The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Review
Following on from August 2002's release of The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring on DVD in its 2xDisc edition, comes The Two Towers, picking up but a little after where its predecessor left off and set on a course to follow the Ruling Ring into Mordor and to its eventual destruction. With the fellowship fallen, broken and dispersed into three groups, The Two Towers comes not as a flicker of hope but as an ever-darkening next chapter into this increasingly bleak story.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers opens with Frodo (Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Astin) standing on a rugged mountainside looking onto Mordor as it stretches out into the distance, with Mount Doom crackling on the horizon. With Frodo continuing to carry the Ruling Ring and accompanied by his good friend, who has been with him since the beginning of his journey in the Shire, they sense that company is near from a familiar scent in the air. Soon after, in the hills of Emyn Muil, the pair encounter Gollum (Serkis), a creature who was once a hobbit himself but is now wrecked by his obsession over the Ruling Ring that little of what once made his Smeagol remains. Gollum promises to accompany and guide Frodo and Sam on to Mordor but where Frodo tries to reach what is left of Smeagol by using this name, Sam does not trust their new acquaintance and, when choosing not to call him Gollum, names him Stinker.
Meanwhile, Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd) are being held by the Urak-Hai following the ambush at the end of The Fellowship Of The Ring but as they are respectively struck down by a group of men, the two hobbits escape into the chilling environment of Fangorn Forest, where the trees themselves are thought to be alive. Within the forest, they come upon Treebeard, a type of creature known as an Ent and who considers hobbits to be little more than orc trickery.
Finally, Legolas (Bloom), Gimli (Rhys-Davies) and Aragorn (Mortensen) travel to the kingdom of Rohan seeking support in their battle against Saruman (Lee) and Sauron but find instead that Theoden (Hill), the king of this land, is suffering under the influence of Saruman and his traitorous henchman Wormtongue (Dourif). When much seems lost, Gandalf (McKellan) reappears in a forest beyond Rohan and travels to visit Theoden, freeing him from Wormtongue and Saruman's hold. With Theoden being advised by Aragorn, he urges his people to leave Rohan and travel across land to the fortress at Helm's Deep, a place to where Saruman has dispatched thousands of Uruk-Hai troops. On the battlements at Helm's Deep stand Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli alongside Theoden, his niece Eowyn (Otto) and the armies of Rohan, where they wait for the arrival of the Uruk-Hai from Saruman's tower at Isengard...
Unlike another middle chapter in a famous trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers does not open with a note of optimism left over from its preceding chapter. Instead, with The Fellowship Of The Ring closing in a similar manner to Star Wars Episode V, The Two Towers might have been thought of as opening in a similar manner to Return Of The Jedi, with the members of the fellowship reconvening at an agreed location from which to continue their journey into Mordor and to the successful conclusion of their task. Instead, however, The Two Towers does not feel like a separate film at all, in that it seamlessly connects to its predecessor without so much as a summary of what occurred beforehand. As such, The Two Towers presents a compelling argument to say that what Peter Jackson is doing will result in the most complete trilogy of films yet released, albeit one that feels unlike three films dragged together to be bound to a single story but, instead, will be one film released in three chapters. That this middle section is the equal of The Fellowship Of The Ring indicates that The Return Of The King will draw this one film to a suitably remarkable conclusion.
Where The Two Towers really succeeds is in bringing the story of The Lord Of The Rings away from the rather parochial opening in the Shire and through Moria into a conflict that draws in the whole of Middle-Earth. Where the opening book in the story limits itself to the conflict between personalities and a personal desire for the Ruling Ring, The Two Towers parts to both keep continuity with this story but to also reveal more of the age-old conflicts that run through Tolkien's world. Nowhere is this better represented than in the battle at Helm's Deep, where Theoden's small army attempts to hold a fortress against ten thousand of Saruman's soldiers, bringing a real sense of the epic to The Lord Of The Rings through the actions of those who live within it rather than through the admittedly stunning New Zealand scenery.
