The Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

New Zealand/USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 179 minutes.

Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Andy Serkis, Bernard Hill, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif, David Wenham, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Peter Jackson; based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music: Howard Shore
Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie
Producers: Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh
Director: Peter Jackson


Grade: B+ Review by Frances Nicole Rogers

The Fellowship has broken. One of its members has been murdered by Orcs; another, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the wise old wizard, has been left to die in the shadow of Moria. Young hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have been taken captive by Orcs and witness the ecological devastation caused by the hand of the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are on their path, but must deal with the ten thousand strong army sent forth by Saruman to destroy the race of men. The Ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), finds his resistance to the Ring's power is fading. As he and his friend Sam (Sean Astin) journey to the center of Mordor, their quest becomes more and more desperate. All the while, the power of Mordor and Isengard (Saruman's stomping grounds) is growing more terrible and more potent.

Yep, The Two Towers is just as jolly as the rolling black hills of Mordor. There's no birthday jubilee in the Shire to look back to. There are no elegant Elvin houses to keep safe in. There is no charmingly eccentric Bilbo Baggins. Everywhere is darkness, and that evil could reign over good, that hope could give out to despair, is a very strong possibility. Audiences don't like that kind of story. Audiences like the kind of story in which hope is ten thousand suns beaming down from the end of a dark tunnel. If they care for the characters enough, all they want for them is a perfectly clear-cut happy ending. Three hours of uncertainty as to whether the sun will rise again is excruciating if the audience cares enough for the characters. That's what happens in The Two Towers. Characters we loved in The Fellowship of the Ring are now in the midst of outer and inner turmoil, and there's no form of escape, nothing to ease the darkness save a few hearty jokes.

Funny thing is, with all the darkness in the story, The Two Towers is still a crowd pleaser.

Why does Peter Jackson manage to keep The Two Towers so enchanting even when it is immersed in darkness? Because he knows how to manipulate his audiences. He knows how to hold them engrossed in stories they wouldn't otherwise enjoy. He and his fellow screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Stephen Sinclair know how to get them to sympathize with characters that aren't even human. Viggo MortensenMore than half of The Two Towers' audience members probably would have never even considered picking up a book with mythical creatures like hobbits, elves, and dwarves, yet they're coming in droves to see a movie with and rooting for those non-human characters. If you think that's a gross overstatement, tell that to all the teenagers who voted The Fellowship of the Ring as best movie for the 2002 MTV Movie Awards, and all the average moviegoers who spent $101.5 million to see The Two Towers in its first five days of release. The Lord of the Rings has a wide built-in fan base, but not that wide.

The Lord of the Rings franchise is one that is clearly transcending all audiences by taking a once-thought inaccessible story and making it accessible without foregoing intelligence. These are films that entertain and hold their own amongst classics. But even those classics have their flaws, and The Two Towers' are more obvious and slightly less forgivable than those of Fellowship. Different storylines can cause confusion and make the narrative jagged and uneven, especially when there are new characters to be introduced, newer developments to be shown, and new conflicts to be dealt with. Peter Jackson, too, can get caught up in his epic brushstrokes and resort to ineffective storytelling clichés. Thankfully, those slip-ups are few and far between. What Two Towers lacks in its predecessor's charm and narrative ease it makes up for in sheer power. Peter Jackson is playing with his audience's emotions in a way that would've made Alfred Hitchcock proud, relying on poetic visual storytelling techniques to hold his audience captive. The opening sequence (an extended version of sorts of a scene in Fellowship) is just the frosting on the cake.

The cream filling of the cake is the spectacular battle of Helm's Deep, an event that once was a few paragraphs in Tolkien's prose, which has been developed into one of the best action sequences ever filmed. When it comes to action, Jackson is far from perfect (sometimes going for melodramatic sound changes or camera movements so frantic that the action cannot be seen), but Helm's Deep soars once he chooses to let the action flow without any added melodrama (and lots of added humor and visual splendor).

