Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Grade : A+ Year : 2002 Director : Peter Jackson Running Time : 2hr 59min Genre : ,
Movie review score

Originally Written: December 2002

Whether in the words of author J.R.R. Tolkien or the vision of co-writer/director Peter Jackson, the world of The Lord of the Rings is a world to get lost in. Like the galaxy far, far away of “Star Wars”- for many, ground zero for their love of film- Middle Earth is enriched with so much imagination and inventiveness, one could re-visit dozens of times and still not see it all.

In print, I’ve visited Tolkien’s world not even once- as you read this, I’m commencing through the third book of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, for the first time in anticipation of next December’s final chapter of the on-screen trilogy. (For good measure, I’ve also begun reading The Hobbit– Tolkien’s prequel to Rings, I’m so in love with the world.) But from my first viewing over a year ago, the first film, “The Fellowship of the Ring”- seen six more times in theatres, and about that amount on DVD- immersed me in the world of fun-loving hobbits, powerful wizards, divided men, dangerous orcs, and ethereal elves. As I already have, I look forward to many more journeys to Middle Earth by way of Jackson’s film, accompanying Frodo and the Fellowship on their quest to destroy the One Ring of Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom. So many scenes and moments engrave themselves in my memory: Frodo and Gandalf’s fond reunion at the film’s outset; Arwen’s ride through the Ford to protect Frodo from the Ringwraiths; Frodo and Bilbo’s reunion in Rivendell; Gandalf’s thunderous exclamation of “You…Shall Not…Pass!” to the fiery Balrog; Frodo’s world-weary expression after Gandalf falls into darkness in Moria; Merry and Pippen’s baiting of the Uruk-Hai to protect Frodo as the Fellowship breaks; Sam’s devotion to Frodo to continue onto Mordor as Frodo finds the strength to break off from the Fellowship; and Aragorn fighting- and defeating- an Uruk-Hai with the passion of a king realizing his time to take command has come. And this doesn’t even include moments reinstated in the “Special Extended DVD Edition” of “Fellowship” released November 12. The version- with 30 minutes of unreleased footage- includes little moments- and key scenes- that appear in the book, and are pivotal to the remainder of the trilogy. Frodo and Sam witnessing the elves leave Middle Earth as they leave the Shire; Bilbo telling us of hobbits in the writing of his memoirs, Here and Back Again; ring-manipulated Boromir comforting Frodo after the fall of Gandalf; Sam trying to compose a lyric about Gandalf’s fireworks for the elves’s lament in Lothlorien; Galadriel’s gift-giving to the Fellowship as they leave Lothlorien, and Gimli the dwarf falling in love with the fair elf. Simple grace notes (enhanced with fresh, beautiful music by Howard Shore) added to a grand, great epic symphony of Good vs. Evil composed by an English master of language, re-orchestrated by a visual master from New Zealand, and now beloved by millions of fans the world over, myself being one of them.

Would “The Two Towers” deliver its own memories? Could it?

For sheer anticipation, I don’t think there’s been a film like “The Two Towers”- which opened December 18- since “Episode I” of “Star Wars” (my theatre sold out 3 midnight shows, every time for Wednesday by 12:30pm, and all the evening shows on Thursday). “Episode I” was a crushing disappointment for many a fan. And I’ll be perfectly frank- early reviews of the film were a bit disheartening. I was worried that Jackson- after brilliantly getting to the core of “Fellowship”- had lost his way, to say nothing about his mind. You see, I placed myself in a different position this summer than I was in with “Fellowship.” This time, I’d read the book pre-film (and watched the God-awful Ralph Bakshi animated film, but I’ll rip that a new one via commentary), so I knew what to expect, and knew what was going to happen or what wasn’t going to happen. I also knew this- as has been mentioned, “The Two Towers” is a classic middle section, with no real beginning or ending. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have any, either. Like “Fellowship,” a chance existed for a real cliffhanger ending that would leave audiences craving the next chapter- “Return of the King”- as they craved “Towers,” but would leave audiences emotionally satisfied as well. From the early word- it wasn’t promising. The changes sounded too severe, some of the storylines sounded too truncated, and the overall impression from these first reviews was that Jackson put more emphasis on a blow-out battle scene (more on that later), and figured he’d just assist the other story strains in a Special Extended DVD Edition a la “Fellowship” (which has already been confirmed by the director).

