Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Parker
Directed by Peter Jackson
Expectations: High. I love this.
While Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent opening to the trilogy, The Two Towers has my vote for the best of the bunch. It’s fun to see the Fellowship come together and venture through snowy mountains and deep, dark mines, but once they split and begin their own adventures, the real journey begins. The hopefulness of newfound friends was only a respite from the coming storm of war and villainy, and here in The Two Towers Peter Jackson fully unleashes that force upon viewers. As clichéd as it sounds, this makes The Two Towers the “dark middle” of the trilogy, but eh, what’s a good trilogy if it doesn’t have a dark middle chapter? We have to despair before we can triumph.
I lamented a bit in my review of Fellowship of the Ring that no one had continued the charge with the fantasy film genre, but honestly, after re-watching The Two Towers, I think it’s because no one is confident enough to try to top what Jackson accomplished here. Similar to how I think Jackson is reluctant to return to the splatter genre after Dead Alive — it’s better to drop the mic and walk away than to continue pureeing the dead horse with the lawnmower (so to speak). Imagine you’re a director trying to mount a fantasy epic. Jackson was going up against years of fairly lackluster high fantasy filmmaking, but anyone trying now is going up directly against Jackson. Hell, even uber fanboy Guillermo del Toro couldn’t get The Hobbit going, the studios only resolved their legal issues with the rights when Jackson relented and agreed to make the films.
What allows The Two Towers to be a better film than Fellowship of the Ring is that it’s got all the major setup out of the way. Our heroes are already on the road and mid-adventure, so the film can hit the ground running. What’s also surprising, though, is that The Two Towers also does a huge amount of setup. Many new characters are introduced, and in the hands of someone else I could easily be writing about how these new characters detract and take the focus away from Frodo and the rest of the fellowship. Jackson’s work here is especially impressive, as the new characters are just as intriguing and deeply woven into the fabric of the greater tale. Part of this is just Tolkien’s masterful world building, imbuing every character with hundreds of years of history, but it was up to Jackson and his team to successfully leverage this content into something manageable. The adaptation is a total success, with the sheer amount of stories, characters and locations wrangled into a fun, seamlessly moving film being quite impressive.
The two major aspects that needed to come together for The Two Towers to work as a film are the people of Rohan and Gollum. The land of Rohan feels distinctly different from anything else seen previously in Fellowship of the Ring, and the people feel much like what you’d expect a horse-centric culture to be like. This aspect is wonderfully realized through stylized horses that adorn and add flourish to everything from their rooftops to their helmets. Eowyn and Theoden are the standout new characters, with Theoden especially holding his own in this film against the main fellowship characters. I had completely forgotten how aged and decrepit he is under the influence of Saruman, so to watch the transformation with new eyes was a joy.
But the real standout of The Two Towers is Gollum. Without a believable Gollum, the entire trilogy would have crumbled into charred dust like Sauron’s finger from the prologue of Fellowship of the Ring. Andy Serkis is phenomenal, skillfully crafting distinct mannerisms for Gollum’s twisted personalities, making them distinguishable and easy to follow. I know there had been mo-cap work done prior to this, but I feel like this is where the technology was finally thrust into the spotlight as a viable, believable option for films. Gollum is an achievement of both technical and artistic mastery, and he continues to impress even now (although I will say that he looks more “CG” to me now than he did back in 2002, but this is so infinitesimal that it’s not even close to being an issue… for me, anyway… if you like to hate on great things and you think puppies are ugly than I’m sure you have a different viewpoint. ).
The Two Towers does the impossible and manages to be even better than the excellent opening film to the trilogy. This one was always my favorite of the bunch, but I look forward to re-watching Return of the King, especially because it’s the one I saw the least.