The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s an ambitious trilogy and the second part, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, is simply enthralling. As in the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, this is a pretty amazing feat given that both are a minute or two shy of three hours long (referring to the theatrical releases).

Each film is hamstrung from the outset by “the book.” When you make movies like these, especially when you keep the same title, there are inevitable comparisons. The films generally fare well in this regard, better than most, but the problem with comparisons, favourable or not, is that a film risks not being viewed on its own merit, as a film.

The Two Towers is further hamstrung by comparisons to the first film. It fares less well in this regard. The first film is more “true” to the books than is the second. This, I think, is largely because it’s a movie, not a book, and so it favours scenes, incidents and storylines that are more cinematic.

For good or ill, The Two Towers focuses on people, rather than hobbits. It focuses on action and adventure rather than on character stories and relationships. In fact the decision director Peter Jackson and the other filmmakers have made seems to be this: use the first film to introduce and flesh out the characters and use the second to go for the visual spectacle of an action-adventure. The Two Towers presupposes the audience is familiar with the first film and, to a lesser extent, the books.

This is not necessarily surprising. From the beginning I think they have made it clear these movies were being made for those people who loved the books. (It must be said, however, that there are some fans of the books who are outraged at certain deletions and changes – but that’s to be expected.)

For myself, I think The Two Towers is an amazing film. At the same time, though, I found myself less engaged with this instalment than I was with the first. In fact, I found my mind wandering a bit during the first hour or so of this movie. (This was true of both times I watched it.) It seems a bit too episodic. Or perhaps it relies too much on an familiarity with the first film, which means it depends on my less than accurate memory.

In the first movie, we follow the fellowship of the ring. In the second, the fellowship is divided and we follow several threads: there is the story of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas; there is the story of Frodo and Sam; there’s the story of Merry and Pippen and, finally, there is Gandalf’s story.

The heavy emphasis is on Aragorn – he’s the human, and he’s at the centre of most of the action. There is much less happening with Frodo and Sam. Yet Frodo is the heart of Tolkien’s trilogy.

The other key character is Gandalf, and he makes only the briefest of appearances (though this is somewhat closer to the way he is used in the book).

By the end of the film, Sam makes the movie’s most impassioned speech, the one that articulates what Tolkien’s trilogy is about, yet up to this point we have not seen much of him and Frodo.

So I think there is an imbalance in the film that weakens it somewhat. (At the same time, we are seeing the film out of context. To see it properly, we have to wait to see where the third and final film, The Return of the King, goes.)

Visually, The Two Towers is stunning. Again, the landscapes are breathtaking; the screen is filled with marvellous things – real and artificial. When I first saw The Two Towers, I was bothered by the computer generated material – it seemed too much. I was too aware of it, despite the tremendous skill in the work. I was conscious, throughout, of the technology behind the film.

In an animated feature, this wouldn’t be a problem. It does become a problem when it’s incorporated with live action, especially live action so breathtakingly well filmed and performed.

It bothered me less the second time I watched. I think it has something to do with suspension of disbelief.

This may have as much to do with being influenced by media hype as with anything else. But I recall thinking afterwards, if I am not bothered by special effects in older films, effects that are clearly filmmaker manipulation, why should I be bothered by it in contemporary films?

I’m not sure. But I don’t agree with those who say it’s real, or virtually real. It’s not. It’s very good, very close, but there is still something not quite there. Frankly, I’m not sure what it is. (Yes, I sound like a Luddite.) And I don’t think I would care so much if it didn’t niggle so much.

I look forward to seeing these films ten or fifteen years from now when the hype and the talk and everything else are behind us and we can simply watch them as great movies.

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