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TSM Movie Review: The Two Towers
Posted by Dr. Tom on Dec 18, 2002, 18:48


Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, and Viggo Mortensen
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Jackson and others; based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Rated PG-13; 179 minutes

If you’re looking for one movie that defines “breathtaking,” you owe it to yourself to see The Two Towers. At its best, it’s as breathtaking as a jackhammer punch to the solar plexus, but it spends its weaker moments tapping you on the shoulder in coy setup.

The Two Towers is really two stories in one. First is the journey of Frodo (Wood) and Samwise (Sean Astin) to Mordor, to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. It is this story that occupies much of the first half of the movie. Early in the film, the hobbits encounter Gollum (all CGI), who also wants the One Ring, but agrees to guide them into Mordor. While Frodo’s journey is important on many levels, it doesn’t stand up to the second theme of the movie. Furthermore, the first ninety minutes tend to meander a bit, and the holes in the narrative are supposed to be filled by the audience’s knowledge of both The Fellowship of the Ring and the books that spawned the movie franchise.

The second part of the dual narrative is the battle against the Two Towers of Isengard and Mordor. An army of ten thousand orcs leave Isengard, marching across the land of Rohan to the fortress of Helm’s Deep. There, Aragorn (Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the gruff dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, annoyingly reduced to comic relief at times) assist in preparing the defenses. Their ragtag force of a few hundred somehow has to fend off ten thousand of Sauron’s ferocious orc warriors. Mordor’s assault on Gondor, meanwhile, is given importance only when captives Frodo and Sam are brought into it. Elsewhere, forgotten hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) encounter the ancient Ents (animated trees, called “tree herders” in the movie and known as “treants” to fantasy gamers everywhere) in Fanghorn Forest, and finally convince their leader Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies) to lead his charges on an assault of Isengard and the evil Sarumon (Christopher Lee).

After a Warg-rider attack, the movie shifts to the second story and really picks up momentum. Gone –- until later within the story –- are the meandering tendencies, and the payoff is a tighter narrative and what may well be the best battle scenes to grace a movie screen. Jackson’s perspective is always right, and the action is always crisp and visceral. Bloody without being gory, and brutal without desensitizing the audience to what is happening, each battle scene is an epic all its own.

It’s a shame that the movie strays from these unquestionably successful sequences so often. The problem is, The Two Towers slows to a crawl when the some of the other scenes make the screen. Just when things are building nicely to the Helm’s Deep conflict, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gets an awkward and poorly-explained cameo. The battle scenes are working their magic and completely enrapturing the audience, then a scene pops up to add backstory to the Aragorn/Arwen (Liv Tyler) romance. I know the battle scenes have to be broken up with something, but there had to be better choices than scenes that completely derailed the excellent ride the movie had become.

Compare this to The Fellowship of the Ring, which was all about forward momentum. It started off appropriately slowly, did a nice, compelling build, then turned into a boulder barreling down a hill, with the viewer strapped in at the center and happily along for the ride. In The Two Towers, the boulder keeps rolling, maybe even faster than before, but then it stops suddenly and sporadically. It’s like Sisyphus let the giant rock get away from him, so he had to run after it and catch it. Thankfully, he only manages to nudge it back up the hill before it drives him to the ground and careens down the slope again. Unfortunately, the story’s momentum is interrupted often enough to become annoying.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, The Two Towers is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen. It is a pure epic fantasy at heart: the choices and actions of ordinary people will determine the fate of an imperiled world. There are few better themes in literature, and none better at telling that story than Tolkien. The Two Towers is amazingly close to the spirit of its source material, and captures the triumphs, struggles, and life-or-death fights of its central characters remarkably well. Unfortunately, when the movie misfires, it does so blatantly and seemingly without regard for the wonderful story just interrupted.

Caveats aside, The Two Towers is a worthy successor to The Fellowship of the Ring in every way. The potential was there for it to be better, but the poor pacing decisions in the second half spoiled the chances of that. It might seem hard to believe that I’m going to give the film a great score and still go on about its flaws, but this might have been the first movie to which I’d ever given a perfect mark. Instead, it gets the same score as its predecessor, with a frown in the gradebook for wasting its enormous potential to be truly superior. 9/10

Dr. Tom
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