by DAVID KEYES
The opportunity to see history being made on the movie
screen comes but once or twice a generation, and right here,
right now, one of those rare events is happening with Peter
Jackson's adaptation of the "Lord of the Rings"
trilogy. Last winter saw the audience on its first rich
excursion into Tolkien's Middle-Earth with "The Fellowship
of the Ring," and now comes "The Two Towers,"
the second film in the series, which picks up exactly where
its predecessor left off, diving headfirst into the material
as if not a moment has gone by since we were last stranded
in the realm of wizards, mortals, elves, dwarfs and hobbits.
Much has happened since the adventure was halted 12 months
agothe first endeavor received 13 Academy Award nominations,
grossed over half a billion dollars, and was even recently
released as an extended cut on DVDand yet the initial
experience remains fresh in the mind, enduring even when
other ambitious projects in that time frame have been completely
forgotten (the latest "Star Wars," anyone?).
Being more of a visionary than a filmmaker, though, Jackson
knew his task in "Fellowship" wasn't nearly as
much about adapting a complex story as much as it was about
sculpting plausible exteriors. A year later, his fundamental
mission finds itself being inverted; imagery and atmosphere
are already established, but the narrative is caged at the
direct center of a wide-scale conflict, lacking a true beginning
and ending and challenging several of the essential laws
of cinematic storytelling in the process. He probably saw
the questions long before the writers ever did: where does
the journey resume? Does it reference the past? Where does
it stop before abandoning the viewer for yet another year?
Since this is the bridge between an introduction and a conclusion,
Jackson realizes that "The Two Towers" is probably
the most important film of the series. But do not doubt
for a moment that he will be unable to dodge those obstacles;
this is, after all, the same man who made the best film
Surging from the vibrant heels of the first "Rings"
chronicle, "The Two Towers" takes the tradition
of Tolkien's work into a darker, creepier and more seriously
woven direction, magnifying the scope to something that
the first feature barely scratched the surface of. But it
isn't a film about continuing where other things left off,
mind you; instead, it's a strong and surprisingly self-reliant
piece, referencing its predecessor in occasional dialogue
exchanges without dwelling on it very long before we're
thrown right back into the fray. At the core, naturally,
it is crucial for the picture to carry the support of "Fellowship"
over into the final chapter of the saga, but don't assume
that the endeavor requires you to know every detail of what
went on beforehand, either. The movie not only compliments
an evolving package, it is a triumph as an independent work
Gone, furthermore, are the lush green hills of Hobbiton
and the intricate establishments of Rivendell; in place
of those colorful locations are the most swarthy, moody
and menacing little corners seen thus far in Middle-Earth,
steeped so greatly in the looming onslaught of evil that
they nearly choke the players of their basic sense of sanity.
At the opening of the film, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood)
and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) are fearfully slogging their
way though the peaks and marshes just east of the land of
Mordor, vaguely recollection on all the adventures that
severed the fellowship, resulted in the death of a comrade,
and eventually forced them to abandon protection and seek
out Mordor alone. Their journey, however, becomes further
plagued by weariness and dread when Gollum, the withered
former host of the one ring, appears out of nowhere and
literally foists his way into the hobbits' dangerous travels.
Gollum shows allegiance to the ring and its master, vowing
to safely guide the current ring-bearers closer towards
Mordor, but behind the fearful and crippled facade, he is
a troubled being at war with himself, fighting off a brewing
dark side even when the light one seems to be fading.
While their journey progresses ever so carefully towards
the gates of Middle-Earth's heart of evil, the remaining
members of the fellowshipAragorn (Viggo Mortensen),
Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies)pick
up on the trail of the other hobbits, Merry Brandybuck (Dominic
Monaghan) and Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd), who were captured
at the end of "Fellowship" by a wave of orcs and
are being taken back towards Isengard, the site of the rising
Uruk-hai army and its master Saruman the White (Christopher
Lee). What Aragorn and his partners don't realize, at least
at first, is that the missing hobbits were able to successfully
flee from their captors on the outskirts of Fenghorn Forest,
and they are now being protected by the gigantic and wise
Treebeard, the oldest living being in Middle-Earth who guards
over the woods like a guardian to all of nature.
The title "The Two Towers" refers to the alliance
made between the fortresses of Isengard and Mordor, the
two root sites of evil in Middle-Earth that strive for the
same goal: to completely eradicate the race of men so that
the pursuit of the ring is tipped greatly in favor of the
dark lord Sauron. The dramatic urgency of this conflict,
needless to say, forces the hobbits and their quests to
be played down a bit in order to make mortal men the central
focus of the plot, and as a result, we spend a good portion
of the three-hour running time observing Aragorn, Legolas
and Gimli in their attempt to unite the fragmented kingdom
of Rohan to stand against the armies of their enemies, who
are moving faster and growing more rapidly in numbers by
Rohan, of course, is a rather important locale for the
events of the "Rings" trilogy, and what helps
add to the movie's muscle is not only the fact that the
place was never even mentioned in "Fellowship,"
but the fact that it helps introduce us to several new and
interesting characters as well. There is, for instance,
Éowyn (Miranda Otto), a beautiful young woman with
eyes for Aragorn and a yearning to do battle alongside the
men of her country, and Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif),
a sadistic messenger of Saruman's who manipulates his way
into the Rohan kingdom and poisons the mind of its ruler,
the wise and incessant King Théoden (Bernard Hill).
The difficulty with any film follow-up is in establishing
new personas successfully, but in "The Two Towers,"
the writers have not only matched the bright and solid characterizations
of "Fellowship," but in ways have surpassed them.
Éowyn's endurance and independence shine through
even when the race of men demand that she hold her skills
back, while Théoden brings the concept of high rulers
down to a compassionate human level.
Much of the movie revolves around war, and yet no so much
that it undermines characterizations or perspective. Countless
fantasy endeavors, especially those that utilize big battles,
tend to overly emphasize the use of this kind of action
until the sequences become too involved and difficult to
clearly identify anyone, but thankfully, Peter Jackson has
kept his wits about him when approaching this particular
aspect of the screen treatment. The much-hyped battle between
men and orcs at Helm's Deep, in fact, is one the most exhilarating
war-oriented sequences I have ever seen, and not only is
it the visual centerpiece for "The Two Towers,"
but perhaps for all of recent cinema as well.
But is the movie better than "The Fellowship of the
Ring?" Very close, but not quite. Admittedly, the first
film's zest and enthusiasm is a tad more fulfilling than
it is here, and the freshness factor elevated that zeal
onto a platform of reasoning beyond just being pure excitement.
But in no way is this a distraction or an insult to the
final result here; in fact, I choose to think of it as an
indirect compliment. Any way you look at it, this is the
one effort that could have either held the interest or dwindled
our expectations for the final chapter, so the fact that
it pulls its own weight completely apart from its predecessor
is quite a remarkable achievement. Moreover, the movie is
beautiful, magnetic, breathtaking, exciting and imaginative
on every scale. And at any rate, Middle-Earth and its inhabitants
are starting to jump off the screen like they never have