Action and breathtaking visuals (like Viggo Mortensen) may be the film's general strong points, but long after I left The Two Towers, I remained most impressed with the portrayal of Frodo (Elijah Wood) being taken (or as someone else said perfectly, destroyed) by the Ring. Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring was made to be almost too nice a guy. Other than using the Ring on occasion by accident or by means of saving himself, we never see Frodo corrupted much by the Ring. The signs are there, but Frodo desires more to rid himself of the Ring and return to the peace of the Shire than anything. Having that kind of Frodo in mind for a year makes his spiritual disintegration in The Two Towers all the more frightening. Jackson doesn't fail to draw parallels between Frodo and Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis), a CGI character introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring who owned the One Ring before it was "stolen" from him. Their relationship in the film is far more intense than it is in the book, perhaps because we actually now can see Frodo's reaction to Gollum, see how and why he pities him, and see exactly how Frodo is growing closer in character to Gollum. One scene shows Frodo caressing the Ring, only to discover at that same time Gollum is doing the same thing to an invisible spot on his hand. Ian McKellen and Bernard HillThis aspect of the story also gives The Two Towers one of its most memorable shots.

A lot of the effectiveness of Frodo's characterization comes from Elijah Wood's performance. Who knew he could act? Jackson did; obviously he saw something in Wood I had missed. Frodo is the epitome of all the characters in Wood's filmography, the culmination of a career spent playing characters haunted by one hardship or another. Strip down the frivolous conflicts against space terrors, parental figures, and Macauley Culkin, and you've got basically the same vulnerable character fighting against an outside force. Jackson doesn't so much turn the perennial Elijah Wood role on its head but gives it new dimension and depth (much like Hitchcock did with the typical Jimmy Stewart role in Vertigo), and, in turn, Wood gives Frodo more emotion and soul than he did any of his other characters (even if he does occasionally wind up sounding like a whiny five year old girl).

It is unfortunate that Frodo's partner in his journey, faithful servant Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) has so little to do. Sam remains the same old overprotective attendant of "Mr. Frodo" with no new developments save for the ability to sprout vomit-inducing monologues that reek of blatant Oscar masturbation. Astin's performance is fine, even excellent at points (and the chemistry between him and Wood is electric), but he's just a victim of another of the movie's flaws--the poor use of otherwise interesting characters.

One of the book's strongest characters, Éowyn (the perfectly cast Miranda Otto), niece of King Théoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan (a realm of men under attack by Saruman), is thrown in mostly to conjure an unnecessary love triangle between herself, Aragorn, and elf Arwen (Liv Tyler). Elves, in fact, are used the worst in this film. Arwen's presence is needless, given that she did not appear anywhere in the book (though a scene of hers with Aragorn serves as a convenient bathroom break). A scene involving her and her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is powerful and moving if only for the poetry of the visuals, but had it not been included, The Two Towers wouldn't have been worse off. As much as I adore Cate Blanchett, her character (Galadriel), too, should not have been in this film, and serves only to give information that could have just as easily been given without her narration.

Gimli the dwarf spends most of his time in The Two Towers drowned in the punch lines he threatened to give in Fellowship. I guess all can be forgiven, seeing how Merry and Pippin aren't in tow to be the film's comic relief, and John Rhys-Davies gives Gimli the dimension missing from the script. The classic comic duo of Merry and Pippin do cough up laughs (as usual it's Billy Boyd as Pippin who's the funniest), but they've been regulated to the rather tedious Ent (ancient talking tree creatures) scenes and forgotten for most of the film.

Yet the most you can feel for this mistreatment is disappointment that the screenwriters didn't take the time to give our favorite characters the development they needed. To the advantage of The Two Towers, the relationship the audience has with the characters in Fellowship cannot be diminished. If you loved Sam in Fellowship, you will still love Sam in The Two Towers. It's that deep relationship the audience holds with these characters that makes The Two Towers such an intense experience, and probably why The Return of the King will quite possibly be the most emotionally testing of all three Lord of the Rings movies.

Review © January 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 New Line Productions, Inc. ™ The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Tolkien Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

  Comment on this review on the boards  

  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page