Friday, December 5, 2014

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Welcome back to another last-minute edition of FlashBack Friday! This week I'm reviewing the second film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers. After the heralded release of 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring, expectations were sky high for Peter Jackson's follow-up the next year. Not only was the previous film nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, but it was also one of the highest grossing releases of that year. I distinctly remember the teaser trailer for this film playing before Signs in the summer of 2002, and getting extremely anxious for the apparent return of Gandalf as well as the introduction of the slithering Gollum. Long story short, I couldn't have been more excited for a return to Middle Earth when December finally rolled around.

The Fellowship is broken, and Sam and Frodo are wandering through a rocky labyrinth of Emyn Muil with no idea how to get to the land of Mordor. Fortunately (if you can say that), they're being followed by a murderous, ring-obsessed creature named Gollum who claims to know a secret path to the black gates. The hobbits form an uneasy truce with the schizophrenic, and they journey across the treacherous path of the Dead Marshes towards the birthplace of the ring of power. Meanwhile, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas pursue the band of Uruk-hai that killed Boromir and kidnapped Merry and Pippin, hoping to rescue the captives and give meaning to Boromir's sacrifice. Thanks to the timely intervention of a powerful Ent (tree-herder) named Treebeard, the pair of hobbits escape the clutches of the white wizard's minions much to the relief of Aragorn and co. However they have much bigger fish to fry, as a resurrected Gandalf the White leads them to the kingdom of Rohan where the horse-lords are threatened by the seemingly-insurmountable armies of Saruman. Deep in the catacombs of Isengard the double-crossing wizard has been breeding an army of 10,000 to destroy the world of men, and the people of Rohan (under the protection of Aragorn) flee to the stronghold of Helm's Deep, where a massive battle will determine the fate of mankind.

Right off the bat this film grabs your attention with a flashback showing what Gandalf really experienced during his free-fall fight with the Balrog of Morgoth. There are some truly impressive visuals in this opening, culminating in the breathtaking wide shot of the two combatants falling toward a vast underground lake. From there we're quickly reintroduced to our Fellowship, divided and scattered, but united in spirit as they fight against evil in a variety of ways. Each character in this story is going through a different kind of struggle, adding extra dimensions and layers to a story that may seem slightly perfunctory on the surface.

The most compelling of these is actually the somewhat new, but heavily-featured character of Gollum. Performed and voiced by the immensely talented Andy Serkis, his conflicted personalities are wonderfully portrayed in an iconic scene of Smeagol fighting for dominance with his alter-ego. With Frodo's encouragement, Smeagol slowly emerges from the shadow of Gollum, and the ring's power over him miraculously begins to fade. However, the greed of those around him causes a resurgence and we see how strong of a hold his obsession truly has (though if memory serves, this will be emphasized even greater in the next film). His character alone is fascinating enough to warrant a feature-length story, and it's a perfect seasoning to the cinematic meal Peter Jackson has prepared for his viewers.

Frodo and Sam's story is more of an emotional one at the end of this film, as one of the novel's most iconic moments involving a mysterious and monstrous arachnid was postponed until the climactic third installment of the series. The real meat of this story belongs to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they struggle to support the overwhelmed king of Rohan who is faced with the annihilation of his entire kingdom. These battle scenes are some of the greatest ever put to film, and the sheer numbers involved make it unlike anything I'd ever seen up to that point. Just like in Fellowship, there isn't a battle scene in any fantasy film since The Two Towers was released that hasn't borrowed heavily from it, which isn't to say that I blame them. It's terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure, but Gandalf's emotional return and subsequent, triumphant charge down the mountain toward the sea of Uruk-hai may be one of the most awe-inspiring (not to mention spiritually symbolic) combinations of image and music I've ever seen.

Despite all of the great things about this movie, I have to admit that it loses a lot of its punch on subsequent viewings. Seeing this film for the first time in a movie theater is so gripping because the audience most likely doesn't know what's going to happen next (unless they've already braved Tolkien's exceedingly dense prose), and the moments that don't really amount to anything are far more suspenseful as a result. Even though I really appreciate the Aragorn/Arwen love story, for example, I think most of that can be attributed to the heartbreaking music of Howard Shore. It's such a mournful piece that perfectly complements the thematic portrayal of love's fragility in mortality that play out in this film. Other than that, I honestly could have done with some more of their story (which can actually be seen on the extended version) and maybe a bit more suspense to Frodo and Sam's journey at the movie's conclusion - though these are admittedly minor gripes.

Despite this being a bit weaker than the previous film, I still love The Two Towers for all the things it completely knocked out of the park. Even if some of the story is a bit rushed and lackluster at times, the overall momentum of the story leads perfectly into the massive cinematic achievement that I'll be reviewing next week. There's been no drop-off in technical quality, and this perfectly maintains the magical and mysterious tone set in The Fellowship of the Ring. Like last week, there is so much to talk about with this film that I almost regret having to boil down my thoughts to a readable length, but I hope I've at least somewhat done this film justice in this review. While I debated my score on this one a little with my split-personality, I'm ultimately giving the second chapter in The Lord of the Rings a fairly solid four stars.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS is rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images