Then again, this is but one third of the film, with the second strand being that part of the story involving Merry and Pippin. Indeed, much of this could be thought of as appearing to be entirely irrelevant, with them being held captive by Uruk-Hai and orcs for roughly the first forty minutes. When they do meet Treebeard, it does, however, bring into the film the spirit of ancient Britain that Tolkien longed to capture in his work, reinforced by the rural setting and the creak of the forests, combined with the rich baritone of Rhys-Davies (doubling up from his other role as Gimli). In using these moments to break away from the battle at Helm's Deep, Jackson manages to give the latter a greater impact that it would otherwise have, although towards the film's closing moments, the battle at Isengard replaces that at Helm's Deep and gives The Two Towers a thoroughly memorable conclusion.
Finally, the third part of the story, being that which follows Frodo and Sam, sees them travelling further into Mordor following their meeting with Gollum/Smeagol. Compared to the actions of the other members of the original fellowship, now dispersed, this is the least compelling of the three strands to the story, providing a greater level of knowledge to the viewer on Frodo's character but also leaving one with the feeling that Elijah Wood is not quite ready to carry a film on his own.
Of course, much will be made of Peter Jackson and Weta's work in bringing Gollum to the screen as they have done here, using Andy Serkis as a physical base on which to model a computer-generated creature. The highest compliment one can make as regards Gollum is that he, for one struggles to call Gollum an 'it', all but banishes any residual memory of that Binks creature from Star Wars: Episode I or of Dobby from Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. That Jackson succeeds, where Lucas and Columbus failed, is entirely evident throughout but it is difficult to point to what exactly he does right. Lucas did, after all, use an actor on which to base Binks but the latter was always stuck with a ridiculously affected pimp roll and ludicrous Jamaican accent. Jackson, on the other hand, seems to have doggedly stuck to bringing as much of Serkis to the screen as was possible through the CG overlay of Gollum/Smeagol's physical form, such that the audience is left in little doubt that what they are watching is a creature with a strong identity who is capable of being both deceitful and honest, most notably in the conversation between Gollum and Smeagol, which is a scene likely to be thought of as amongst the most memorable of the entire series. Best of all are the facial animations, including the smile-turning-to-a-sneer, the way his eyes roll and how Gollum/Smeagol's head dips and rises, whilst the recording of Serkis' dialogue (almost as good as Pete Woodthorpe's in Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord Of The Rings) remains clear throughout.
As with the earlier film, the acting remains convincing and utterly suited to the scale of the project. As before, Sir Ian McKellan, having figuratively lit up the screen before, now does so literally in his return as Gandalf The White. Viggo Mortensen, now given more space in the absence of Sean Bean, offers a greater onscreen presence than in The Fellowship Of The Ring, ably supported by Bloom and Rhys-Davies, with the latter often being used for moments of lighthearted relief. Finally, from what was the main party, the hobbits do well although Elijah Wood does need Sean Astin to carry his scenes and taking one of Billy Boyd or Dominic Monaghan would be unthinkable without the other.
The newcomers to the series do well, however, with Miranda Otto providing the film with an emotional core given that Liv Tyler is largely absent and Brad Dourif as her flip side, the black-hearted and black-lipped Wormtongue, provides the same solid support he has been offering for years. Finally, Christopher Lee proves that he can still bring sufficient menace to a part with Saruman The White influencing Middle-Earth from his fortress of Isengard.
In essence, this is filmmaking that makes one forget many of the god awful films released week-on-week, being a truly startling movie that sparkles on the screen. The sense of this being grand storytelling is present throughout and despite one wishing for the release of The Return Of The King to complete this one film, there will be a note of disappointment at the feeling that this annual continuation of such a rich and rewarding story will be at an end. This is a powerful, stirring entry to the series and will ensure that The Lord Of The Rings will be the trilogy above all others.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks amazing throughout, muting many of the rich colours present in The Fellowship Of The Ring to present a palette that is noticeably cooler and less welcoming than its predecessor, indicating the move out of the rich landscape of the Shire and onwards to evil present in Mordor, with the lightening that storms over Mount Doom always present in the distance.
