“If Gollum is the soul of The Two Towers, its heart is the awesome battle at Helm’s Deep, which consumes nearly all of the film’s final hour…a breathtaking spectacle that builds slowly and ominously, adding layer upon layer of tension and gloom before exploding into an awe-inspiring pageant of bloody chaos.”
I realize I’m the only person on the planet who feels this way, but I have to confess I was not blown away by The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in director Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, it was sweeping, and monumental, and visually stunning, but I found it somewhat monotonous – and even tedious – in its pedantic commitment to its literary source. Despite wonderful performances and great special effects, it was a bloated affair hampered not only by a frustratingly linear story, which saw the group trudging dutifully into one dangerous scenario after another, but also by a lack of drama; there was little, if any, doubt that our heroes would make it through their innumerable skirmishes unscathed.
Happily, The Two Towers improves upon its predecessor in every regard, with even greater performances, better special effects, and a much more engaging plot. The increasingly dark action weaves thrillingly between a trio of taught storylines that follow the now-splintered fellowship as they continue on their quest to save Middle-earth. On one end of the Tolkien universe, future king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the Elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) help the besieged kingdom of Rohan prepare for an eminent attack by a vast army of barbaric Uruk-hai. They’re aided in their endeavors by Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who, after plummeting to his death at the end of the last film, has been reborn and is now even more powerful than before. Elsewhere, Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monahan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), escape from their captors and flee into a mysterious forest, where they find an unexpected ally in Treebeard, a lumbering, talking tree.
Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his curiously devoted pal Sam (Sean Astin) make their way to Mordor to destroy the powerful ring responsible for the escalation in evil. The two are led by the spindly, goggle-eyed Gollum, the ring’s former possessor, who was seen briefly in Fellowship. A marvel of CGI wizardry, Gollum is the polar opposite of the Jar Jar Binkses of the cinematic world; those ill-fated computer-animated characters who only served to detract from the matters at hand. Remarkably lifelike and unquestionably affecting (not to mention utterly indispensable), he’s the true star of the The Two Towers. Conflicted by his desire to retrieve the ring for himself even as he wishes to faithfully serve Frodo, Gollum easily steals the limelight from that equally glassy-eyed Hobbit, who this time around is all but reduced to secondary character status.
If Gollum is the soul of The Two Towers, its heart is the awesome battle at Helm’s Deep, which consumes nearly all of the film’s final hour. Unlike the first film’s repetitive, one-note fight sequences, this one is a breathtaking spectacle that builds slowly and ominously, adding layer upon layer of tension and gloom before exploding into an awe-inspiring pageant of bloody chaos. And this time, the outcome is never quite as certain.
Therein lies an important distinction. Fellowship often felt less like a movie than a grueling theme-park ride, with its misty-eyed magic and “wait-til-you-see-what-I-can-do-next” showmanship substituting for actual dramatic conflict. The Two Towers offers more than its share of enchanting moments, including a spine-tingling summit of ancient Tree shepherds and the aforementioned battle, but they’re grounded somehow in a way that emphasizes their significance to the matters at hand. It’s as if Jackson, having clearly established his talent for flashy displays of filmmaking prowess, has relaxed enough to let the story do the dazzling for him.
Michael Rucker writes about film for In Touch and HX magazines, and is a regular contributor to Gay City News.