I guess the important preface is that I go into these films having never read the Lord of the Rings. When I first became aware of the books at around 12 yrs old, I figured I had enough geeky pursuits that defined my personality without adding being a Lord of the Rings fan on top if it. Call it pre-teen "geek shame". I mean, it was bad enough I could spend countless hours debating pre and post Frank Miller Daredevil comics and enjoyed painting minitures, without adding "Lord of the Rings Fan" to "Star Trek Fan" and "Doctor Who Fan" on my resume. Somehow, even though I was tempted, the years passed by and I never picked up the books. I'll get around to it someday but only after I have seen the films. Anyway, now that that is out of the way...
When we last left the Fellowship, entrusted with the mighty task of taking the evil one ring into the heart of Mordor to destroy it in the fires where it was created, noble hobbits Frodo and Sam ventured into Sauron's Mordor alone, while warriors Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas track captured hobbits Merry and Pippin, who are being taken to Sauron's servant Saruman.
Essentially Two Towers is split into three stories: Frodo and Sam traveling through Mordor, aided in the rough journey when they encounter Gollum, who is both a source of danger because of his demented, murderous desire for the ring and a source of pity because of his duality, still retaining some of the Hobbitlike creature, Smeagol, he once was, now turned into a pathetic shadow of his former self and only wanting to serve and help the two. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin barely escape Sarumon's Uruk-Hai, encounter Treebeard, and try to convince him and his race, The Ents, to attack Sarumon's lair in Isengard. And finally, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and a back from the dead Gandalf aide the kingdom of Rohan, which has been left in ruin due to Saruman's meddling, poisoning, possessing the mind of the king, and using a court insider, Wormtongue, to manipulate him. The evil forces each attack the land of men. Saruman sends a massive army to destroy Rohan, which culminates in a battle at Helms Deep. Sauron has whittled away at the kingdom of Rohan, where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, find themselves captured and conflicted on how they can continue with the responsibility of destroying the ring.
Well, the first thing that must be said, is that Two Towers reconfirms what Fellowship hinted at, the fact that Peter Jackson's (and Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Andrew Lesnie, Richard Taylor, Weta, and the rest of the dedicated crew) adaptation of Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the great achievements in Fantasy cinema. Unless there is some awesome misstep with the third film, The Return of the King, it is hard to imagine these films not ranking as an absolute crowd pleasing, imaginative, adventure classics. Like all great epics, I never felt its three hour running time was tedious, as a matter of fact, I could have done with even more.
Where Fellowship was about defining characters and creating an arc to get the story going, Two Towers is almost pure situation, pure action. Battles. Capture. Tension. A much larger scale, with more creatures, armies, and doom. More fx, less internal musing. The quiet moments are few and far between, like King Théoden mourning the loss of his son, Aragorn dreaming of Arwen, but overall the film is kept at a fever pitch of often bleak action scenes and little grim moments.
While it is exciting, Two Towers lacks the emotional intimacy of the first film. And, for this non-fan of the books, Tolkien's story when wedged into a film is still a bit unwieldy. There are bits of character depth and fantasy logic that fans of the book no doubt have sorted out but left me confused and scratching my head.
The established characters get some growth. Frodo is being sickly pressured by the ring, finding a kinship with Gollum, while Sam is fretting over both and trying to remain the grounded one. Aragorn re-embraces the kingdom of men and his role as a leader among them yet is still consumed by his love for the elf maiden Arwen. Gandalf becomes a supporting player, along with Legolas, the comic relief Gimli, and the rest. While there are new characters, Wormtongue, Éowyn, Treebeard, King Théoden, Faramir, and Eomer, they are simple, relegated to supporting parts that add spice to the story but, for this non-book fan, are a bit lacking in definition. With so much action going on (some of it seemingly unnecessary, like Aragorn's brief disappearance) and the addition of new characters almost diluting what was already a sufficiently epic cast, I didn't feel it click like the first film.
While Towers excited me with its action, the emphasis on action thrills made the film lack some emotional focus. For me, Towers lacked the emotional punch and character arc that made the Fellowship (although just a beginning) have a sense of completion. Sure, both films feature final halves that are all about adventure, diving into one dire situation into the next, but I didn't get the same sense of completion Fellowship had, the characters going through a significant metamorphosis. The final half of Towers is like one long sprint, and by the end, there is no finish line in sight. But, this is after all only the middle, so the third film should help remedy this quibble, because then we will see just what part the new characters play and how the frenetic action of Towers affects the final outcome.
There is so much to say in terms of impressive moments. But, I'll just narrow my comments to what I thought was the most entertaining part of the film- Gollum/Smeagol... Gollum is without a doubt one of the most memorable and impressive characters/tricks/fx I have ever seen. Here is an artificial creation with a jaw-dropping range of engaging emotion and depth, at once pitiful, psychotic, untrustworthy, comic, deadly, and haunted. I just could not believe it. This poor little William Hickeyish guy commands the screen. There are some rumbles of possibly attempting to get the WETA crew, who digitized him, and Andy Serkis, who stood in for him and did the voice, Oscar nods for Best Supporting Actor. That is a big puzzler. While I think they may be deserving, I have my doubts based on the audiences reaction where I saw it. While Gollum has some comic moments, perhaps because of the voice, the look, the overall strangeness, even in his dramatic moments much of the audience at my theater were laughing at him. So, just based on that, I'll assume maybe the world isn't ready to embrace a digital creation as an award-worthy performer. It is still boggles my mind that in a film featuring actors I've followed over the years, Viggo Mortensen, Brad Douriff, and Christopher Lee, the performance I found most striking is from a creation that is completely intangible.
Finally, I'll say that my favorite moment was a minor one. It was a bit that, I assume, really showed more Peter Jackson than Tolkien. When Pippin an Merry are captured by the Uruk-Hai, the goblin/orc lot begin debating why they cant eat them. The leader reminds them that Sarumon wants them alive so they cant be killed. The hobbits happiness over this is nixed when one of the orcs suggest they just eat their legs. It is a blackly comic/frightening moment that remind me of Bad Taste, PJ's first film, which I picked up blind off the "new release" rack at a little video store, and it started my love for the man as a director/writer. I've been following him ever since, and next year, once again, I'll be there opening day for the final installment of the Rings Trilogy.