Regarding the transfer, it is, as with The Fellowship Of The Ring, truly a thing of beauty, with a richly detailed pictured, a wonderful ability to replicate the colours of the original print and not a hint of a problem in encoding the darkness of the scenes during the battle at Helm's Deep. It is clear throughout that this is a great transfer and ensures that not only will this be remembered of the quality of its storytelling but for the manner in which it has been both filmed and transferred onto DVD.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers has been presented, as with the 2xDisc DVD release of Fellowship Of The Ring, with both Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround audio tracks and both sound wonderful, with the former offering full use of the rear channels whilst the latter use them mainly for ambient effects. In both cases, however, the soundtrack is rich and detailed, with a wide dynamic range and punchy use of low frequencies through the subwoofer.
Needless to say, the soundtrack to The Two Towers is remarkably clean, with precious few noticeable flaws and effectively and evocatively scored by Howard Shore.
As with the 2xDisc edition of The Fellowship Of The Ring, this release of The Two Towers includes previews of both the extended DVD to follow in November and the theatrical release of The Return Of The King as well as Making-Of's. Given the information that has been made available to date, the 4xDisc edition of The Two Towers will offer much more detailed information on the making of this film than has been included here. The full list of bonus features, with brief descriptions on each, is given below:
On The Set - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (14m04s, 1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Mixing behind-the-scenes footage with interviews with Peter Jackson and the cast, this extra breaks the film into chapters and allocates a few minutes to each. Within each chapter, the relevant members of the cast discuss each major set piece case but offer little real insight, ending with the view that this will be considered even better than The Fellowship Of The Ring.
On The Set has been provided with English subtitles.
Return To Middle-Earth (42m59s, 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Replicating only a little from On The Set, this bonus feature is a more detailed Making-Of but, once again, uses the basic structure of the film on which to base its chapters. As well as doing this, Return To Middle-Earth offers a number of slots to friendships from the film - Elijah Wood and Sean Astin; Billy Boyd (who, quite rightly, recommends the purchase of a Sigur Ros album) and Dominic Monaghan - and showing them off the set and during candid moments around Wellington. There are a number of good anecdotes from the making of the film, although it does tend to focus on the more accident-prone moments, including Sean Astin standing on a piece of glass in a lake, which pierced his foot, and Viggo Mortensen being washed downstream.
As with On The Set, Return To Middle-Earth has been provided with English subtitles.
The Long And the Short Of It (7m08s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Filmed by Sean Astin one rainy Sunday morning between pick-up shots for The Two Towers, this is a rather sweet little film on the nature of friendship, which brings to mind the shorts that were once shown before main features during cinema presentations of the seventies. Whilst there are English subtitles, these are only relevant during Sean Astin's introduction as The Long And the Short Of It is completely absent of dialogue, sound tracked instead by Che Gelida Manina from Puccini's La Boheme.
Making Of The Long And the Short Of It (8m11s, 1.33:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Strangely, this is actually longer than the actual feature it is based on. Whilst there are behind-the-scenes interviews for this, everyone involved has their tongue lodged firmly in their cheek, notably Andy Serkis who's hoping for an advance in his career over the few hours The Long And the Short Of It was being made although he does find that whilst promotion to Assistant Director was swift, demotion to general runaround once more is even swifter.
Featurettes (1.33:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This section includes eight production featurettes, which were created for the film's website at lordoftherings.net, including:
- Forces Of Darkness (4m37s): This focuses on Wormtongue, Saruman and Sauron
- Designing The Sounds Of Middle-Earth (4m03s): As per the title, this is a short feature on the sound designer, Ethan Van Der Ryn.
