The first thing you have to know about THE LORD OF THE RINGS THE TWO TOWERS, the second installment of director Peter Jacksons masterful translation of J.R.R. Tolkiens modern classic of mythology, is that you will be lost if you havent seen the first installment, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. The action picks up only a few days after the tumultuous climax of FELLOWSHIP, just after Gandalf the Grey’s (Ian McKellen) deadly duel with a fiery creature from the abyss and Frodos quiet departure to dispose of the ring in Mordor. The ring, you recall, was forged to rule the nine other rings of Middle Earth, but has the unfortunate property of corrupting its owner while extending his or her life. Frodo has come to have it from his Uncle Bilbo, and while he wants nothing more than to destroy it, the ring is exerting its influence on him. Add to the trouble is the fact that the ring wants to be found by the forces of evil led by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee exhibiting hefty malevolence) and is capable of helping the forces of evil arrayed against Frodo. Fortunately, if you dont quite follow that last sentence, there is an excellent DVD of that first film with extended scenes and some new ones thrown in that only improve on an already magnificent film.
This being the second part of the trilogy, you can think of it as a bridge, wherein the action is extended, further derring-do is done, but the resolution is a film and a year away. Jackson filmed all three parts at one time, so it comes as no surprise that THE TWO TOWERS is as dazzling as THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, but it is a much darker tale, told with little respite in elf country or The Shire whence Frodo and his hobbit comrades hail.
The fellowship is scattered in part two, though all are heading for Mordor unbeknownst to the others. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) having slipped off from the others, face a journey over a forbidding landscape of rocks, ice, marshes, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) who once owned the ring and was driven mad by it and even more mad by losing it. He forms an uneasy partnership with Frodo, who of all beings can understand the insidious hold the ring has on its owners, and agrees to take them to Mordor. Meanwhile, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), the other hobbits on the journey, having been taken captive by Sarumans agents, escape becoming dinner for them and flee into the woods, where they encounter an Ent, one of the ancient, ambulatory trees that watches over the forest. Aragorn, Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), and Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) while tracking Pippin and Merry, come upon the kingdom of Rohan, which bears a nodding resemblance to the country of the Fisher King. What was once a prosperous and happy land is now ruled by a puppet king under the thrall of the aptly named sorcerer Grimma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), who is in league with Saruman. Each confronts peril, none comes away unscathed, but rather steeled for the final confrontation that will decide the fate of Middle Earth. Even Arwen (Liv Tyler), Aragorns elf love back in Rivendell, struggles with her destiny, knowing any choice she makes will bring her an eternity unbridled tears.
As the best special effect should always do, the ones here serve to further the story, not overshadow it. There are moments of wonder — big splashy ones such as the eye of Sauron sitting like fire above his tower, or epic battle sequences. But there are smaller, more subtle ones, too. Gollum, for example, not quite human, not quite a reptile, an entirely loathsome bag of bones created by a computer, yet it is his eyes that carry a world of hurt abetted by a stand-out performance by Serkis that render him sympathetic.
Jackson pays attention to the smallest of details as he creates this fantasy world and makes it as real as the one we live in. He gives dirty fingernails to the hobbits, men and dwarves, and a pristine, luminescence to the elves, emphasizing the gulf between the two sets of beings, rooting that difference viscerally as well as visually.
The most remarkable thing about this miraculously remarkable film is that what you will walk out of the theater thinking about isnt the special effects. As in the first film, it is the faces on which Jackson dwells, making the film a more emotional experience than the books. We experience the events of the film through the prism of those faces, seeing how they react with a genuine depth of feeling. No face here is better than that of Elijah Woods and this is only right, it being Frodos story. His face is an odd, compellingly androgynous mix of wisdom and innocence, resolve and fear.
J.R.R. Tolkien adamantly denied that it was an allegory, but when dealing with archetypes such as the ones here, each generation can be forgiven for reading things into the characters and situations. For one generation, the Ring might be the H-bomb, for another genetic engineering. The Ents, a take on the Green Man of legend or an Ur-Julia Butterfly decrying the clear cutting of forests never to return. When one of them emerges from the forest to a landscape with the stumps of, as he puts it, his old friends, its hard to not see it that way. Is Mordor Nazi Germany, or the military-industrial complex that Ike warned us about as he left office in 1961? Both apply with chilling aptness. Yet none is more apt than one character speaking about Saurons minions and asking What can be do against such reckless hate? Its the use of the word reckless that is key. A hate that consumes not only its enemy but ultimately itself, be it racism, sexism, fanaticism or any other ism you can name. For all the magic integral to the story, the issues are as real and contemporary as any happening today.
And a note. While this is definitely a fairy tale, it owes its pedigree to the Norse sagas, not to Mother Goose. Its any but kid stuff. As in the first installment, there are images that even grown-ups will find disturbing, much less kids less than, say, 10 or so. The final word goes to the Ent. In their language, we learn, it takes a long time to say anything, so they only say things that are worth taking a long time to say. That could be Jacksons outlook when it came to filming THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There is not a superfluous moment in this film, and if the DVD includes new scenes and extended scenes from the theatrical release, it will only add to the artistry. The only bad thing I have to say is that its frustrating to have to wait a year for the final chapter.