Let no one say that Peter Jackson's stunning achievement with his first installment of Lord of the Rings was a fluke. The Fellowship of the Ring was incredible and lauded by critics the world over. The next chapter, The Two Towers, more than meets expectations. There is a very simple reason for this, and I hope it's one Hollywood takes a hard look at for future franchises. The Two Towers is not a sequel, but a continuation.
When I say "continuation," I mean, simply, that it was not filmed in traditional tinseltown style; that is, let's see if the first one makes money, and then we'll decide if we can squeeze the public with more of the same. Instead, as has been widely reported, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed simultaneously. It was envisioned as a whole, executed out as a whole, and then separated into three feature length portions for distribution. Certainly this was expensive, upwards of $300 million, and you need to be fairly certain that your first outting will be a hit, but if the filmmakers have confidence and a little foresight, the end product can be lightyears ahead of the competition.
The Two Towers begins where Fellowship left off. Frodo and Sam are off to the nightmarish realm of Mordor to dispose of the Ring in the molten rivers that erupt from Mount Doom. Aragorn and his two companions, the Dwarf Gimli, and the Elf Legolas, are hot on the pursuit of the evil Orcs that have kidnapped their other two hobbit friends, Merry and Pippin. And Gandalf? The last we saw of poor Gandalf he was plummeting after the terrible fire demon, the Balrog, down into the endless depths of the caverns of Moria; falling to certain death. Certain, that is, unless you've seen the previews or the posters for The Two Towers. I won't detail his adventure here, because it opens the film, and is truly amazing to watch.
It's hard to make the distinction of whether Towers is better or worse than Fellowship in much the same way it's hard to seperately critique different sections of a favorite book. Not only are they dependant upon one another, but, in the mind, they come together to make a glorious whole. I can say this, however. The ending of Towers is not near so abrupt as was the ending of Fellowship, and feels more like a cliffhanger. On the other hand, the rich character development of Fellowship is missing, to an extent, in Towers, mostly because the characters remain in three seperate groups the whole time. That, and most of the development was taken care of at the beginning of the story. There is more action, more monsters, more battles, and more scares. The crowning achievement of the film is the Battle of Helm's Deep, where tens of thousands of Orcs take on a desperate force of humans a fraction of their size. Due to an amazing computer program called Massive, developed by the filmmakers, Jackson and crew are able to digitally create an army that will behave somewhat independantly, based on certain parameters. In many ways, the armies were created in the computer, and then given leave to follow their own aggresions, all captured on film by the director. It's a whole new capability that will, I'm certain, give rise to many more historical epic films.
My only real complaint about this film is the lack of exposure some of the characters get. Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving, all high ranking Elves, have about five minutes of screen time, combined. It's unavoidable, I know, due to the constraints of Tolkein's story, but they are missed nonetheless. Two new characters, however, get abundant screen time and the film is richer for their presence. One, the frighteningly twisted and pathetic creature Gollum, is a fascinating achievement in the mixture of live action and computer graphics. Though he is obviously computer generated, you quickly forget to make the distinction. His interaction with the live characters, and his wholly natural looking movement makes Jar Jar Binks look like Roger Rabbit. Also computer generated but wholly enjoyable is the character of Treebeard. What seems to be a walking Elm tree, is, in actuality, an Ennt, a tree-herder, one of an ancient race of protectors of the forest. Treebeard, voiced by John Rhys-Davies who plays Gimli, is delightful, and just a little scary.
The Two Towers is a superb film, both epic and intimate, touching and terrifying. It and it's predecessor set the bar high for franchises to come; a standard I hope can be achieved. Next up is Return of the King, due out next Christmas. If the first two films are any indication, I feel we have nothing to fear and everything to hope for. Grade: A+
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is rated PG-13 for scary scenes and intense violence.
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