Lord of the Rings is a movie franchise that (perhaps even more so than the equally hyped Harry Potter dynasty) you’re either interested in or you’re not. Luckily for writer-director Peter Jackson and the bank of New Line Cinema, there are more in the first category than the second. Fellowship of the Ring has grossed nearly $1 billion, and has already had three DVD releases (regular edition, special edition and superkommandantüberwordofgod edition), all of which have sold extremely well. There’s not much to be said that’s going to convince somebody who doesn’t give two hobbits about Middle Earth that Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (the second installment of the trilogy that cost more than the GNP of several small countries) is good or bad. It is neither. It’s brilliant.
My credentials, for the fanboys: I saw Fellowship once in the theater and twice more on DVD, and initially felt quite lukewarm about it. It’s a better film upon repeated viewing (there’s much to be said for checking out the extended version on disc), and allowances must be made for the fact that it’s a first-of-three film. There’s a great burden on Fellowship to lay groundwork for the uninitiated, groundwork that must be engaging enough to keep non-fanboys’ interest for three hours. As such, Fellowship lags a bit at times, and because it leads into The Two Towers, the ending is terribly anticlimactic, even though it’s by necessity.
There are no such problems with The Two Towers. This is balls-to-the-walls blockbuster entertainment in its purest form: action, action, action, set design, special effects, characterization, action, action, action. But what elevates Towers leagues above Fellowship is something that the former could not help and the latter has built-in. Because the two episodes were essentially shot back-to-back over the period of a year, the extra-film elements of actor confidence and directorial comfort are the X-factor that creates what is doubtless a masterpiece. It’s hard to mess up when sticking close to Tolkien’s magical prose and his careful attention to detail and fun, but the thing that’s most obvious about Towers is that it feels different. It feels stronger. And more importantly, it doesn’t feel longer. From opening credits to close is the blink of an eye. The movie could go on for another three hours and never lose pace.
But more than anything else, Jackson seems so sure of himself with every slam-cut of the evil army waging war on the fading race of men, so certain of what he’s doing with each tender moment between his principals, weaving emotion as fragile as a teardrop on the edge of a knife. The effect of consecutive months of production immediately followed by another set allows Jackson to take his work to another level in every aspect, aided and abetted by the palpably growing chemistry between his actors. There’s a glow of familiarity shot like blood through veins between elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gondor heir Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), warm humor in all that bristly dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) says and does. Where Fellowship was full of tentative alliances, Tower is one cohesive unit. Lord of the Rings is nothing if not an irrefutable argument for how to properly shoot movies and their sequels.
The story, in brief (never fear, there’s a flashback crash-course sequence at the film’s start for those who never saw Fellowship or blocked it out of their memories): Towers operates on three separate stages, juggling each story and set of characters with unerring poise and precision. Ringbearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) spend their third of the movie wending their way toward the imposing gates of Mordor. On what seems like the other side of the world, Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli journey toward Isingard to rescue Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who have a story of their own set in what is nothing less than an astounding page-to-screen realization of Fangorn Forest, the home of giant walking, talking trees.
But none of this is proper preparation for the third stage in which the true star of The Two Towers is revealed. Seen only briefly and even then swaddled in shadow in Fellowship of the Ring, former ringmaster Gollum, that pitiful creature who lay quiet inside the Lonely Mountain, moaning and cackling and gibbering for half a century until Bilbo Baggins came along and robbed him of his precious, has a much more prominent role in Towers.
One of the most indelible characters in not just the Tolkien oeuvre but literature at large, with his slithering hisses longing for “my precious” (no doubt the serial killer of Silence of the Lambs is an homage to Gollum), the screen Gollum is computer-generated. But he seems more real than half the film’s flesh-and-blood actors, which is a pretty neat trick considering how excellent the rest of the cast is. Voiced by Andy Serkis, Gollum looks uncannily like a creepy fetus on the side of a pro-life-mobile. He talks to himself; he screams; he struggles. Best of all, though, Gollum affects. By all rights, he should be repulsive. Instead, he’s utterly heart-wrenching in his sadness and torment.
Aragorn doesn’t cross paths with Gollum, but early in the film he remarks with a grave firmness that “there is always hope.” The wallop packed by Gollum is surprising; the fact that I found myself wishing that Aragorn were talking about the ugly dark-dweller is even more so.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a pitch-perfect second act, full of dark wonder and the slow, pounding pulse of Aragorn’s unflagging hope. This is not the beginning of a journey. This is not an opening volley. This is all-out war. And in this battle of filmmakers, fantasy purists and unindoctrinated consumers, everybody wins.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.