- Edoras: The Capital Of Rohan (4m45s): This looks at the location and the fictional peoples of Edoras.
- Creatures Of Middle-Earth (4m39s): This examines species such as Wargs, Orcs and the Urak-Hai.
- Gandalf The White (2m52): This focuses on the return of Gandalf, now named Gandalf The White, in The Two Towers and features an interview with Sir Ian McKellan.
- Arms And Armour (4m45s): This features the work of Weta Workshop on the production of authentic weaponry and armour.
- The Battle Of Helm's Deep (4m08s): As expected, this examines the sequence at Helm's Deep in which thousands of Urak-Hai storm against a fortress defended by mankind.
- Bringing Gollum To Life (4m15s): This looks at the CG and motion-capture technology used to realise Gollum through the casting of Andy Serkis.
Emiliana Torrini - 'Gollum's Song' Music Video (4m02s, 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Using footage taken from the main feature intercut with a studio performance, this is a fair addition to the release and the song isn't at all bad.
Preview of the DVD Release of the Extended Edition of The Two Towers (5m23s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, DD5.1 Surround): Featuring the return of Sean Bean as Boromir during an interview, this sees Peter Jackson heading the cast and crew to describe the 4xDisc edition due November 2003. This bonus feature has been provided with English subtitles.
Behind The Scenes Preview of The Return Of The King (12m36s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, DD5.1 Surround): As with the preview for The Two Towers included on the 2xDisc release of The Fellowship Of The Ring, this features Peter Jackson describing how the story of The Lord Of The Rings arcs into its final chapter as well as a number of clips from the film but without giving away very much at all. As with the other features, English subtitles have been provided here.
Preview of The Return of the King Video Game (3m02s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, DD5.1 Surround): This mixes footage from the Electronic Arts' game with interviews featuring the cast of the film, who provide voice overs for the game, and the game's producer. The game will be out in November 2003.
TV Spots (8m31s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, DD5.1 Surround): Sixteen short television commercials have been included on this DVD release with each one being roughly 30s long. As the commercials pass, they change from highlights from the film to being summaries of favourable reviews. There is an option to play all the television spots as well as the choice to view them separately and English subtitles are provided.
Theatrical Trailers (2.35:1 Anamorphic, DD5.1 Surround): Two trailers are provided and are as follows:
- Teaser Trailer (1m53)
- Theatrical Trailer (2m55s)
As with all the other features on this disc, English subtitles are provided.
Where one's view of the entire story was stunted through seeing no more than the adaptation of the opening book in the trilogy, The Two Towers makes one long for the release of The Return Of The King ever more by seeing an increasingly epic tale draw to a conclusion. One hour into The Two Towers, after watching Gandalf The White expel Saruman's influence on Theoden and his servant Wormtongue from Rohan and seeing Peter Jackson direct his camera to look out over the beautifully empty, windswept valley to the remarkable landscape beyond, the viewer begins to appreciate how this story will open up over the complete nine hour or ten-and-a-half hour adaptation for the theatrical or extended cuts, respectively, making one long for the entire set to watch in order.
As with The Fellowship Of The Ring, this is truly astonishing filmmaking and will be looked back on as further raising the standard that blockbusters will be expected to meet. In as much as James Cameron's Titanic set a new commercial level that still looks unassailable, Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings is the greatest example of large-scale, big-budget filmmaking to date and what minor flaws do exist, these are swept away by the sheer spectacle on display here. As I said in my review of The Fellowship Of The Ring, ignore anything that offers these films less than full marks, these entries in the series are fully deserving of that score and this middle act brings the completion of the story ever closer, building on its predecessor with a sense of the epic the opening chapter only hinted at.
The only problem with this release is that it is not the 4xDisc set to be released later this year but New Line deserve respect for always admitting their intentions. For Jackson completists like myself, this is a necessary purchase but one that I suspect will be picked up by the majority. For the rest, the wait to November could prove to be a long one.