It's a shame that so much of the discussion about "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" is going to center on the question, "Is it as good as the first one?" Six decades ago, no kid ever walked out of a theater after watching Chapter 12 of "Nyoka and the Tigermen" muttering that it wasn't as good as Chapter 9. The point was to feel involved in a continuing story that had already captured the imagination, not to perpetuate some counterproductive mental horse race. You went to see what happened.
"The Two Towers" finds director Peter Jackson drawing ever closer to the prize of having helmed the finest movie serial ever. (Buh-bye, "Star Wars;" you've been seriously outclassed.) As is the way of the serial, this chapter picks up right where "The Fellowship of the Ring" left off. Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are making their way toward Mordor to destroy the One Ring, the insidious totem that threatens all existence. Their pals Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are being carted off by those foul creatures, the Orcs, to meet who knows what horrible fate? Hot on their trail are the true warriors of the piece, swordsman Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).
That much we already know. And then what happens? Well, to go into much detail would be to defeat the purpose of the entire enterprise, especially for folks who haven't read the Tolkien source material. Just know that everything that transpires in "The Two Towers"s vindicates the zeal with which the viewing public clasped "Fellowship" to its collective breast. The battles are exquisitely choreographed. The New Zealand locations are stunning. And the atmosphere of respect is intact, the actors approaching their roles with a sincerity that imparts genuine emotional impact to potentially laughable activities and dialogue.
A few new wrinkles can be mentioned. The great Brad Dourif enters the franchise as Grima Wormtounge, a traitor in the court of Rohan -- a land marked for extinction by the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Merry and Pippin fall into the hands (or is it limbs?) of Treebeard, an arboreal creature that stalks the land like Burnam Wood closing in on Dunsinane. The tortured hobgoblin Gollum, who we only glimpsed last time, becomes a major player, in the process revealing himself as the most convincing computer-generated character in the history of film. (Actor Andy Serkis supplies his voice.) From Gollum's supple capering to the procession of hordes of desktop-bejiggered marauders, there's hardly a moment in the movie that rings false. A major theme of the story is the loss of natural resources to an industrialized war machine, and that preservationist spirit carries over into Jackson's filmmaking style, which never loses touch with its human (or Hobbit) element.
Yes, the three-hour running time is excessive by at least 20 minutes. And the unavoidably open ending will send audiences into the night harboring a (for now) insatiable hunger for Chapter Three. But that's just what a serial is supposed to do.
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