Didn't We Just See The Ring?
Last year, director Peter Jackson pulled off a wizardly feat in bringing the first section of J.R.R. Tolkien's massive and much-loved Lord of the Rings opus to the big screen in a fashion that satisfied both Tolkien devotees and those who wouldn't know a longbow from their elbow. For his next trick, Jackson attempts to pull off a cinematic version of The Two Towers, a complicated chunk of narrative that makes the epic sprawl of The Fellowship of the Ring seem tidy and linear. The group of characters the first film spent almost half its length assembling scatters, forging their own separate story lines (as many as six at a time) as they crisscross Tolkien's mythical Middle-earth. Two Towers finally unveils the actor-generated/CGI-rendered character of Gollum (Andy Serkis), who must not in any way resemble Jar-Jar Binks if this movie and the next are going to work. And on top of that, Jackson must introduce several completely new groups of characters (including the walking, talking old-growth forests known as ents and the Vikings-on-horseback Riders of Rohan), cram in yet more exposition, and top the last film's action/adventure quotient while keeping all the previous narrative and thematic plates spinning.
If Jackson was daunted, he doesn't show it, literally plunging the viewer right back into the action in a manner too ballsy and lapel-grabbing to reveal here. Throughout the film's nearly three-hour running time, he does his considerable best to keep these fantasy characters in the realm of the human (even the elves and dwarves) while simultaneously filling in his outsized canvas with what must be a megajigglehoozagoogabyte's worth of computer-generated castles and creatures. But ultimately, the scale overwhelms him. The Two Towers serves as a fine, in-keeping continuation of his overall Rings trilogy (which, in fairness, may have to be taken in its entirety to fully appreciate), but as a stand-alone film it shows distinct signs of strain--high on spectacle but low on story satisfaction.
What works here works wonderfully. Jackson and company's visual rendering of Tolkien's world continues to dazzle, with Gollum proving the most crucial special effect of all. Unlike most computer-animated characters, the One Ring's former owner works better up close. Capering around the wastelands en route to the evil land of Mordor, Gollum comes off as clunkily fake as any old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion model. But when alternately threatening and sniveling before ring-bearing hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), tendrils of lank hair falling by his bulging limpid eyes, he's uncannily convincing (and looks uncannily like Willem Dafoe). The fact that Gollum can share the screen with his hobbit counterparts without provoking snickers helps immeasurably, as the film spends a lot of quality time tramping through the wilds with the trio as Sam haplessly watches Frodo become more and more consumed by the ring (the first film's leitmotif of addiction in full force) while trying to cope with their untrustworthy companion.
The first film's slightly pumped-up romance between immortal elvish looker Arwen (Liv Tyler) and scruffalicious noble-in-exile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) may have put off purists, but it pays off in Two Towers--sort of. In the middle of all the derring-do, Jackson injects a love-triangle interlude, sparked off by the introduction of horsy princess/ur-feminist Éowyn (the wonderful Antipodean actress Miranda Otto). For a few lip-smacking, eye-locking minutes, things actually start to smolder a little. Ultimately, however, the whole affair is too foreshortened ("Hi, nice to meet you--I love you.") to generate much drama.
There's a lot of that going on. With so much to cram into three hours full of ping-ponging subplots, new characters such as King Théoden of Rohan (Titanic's Bernard Hill) barely get a chance to stake a claim on the viewer's attention, while established characters lapse into gesture (Orlando Bloom's Legolas the elf flares his nostrils a lot) and caricature (John Rhys-Davies' Gimili the dwarf devolves into comic relief). The script can only do so much to help under the circumstances, and the characters often end up blurting out lines that sound like outtakes from a Medieval Times staff-training role-play. Mortensen seems to really struggle to find some kind of center on which to base the pivotal Aragorn, which actually works for his role and makes him one of only two characters who are more interesting than in the first film. Wood's Frodo is the other; his portrayal deepens as the story--and the series--grows more and more grim.
Not that all this grousing will matter to the faithful, or to those seduced by Jackson's canny way with a camera and with the conventions of this fantastic tale. But in truth, The Two Towers is a bit of ye olde mess, and parts of it--such as the adventures of tree-hugging hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) among the ents--are soft-headed and borderline silly in a way the first film never was. Still, it's hard to imagine any director doing a better job with this material than Jackson. It'll be interesting to see what he has up his sleeve for the finale.