Never doubt what Peter Jackson- as co-writer/director/producer- is doing with this trilogy. Never. This is a work of passionate merit for the New Zealand filmmaker. Most directors spend their careers getting a project this massive and personal to the screen (see Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” which debuted two days after “Towers”), and a lot of the time, they just can’t hold up to the director’s best films. With Jackson, as gifted a filmmaker as he is, it’s unlikely he’ll ever make a film this significant to the art form, and like George Lucas with the “Star Wars” saga, and Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane,” he’ll always be linked with the “Rings” trilogy, whether he wants to be or not.

If he keeps this streak up, he’ll want to. With “The Two Towers,” Jackson has created a sequel to take place with “The Godfather Part II” and “The Empire Strikes Back” as one of the all-time greats. Tolkien is given some new twists in this chapter- more human-elf swooning between mortal Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) to flesh out the doomed romance via Aragorn’s flashback; more of Galadriel’s (Cate Blanchett) cryptic voiceover of the changes of Middle Earth; an action sequence during the exodus of the Rohan out of Edoras between the King’s men and Fellowship members and Saruman’s Uruk-Hai (riding devilishly wicked wolf-creatures of their own); and some kinks in Frodo and Sam’s dealings with Faramir (David Wenhem), the brother of the Fellowship’s fallen Boromir- of the film trilogy, but it’s still remarkably spot-on in terms of the spirit and power of Tolkien’s text. If you liked or loved “The Fellowship of the Ring,” you’ll love “The Two Towers.” If you were pissed about Jackson’s alterations to the story in “Fellowship,” don’t even bother with “Towers,” and check video stores for the convoluted, truncated, and poorly-animated 1978 Ralph Bakshi version, watch it once to see how “well” Tolkien did the first time around, and see me in the morning. Then see Jackson’s films again. Jackson’s a filmmaker with imagination and vision to spare, and word-for-word faithful or not, he “gets” Tolkien, and the soul of his story. That’s something missing in Bakshi.

So what was up with the Fellowship when last we saw them? Oh yeah, Gandalf the Grey (the great Sir Ian McKellen) had fallen into darkness with the mighty Balrog (the grabber of an opening revisits and expands on their battle); Boromir of Gondor (Sean Bean) had died in an attempt to protect Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippen (Billy Boyd) from a vicious hoard of Uruk-Hai (an orc/goblin creation by the treacherous wizard Saruman the White (the exemplary Christopher Lee)), whom snatched the Hobbits away at the end, forcing Aragorn, Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) to set out after the hoard to rescue Merry and Pippen. Meanwhile, Ring-bearing Hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his gardener/best friend Samwise (Sean Astin) set out to Mordor and Mount Doom alone to destroy the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron.

Not for long. Sam and Frodo are not-long-after joined by the mischievous creature Gollum, the former owner of the Ring of Power- and current coveter- who agrees to lead them to the gates of Mordor. In the meantime, Merry and Pippen escape from the Uruk-Hai, and are taken in by Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies), a tree-looking fellow called an Ent who’s the oldest resident of Middle Earth. As for Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, they are reunited with Gandalf- now known as Gandalf the White- who leads them through the plains of Rohan to the capital of Edoras, where the King of Rohan Theoden (Bernard Hill) is being poisoned in the mind by the devilry of Saruman and words of Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) as his nephew Eomer (Karl Urban) and niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) are forced to stand by and watch the carnage taking place in their homeland as a result of Saruman’s growing Uruk-army. War is upon Middle Earth.

So that’s the setup- is it any good? You bet. One of the problems with taking “Towers”- and “Return of the King,” for that matter- to the screen is the fact that Tolkien tells the separate stories (that of Frodo and Sam, and that of the rest of the Fellowship) separately, first starting out with the remaining Fellowship, then backtracking to Frodo and Sam’s story. Forget “Fellowship”- from an editing/storytelling standpoint, “Towers” is the more staggering achievement for Jackson and his editor (D. Michael Horton taking over for Fellowship” editor John Gilbert). The effect of cross-cutting the stories isn’t seemless (cutting from Helm’s Deep in the heat of battle isn’t easily done), but it’s certainly nothing to speak ill about either. People unfamiliar with the novel will undoubtedly complain that some of the story threads (like the Hobbits and Treebeard) could have gone on the cutting-room floor. Those familiar with the book will know better. The previously-mentioned liberties aside, Jackson is following Tolkien to a tree, er, “T,” and infusing the story with his own wild imagination, and the imaginations of his creative staff at WETA Workshop and beyond (continuing to do staggering work as the story grows in scope).

