First the good news: The Two Towers isn’t necessarily better than The Fellowship of the Ring but everything great about the first film has been dutifully amplified here to umpteenth degrees. Now the bad: everything less than stellar about the first film has also been magnified. Director Peter Jackson’s understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s crucial themes is still near transcendent—if The Fellowship of the Ring was alive with Christian hope, then Two Towers is dignified by an impressive and overwhelming sense of godlessness. Two Towers may be the most sinister Hollywood epic ever made, a stirring account of lands on the brink of desiccation.
Two Towers is the most structurally audacious part of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The author daringly recounted the exploits of Aragorn, Elf archer Legolas, Gimli the Dwarf and hobbits Merry and Pippin throughout the first half of his Two Towers. It’s not until book four that Tolkien tells the story of Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Hills of Emyn Muil with Gollum/Smeagol. For the film, Jackson has predictably chosen to crosscut between the three separate narratives. The rhythm with which Jackson weaves in and out of the separate stories is incredibly lyrical and emphasizes the distance between the split Fellowship. Sadly, though, this episodic structure compromises one particular thread: Merry and Pippin’s encounter with the wise Treebeard.
Tolkien delicately evokes Treebeard’s wisdom and contemplates all sorts of complex relationships between Ents, trolls, wizards and other inhabitants of Middle-earth throughout the first part of Two Towers. An hour or two in, Jackson’s film comes to resemble a prolonged movie trailer. However remarkable the tone may be, the brevity of individual scenes and constant crosscutting undermines the significance of Ent history and Treebeard’s overall tenderness and wisdom. In the end, Treebeard has been reduced to a mere oddity, a mostly CG creation that shares Gimli’s comedic shtick (both characters are brought to life by John Rhys-Davies). There is one bright side: all is forgiven once the Ents take to Isengard and their awe-inspiring battle with Saruman’s forces is intercut with the jaw-dropping Uruk-hai attack on Helm’s Deep.
Jackson wastes no time thrusting audiences into the book’s action. The film begins with what appears to be a recap of Gandalf’s encounter with Balrog only to reveal itself as a dream of sorts. Jackson implements a career’s worth of aerial shots and dramatic overheads throughout Two Towers, but his remarkable use of long shot truly evokes the majestic scope of Tolkien’s fantasia. Just as he did in Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson has an uncanny ability to amplify key Tolkien conceits. Liv Tyler still looks like she’s lost in an Australian douche commercial but, in one ravishing flash forward, Jackson contemplates her character’s immortal coil and devastating relationship to the world and people around her. In this one scene, hope springs eternal and when the people of Rivendell charge majestically toward Helm’s Deep, it’s as if Jackson is saying the world isn’t done yet.
In moving key events from the book over to the third film (mainly Gandalf’s encounter with Saruman and the attack at Shelob’s lair), Jackson undervalues both Saruman and Grima Wormtongue (the director falls into the easy trap of giving the character a pale, glazed-over look to signify his evil). Also, the film ends less intimately than it should and more as a cliffhanger—as such, purists may feel a tad cheated. In a lame attempt to give Cate Blanchett a second’s worth of screen time, Jackson has Galadriel the circus ringleader waltz into frame in order to recount key events from the film’s first two hours for anyone who may not have been paying close attention. Despite the often busy crosscutting, Jackson has stunningly staged Two Towers as a series of exorcisms. Surely Jackson’s remarkable authentication of Gollum’s every vice and smidgen of goodness must count as a small miracle considering the character is an all-CG creation.
The film’s greatest strength is how Jackson brings to life the haunting conflict between Gollum and Smeagol. Jackson evokes the split between personalities most fabulously with a tree bisecting the film’s frame. Of course, Andy Serkis’s performance here is also crucial to the success of these scenes. Sam (Sean Astin) doubts Gollum but Frodo (Elijah Wood) believes in the diseased monster’s ability to do good and give himself completely to Smeagol. Wood’s casting makes more sense than ever—it is in his clammy white skin and big eyes that we see a future Gollum in the making. The sadness with which Gollum teases and consumes Smeagol once again reinforces Jackson’s blistering vision of a pervasive evil threatening to destroy all that is good in the world. Despite the film’s flaws, it is the way in which Jackson summons the threat of Middle-earth’s potential destruction that energizes and ennobles the film. This evil is so palpable it even brings Wormtongue to tears. Fanboys and fangirls should also be reduced to cowering messes.
