towers gets very loose with the source material. Namely, Pippin and Merry remain lost with the ents throughout the film; in the book, they are reunited with Gandalf and co. and then have another showdown with Saruman (though this part of the story might be in the works for part three). More perplexing is that in the book, Frodo is befriended by Boromir's brother and helped along on his way by him. In the movie, the brother captures the hobbits, threatens them with death, and tries to take the ring! The timeline in the movie is completely out of whack, though for the sake of drama, it works more often than not.
It's also easy to see where Jackson will beef up the story when the inevitable extended-edition DVD comes out. A Rohan princess named Eowyn (Miranda Otto) seemingly falls in love with Aragorn within seconds of meeting him. The attack on Gondor that occurs simultaneously with Helm's Deep is also very under-developed and is hard to make sense of without more context.
Despite the puttering out of The Two Towers, I'm looking forward to Return of the King. It shouldn't be too hard to make it the best entry into the series (the finale should be one of the best endings in movie history), but for one more year Rings fans will have to content themselves with a middle that's plenty good on the whole but far short of great. I ask only that somebody, please, burn all the ents.
As fans of the series will know, the first DVD release of The Two Towers is the same cut as in the theaters. The sound mix is truly incredible, as is the picture quality (ents notwithstanding), but, nearly a year later, it's still tough to watch Gimli turned into little more than comic relief -- "little people" jokes never get old, it seems. This two disc affair has the film on disc one and a few extras on disc two: You may be forgiven for skipping Sean Astin's short film The Long and the Short of It (and The Making of The Long and the Short of It, really!), but fans will die for the 10 minutes of footage from Return of the King, coming this winter. Still, you'll have to wait for November 18, when the extended version of Towers hits DVD, upping the running time of the film to over 3 1/2 hours. Yoiks!
Extended Edition Update: As expected, another 43 minutes of footage are woven into the Towers extended edition -- and some of it is very valuable in enhancing the story, some of it is frivolous and even detrimental (do we really need a scene of Sam displaying his little salt box and pining for roast chicken?). Some of the more interesting additions are more backstory at the throne of Rohan, more Gollum, more of Pippin and Merry getting into trouble in the forest, Eowyn singing at her brother's funeral, an expanded Eowyn-Aragorn love story (he's 87 years old!), a Boromir flashback, and an extended ending that clears up a number of nagging questions. (Oddly, I also think the voice of Treebeard has been re-recorded to be more understandable, though I'm not sure on that one.) The new cuts don't quite mesh with the theatrical version as well as they did in Fellowship, but they work well enough. Four commentary tracks are available, and two extra discs add all the making-of-Gollum material you could ask for, and a zillion other documentaries, focusing on the intricate Helm's Deep battle scene. Ultimately it's not quite as good of a set as Fellowship's extended edition DVD set, but it is a strong addition to any home video library.
*Limited Edition Update* Another year, another version of LOTR on DVD, right? This one puts both the theatrical and extended versions of the films on one two-sided DVD, plus adds a second disc with the special features and extras. Super-fans will want to check out the additional extras (and the handsome packaging, which features a see-through case), but casual viewers will probably be happy with the previous extended edition of the films.
Frodo serves it up.
Run time: 179 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 18th December 2002
Box Office USA: $340.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $926.3M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 234 Rotten: 11
IMDB: 8.8 / 10
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, John Rhys-Davies as Gimli / Voice of Treebeard, Christopher Lee as Saruman, Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee, Billy Boyd as Peregrin 'Pippin' Took, Dominic Monaghan as Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Craig Parker as Haldir, Bernard Hill as Théoden, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Brad Dourif as Gríma Wormtongue, Miranda Otto as Éowyn, David Wenham as Faramir, Karl Urban as Éomer, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Olivia Tennet as Freda, Sean Bean as Boromir, Jed Brophy as Sharku / Snaga, Calum Gittins as Halteh