That creative staff deserves special Oscar consideration this year after winning an Oscar for “Fellowship” last year. Start with Gollum, perhaps the most sophisticated f/x character to date. Forget Jar Jar Binks- this is the real deal in CG-imagination. Here’s how they did it. They put actor Andy Serkis- who provides the slithering, shriveling voice of Gollum- in a body suit on the set, and a motion-sensor suit in the studio, the latter of which allowed the animators at WETA Digital to mimic Serkis’s distinctive movements in Gollum’s character animation. As Jackson said on the first “Fellowship” DVD, it’s the most actor-driven digital character in the movies. The effect is exhilarating. So is Serkis’s acting. In Jackson’s vision, Gollum is the most tragic figure in the “Rings” trilogy- poisoned by the Ring (he was once a man not unlike hobbits called Smeagol), and yet he can’t rid himself of it. That duality of character comes through beautifully in a couple of masterful scenes, including the brilliant ending that looks towards the doom that awaits Frodo and Sam in “Return of the King.” Don’t be surprised if you see Gollum at the Oscars come 2003. If there’s any justice, he will be.

On the fx front, move on to MASSIVE. That’s the innovative CG program that allows for every digital character to have their own “brain,” enabling them to interact and fight in any way they wish in large battle scenes, such as Helm’s Deep. In Tolkien’s words, Helm’s Deep- a major siege on the Rohan people on the part of tens of thousands of Uruk-Hai- is perhaps Towers‘s most riveting chapter, one I couldn’t put down when I was reading it this summer on the way home from our vacation/tour of family. In Jackson’s film, that feeling is equally palpable (you just hate to cut away to the Ents or Frodo and Sam). This is one of the most remarkable scenes of battle to be committed to film, a grand epic battle that retains the emotional pull of the book 10-fold. I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like this since the silent era, when D.W. Griffith staged the fall of Babylon in this epic 1916 masterwork “Intolerance” minus any of today’s most elaborate visual toys. That’s 86 years of epic filmmaking finally reaching a new pinnacle of scope (Andrew Lesnie’s camera does things- and finds angles- I never thought possible before). Helm’s Deep makes D-Day in “Saving Private Ryan” look like a day at the beach, the Battle of Stirling in “Braveheart” look like a countryside picnic, and the Clone War in “Episode II” look like the vibrant re-imagining of Vietnam War footage (which Lucas- from that era- is no doubt familiar with) it already was. Does it negate the impact of those sometimes shell-shocking sequences? No, but it does set the bar higher for the next evolution in cinematic combat. Ditto the March on Isengard by the Ents (whom btw look better than they were given credit for in early reviews), probably one of the most inspiring and inspired sequences in modern film history- nature fighting back against the crippling effect of industry.

