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Somewhere, J.R.R. Tolkien is smiling. Last year's amazingly successful, Academy Award-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring boosted book sales of the classic by a reported 1,000 percent. And now, in what has to be the second-best Christmas gift ever given to the greater public, director Peter Jackson unleashes his spectacular sequel, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Conventional wisdom expected this film to be superior -- more action, more adventure -- but few could have foreseen the perfect heart and technical mastery of The Two Towers.

Narratively, Jackson is wise to pick up virtually where the first film left off, a gambit aimed at solidifying his status with true Tolkien aficionados. No fake-o introduction, no belabored recaps, the film opens with a powerful tracking shot, starting at the windswept mountaintops and letting Jackson's camera steadily fall down the treacherous snowy passes, straight into the darkest dreams of Frodo Baggins. And just like that, the audience is back in the thick of another timeless tale exceedingly well told. Having previously proved his affinity for fantasy with 1994's Heavenly Creatures and the first LOTR movie, Jackson now amazes with the scope and solidity of his combat sequences, as well as his dexterous incorporation of digital imagery. What results is true movie magic.

The Two Towers follows young Frodo (Elijah Wood) on his quest to destroy the evil Ring of Sauron, a journey only barely begun in the first film. Frodo and his companion Sam (Sean Astin, who's waited half a lifetime for a role as endearing as the asthmatic Mikey of The Goonies and here finally finds one) trek toward Mordor, as their friends -- men, elves and dwarves alike -- are scattered throughout Middle-earth ahead of the gathering storm. A clash of civilizations is coming, and the destruction of the powerful ring is all that will save mankind -- a monstrous task for a tiny halfling, but Frodo Baggins is a hard hobbit to break. Not even the necessary evil of a temporary alliance with the hissing, bony Gollum -- the ring's former owner, driven to madness by his precious possession -- makes our hero break his stride. At least not initially, of course. For the secret of the ring is the time it steals -- and time is running out.

That's only the core thread of The Two Towers. As Frodo, Sam and Gollum snake their way toward the fires of Mordor, Merry and Pippin, Frodo's friends and fellow hobbits, escape Orc captivity only to find themselves waylaid by the fauna of Fanghorn forest: the ancient Ents, walking and talking trees full of rue and rumination. Meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli join forces with the men of Rohan to make their last stand against the Uruk-hai at a fortress named Helms Deep.

Each is a story unto itself; in Jackson's able hands -- and in true epic fashion -- each is a story fully realized. Very much like the structure of the original source material, The Two Towers jumps from Frodo's frying pan to Aragorn's fire -- and then over to Merry and Pippin's similarly simmering situation, before making the rounds all over again. The beauty of Jackson's filmmaking is that, while we feel the urgency of checking in on Frodo's progress, we always want to stay and see a little more of wherever we are.

It is a considerable credit to the script -- penned by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson -- that these disparate elements hang together when the plot itself is constantly in this internal circular motion. This is a group of people who have studied Tolkien's storytelling well. But highest praise must be reserved for how deftly Jackson tackles the technology of this film without ever losing sight of the heart of his story. Special effects always tend to have something of a chilling effect; as the Harry Potter films attest, it's difficult to marry man and machine with any kind of balance. Maybe Jackson has a higher caliber of actors, all of whom take their fantasy seriously enough to fully enter the world of blue-screen acting. Or maybe he lavishes more directorial attention on his computer geniuses and their creations than most. Whatever his secret, Jackson creates full-blown characters where once there were only pixels: Gollum (voice and initial movement provided by actor Andy Serkis) gives a schizophrenic performance of Oscar proportions and Treebeard, the ancient leader of the Ents, provides one of the film's most tangible performances.

In addition to his many technological feats, Jackson lays down on film some of the most jaw-dropping combat sequences of any action film in recent memory, reminiscent of medieval sieges and Old Testament battles. It is only once the war begins that this film becomes truly great. Even as astonishing as Jackson's action eventually becomes, perhaps the best thing is that The Two Towers is a full-on war movie that is at every moment about more than just the fighting. Jackson expertly recreates Tolkien's tapestry of unlikely alliances, unfailing friendship, service to a greater good and the belief in the ultimate triumph of right over might. Somewhere, Tolkien has good reason to be smiling.

click to enlarge Director Peter Jackson pulls out all the stops -- digital and otherwise -- to create his epic clash of civilizations in The Two Towers.
  • Director Peter Jackson pulls out all the stops -- digital and otherwise -- to create his epic clash of civilizations in The Two Towers.
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