The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Busing to work one morning last January, I counted four commuters with their noses buried in copies of a book first published in 1954. J. R. R. Tolkien's perpetually popular epic The Lord of the Rings is more beloved than ever, thanks to director Peter Jackson's shock-inducing 2001 film The Fellowship of the Ring. Exhilarated by Fellowship's cliffhanger ending, newcomers and old fans alike rushed to the books for resolution.
As they line up for The Two Towers, some people may have an inkling that there is more to this mayhem than meets the eye. Tolkien the Mythmaker knew that stories rooted in truth will endure. In Middle Earth, a world stripped down to essentials — earth, fire, water, wood, metal, flesh, spirit — we see our own dying world mirrored and clarified. Further, we see reflections of God's grace, Christ's sacrifice, and the hope of resurrection. Such elemental plotting speaks to our longings, evoking both sorrow and joy.
Towers opens with a cliffhanger (literally), and when a hero falls, an adrenaline rush begins that never lets up. "It's getting heavier," Frodo says of the ring. As the temperature rises, fires of spiritual conflict that ignited in Fellowship eventually explode into war.
Journeying to destroy a weapon of mass destruction — the Ring of Power — our dysfunctional fellowship of heroes has scattered in desperate quests.
Hobbits Merry and Pippin, abducted by orcs, are pursued by three companions: Gimli the untossable dwarf, Legolas the elf, and Aragorn, reluctant heir to the kingdom of men. But these would-be rescuers are soon diverted to a different task: King Theoden needs help in saving his people before Saruman's orcs lay waste to his kingdom. Their victory depends upon Frodo the ring-bearer who, with Samwise at his side, wearily trudges across blasted Mordor miles.
The ring draws villains from all directions. Gollum creeps up behind, winged devils patrol the skies, and Sauron's watchful Eye never blinks. Dire straits indeed. If this were a video game, you'd just hit Start Over.
Filling Out Gollum
But for all its digital wizardry, this is no game. Towers falls just short of Fellowship as the finest film of its genre. The scenery alone justifies the high price of your ticket. Designers Alan Lee and John Howe continue to dazzle us with convincing creatures, castles, and environments. Battle scenes unsurpassed in scale and intensity inspire awe. The performances—most notably those of Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen — are as intense as in the first film. Actor Andy Serkis collaborates with animators, bringing vivid life to the vicious, hissing Gollum.
The film occasionally stumbles. Towers clearly posed a formidable challenge to its screenwriters. Fellowship followed a motley crew through trial and tribulation; Towers tracks three sets of characters—four, if you count Saruman's behind-the-scenes meddling. Some stories gallop, others only amble. Thus, Towers feels rushed and fragmented, channel-surfing from plot to plot.
Jackson complicates matters. In Fellowship, he wisely pruned branches of plot to emphasize the ring-bearer's quest, shoehorning enough story for a six-hour film into three. This time he replaces important episodes with unnecessary tangents. We lose our intimacy with major characters: Gandalf is too busy to chat, Merry and Pippin get stranded too long on Treebeard's shoulders, and Gimli is reduced to punchlines (fortunately, he's hilarious).