May actually look better and sound better than the preliminary two-disc edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Therefore, let’s rewind. "Edge halos are nil, blacks are rock solid and every skin tone (whether it’s the sweaty faces of the film’s hobbits and humans or the angry, ravaged mugs of the film’s deadlier creatures) is evoked with stunning detail. Predictably, this is a reference quality transfer. (Some of the film’s miniatures are easier to spot on the small screen, but that’s no fault of the transfer really.) As for the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX surround sound, I don’t think any existing audio on any available DVD player can do justice to this film’s loud and elaborate sound design. Surrounds are impeccable, dialogue is crystal clear and every Gollum hiss has an extra-chilling ring to it, but because there’s so much going on here, don’t be surprised if your sound system blows out."
Let’s do this quickly. The film, now 43 minutes longer, is split between Disc One and Disc Two. Even if you’ve seen the film only once, you should be able to easily spot the new additions. Besides there being more of Gollum on display, there’s a lot more breathing room before and after scenes. Here, longer isn’t so much better as it is dreamier. You can choose to watch the film with no less than four commentaries: "The Director and Writers"; "The Design Team"; "The Production/Post-Production Team"; and "The Cast." I haven’t checked out the last three, but if any of them are as remotely addictive as the first, this set has already sold itself. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens discuss everything from the story’s transition from the page to the screen to the recycables from the first film that make their appearance here (not only are many shots in the film recycables from the first, but there’s even one shot of a tree falling into a pit that’s the same shot from the first film except the image has been flipped).
Disc Three begins with the fascinating "J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-earth" feature, which traces the author’s relationship to C.S. Lewis and the artistic compromises he had to make when his story was split into three parts (apparently, Tolkein hated the name of the last book and wished that it had been called The War of the Ring). Next is "From Book to Script: Finding the Story," an honest examination of the film’s "middle child syndrome," followed by two lengthy design features that that take us into Tolkein’s descriptive world and how WETA workshop helped to evoke that world for Jackson’s film. Gollum rightfully gets his own section: "Taming of Smeagol" pays props to Jason Schleifer for selling the CGI monster to wary New Line suits; a series of animation references that allow you to view Andy Serkis’s insane performance on top of the final product; executive producer Rick Porras’s "stand in" clip; and a design gallery. Rounding out the disc is an elaborate and informative Middle-earth atlas and a seven-part location feature called "New Zealand and Middle-earth" that quickly shows how different parts of the country were selected to represent different regions from Tolkien’s world.
On to Disc Four. The "Filming The Two Towers" section is divided into three parts: "Warriors of the 3rd Age" elaborates the cultural fighting styles and choreographies on display throughout the film; "Cameras in Middle-earth" explains the difficulty of managing the production after the fellowship split at the end of the first film and filming was being done simultaneously in different parts of New Zealand; and another stills gallery. Next is the "Visual Effects" portion of the DVD, also divided into three parts: an awesome chronicle of the film’s miniatures (the most jaw-droppingly outstanding feature on this entire four-disc set may be the "Big-atures" section); a look at the work being done at WETA Digital; and abandoned concepts (the Slime Balrog and the Endless Staircase, both of which Jackson talks about on his commentary track). "Editorial: Redefining the Story" may be the least impressive feature here, if only because it may have fit better after "From Book to Script: Finding the Story" on the third disc. Rounding out the fourth disc is an in-depth study of the film’s music and sound and the sad but coy mini-epilogue "The Battle of Helm’s Deep is Over."
Start as soon as possible or you’ll still be watching the supplemental features collected for this extended DVD edition of The Two Towers by the time The Return of the King hits theaters.