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.