From digital wizardry, we move to musical wizardry. What Howard Shore is doing in his scores for the “Rings” is extraordinary. His Oscar-winning score for “Fellowship of the Ring” is an instant classic. With “The Two Towers,” he expands beautifully on the groundwork laid with that masterpiece. His theme for the Rohan (best heard on “The Riders of Rohan” on the soundtrack) is a heroic and melancholy musical portrait of a land under siege. His music for Gandalf the White and his horse Shadowfax (“The White Rider”) has the epic sweep of an otherworldly character returning to the fold, prepared to help an embattled people. The scenes of Arwen and Aragorn are scored in a way that’s spellbinding and powerful (“Evenstar”) as they are pulled apart by fate and responsibility. The gangbusters of an opening- expanding on Gandalf’s battle of the Balrog- reprises the epic music of the battle in “Fellowship” while setting up the darker nature of the story (“Foundations of Stone”). The music of the Fangorn Forest and the Ents (“Treebeard”) is full of surprises and intrigue, even if it’s not the route I would have gone musically (I would have approached them with more classic nobility). And the music following Frodo and Sam’s journey with Gollum (particularly “The Passage of the Marshes”- one of “Towers’s” most striking sequences, “Samwise the Brave” and “The Black Gate is Closed”) is the sort of dark, stunning music Shore’s been known for his entire career (which includes “Silence of the Lambs,” “Se7en,” this year’s excellent “Panic Room” score, and every David Cronenberg film). And forget the Bridge of Khazad Dum in “Fellowship”- Shore’s music for Helm’s Deep, Isengard, and encounters with the Uruks thrill in ways his music for “Fellowship’s” action sequences seems to just hint at. Along the way, themes for the Hobbits, Fellowship, the Uruk-Hai, and Morodor continue to exert a powerful hold. In terms of scores for sequels, “The Two Towers” can’t supplant “The Empire Strikes Back”- quite simply, one of the five greatest scores I’ve ever heard- at the top of the list, but it’s a far cry from the devastating repetition of “Attack of the Clones” earlier this year. I can say this, though- “Towers” makes clear the stylistic reasoning for Enya’s haunting End Credits song in “Fellowship” (“May It Be”) transcending the usual pop ballad cliches. With the “Rings” trilogy, Shore and Jackson are reviving the concept of the Classical “Art” Song, which relies not upon synthesizers and canned drum beats, but on traditional classical orchestrations and vocal practices. Case in point, the slyly sinuous “Gollum’s Song,” the End Credits song for “Two Towers.” I won’t comment on the performance by vocalist Emiliana Torrini except to say she sounds like Bjork, but the fact of the matter is one could give the vocal line to say a violin, cello, or perhaps a soprano saxophone (in homage to Johan de Meji’s brilliant symphonic movement devoted to the mischievous Ring-coveter), and the song would lose nothing. Try doing that with “Oops! I Did It Again” or “The Real Slim Shady”- not something you would want your ears hearing, is it? But it’s not just “May It Be” and “Gollum’s Song”- other songs throughout the first “Rings” scores- Enya’s “Aniron (Theme for Aragorn and Arwen)” from “Fellowship,” Isabel Bayrakdarian’s haunting “Evenstar” (a poetic work to set a tragic love story between a mortal man and an immortal elf to) and Sheila Chandra’s “Breath of Life” from “Towers”- carry that same artistic weight and ability for rich re-orchestrations. For my part, I can’t wait to see what Shore has in store for us with the “Return of the King.” What we’re hearing in “Rings” is a composer at the peak of their powers, creating a moving and unforgettable symphony for the ages. If I’ve neglected to mention the performances for most of the actors, it’s because there’s not a whole lot I can think to say. All the returning actors- Wood, McKellen, Lee, Mortensen, Astin- continue to shine and move, while the new additions- Hill as Theoden, Otto as Eowyn, Dourif as Wormtongue- etch lasting characterizations that stay true to the spirit- either for good or evil- of the book. And if I’ve failed to mention the cinematography by Andrew Lesnie- an Oscar-winner for “Fellowship”- it’s only because “Towers” lacks the lush color and look of the first movie. So goes the story, so goes Lesnie’s cinematography, and “The Two Towers” is a darker, harsher vision than “Fellowship.” The flashbacks to Rivendell are of a city whose time has ended as a place of beauty in Middle Earth; the images of Isengard find the once-splendid land overrun by industry; and the Golden Hall of Edoras is shot- at least at first- like the abandoned throne of a king no longer in control. Meanwhile, both the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the March on Isengard are shot with the brooding glow of epic battles captured by filmmakers on location as the great War of the Ring begins. Jackson’s vision is inspired and inspiring, and come next year will represent a landmark in film history- a groundbreaking, imaginative, and thrilling epic trilogy of good and evil that surpasses other blockbusters in scope, without losing the heart and soul of the story.

So, did “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” create its own memories for me to remember over the years, and relive on DVD? It did. Off the top of my head, they include Gandalf’s vanquishing of the Balrog; the Ring’s increasing hold on Frodo; the spellbinding vision of Arwen and Aragorn’s future; the suspense at the Black Gates of Mordor; the haunting passage through the Dead Marshes; the intriguing psychological battles between Gollum and Smeagol; Samwise the Brave’s inspiring and moving rationale for continuing on; the heroic stand of the Rohan and Elves at Helm’s Deep; and the Ents cleansing of the evil at Isengard.

It’s a funny little conundrum- with “Star Wars”- the series I’ve loved since I was young- I’m waiting for it to end. With “Lord of the Rings”- the series I’ve just begun to embrace- I’m wanting it to continue. Curious, isn’t it? It’s also a sign that we’re in the middle of something special in the war for Middle Earth.

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