The middle entry in a trilogy often has the hardest job, picking up where the first story left off and leaving enough for the final part to build on. In other words, it has to hit the ground running, assuming you remember what you saw a year ago and then leave you hanging two or three hours later. I don’t count faux trilogies like the Indiana Jones movies, which are only called a “trilogy” because there just happened to be three movies. There was, however, no common narrative thread tying the films together, like there is for Lord of the Rings.
Like The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers successfully avoids the “middle movie” trap. It does this by expanding the universe of characters and setting up the trilogy’s remaining storylines. This is in contrast to, for instance, The Matrix Reloaded, which gave us little more than a collection of whizbang action scenes while the characters spun their wheels and went nowhere.
Picking up exactly where The Fellowship of the Ring left off, the second movie finds Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) on their own, making their way to Mordor and Mount Doom. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) pursue the Uruk-Hai warriors who abducted Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Frodo and Sam are almost ambushed in their sleep by Gollum (voice and movement by Andy Serkis), the creature from whom Bilbo Baggins originally stole Sauron’s ring. Turning the tables on Gollum, Frodo enlists his aid as their guide to Mordor, over the objections of the distrustful Sam.
Aragorn’s party catches the Uruk-Hai, only to discover they have been slaughtered by soldiers of Rohan and the two Hobbits have fled into Fangorn forest. Instead of finding Merry and Pippin, they encounter Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who supposedly fell to his death in the first film. This is a new, improved Gandalf, resurrected as a more powerful wizard, the equal to Saruman (Christopher Lee). He reveals that the two Hobbits are being protected by Treebeard (voice of John Rhys-Davies), one of the Ents, tree-like creatures who take care of the forests.
Gandalf has a more pressing matter for Aragorn, namely saving the nation of Rohan, currently under seige by forces loyal to Saruman while the wizard has enslaved the mind of its king, Theoden (Bernard Hill).
The focal point of The Two Towers is the seige of Helm’s Deep, a mountain fortress where the people of Rohan make their last stand. The attack by ten thousand Uruk-Hai is a brilliantly realized battle staged on an epic scale. You never suspect for a second for that the vast scenes with hundreds of combatants are almost entirely the product of a computer program called Massive, which uses artificial intelligence to control thousands of virtual “soldiers.”
An even more successful product of computer technology in this film is the creature Gollum. Based on the voice and motion of Andy Serkis, this expressive creation is integrated seamlessly into scenes with actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. The computer artists who created him based their work Serkis’ actual performance before he was cut out of the live action footage. This contrasts with the “performance capture” technique used on The Polar Express. That method used motion capture of the performers’ faces to create their expressions. The more hands-on approach used on Gollum produces far superior results. Treebeard is another impressive creation but his performance is a bit more, um, “wooden.”
The Two Towers introduces us to the people of Rohan, a Celt-like nation with a tradition of being great horse soldiers. Once he is free of Saruman’s control, their king Theoden embodies the ideal of the warrior king, both a father figure and a leader in battle. His neice, Eowyn (Miranda Otto) is a fierce but vulnerable princess not content with a woman’s traditional role while the men ride off to battle.
One of the more controversial changes to Tolkein’s text, at least among the die hard fans of the original novel, were in the character of Faramir (David Wenham), brother of the fallen Boromir (Sean Bean). Apparently, in the novel Faramir was an impeccably virtuous character with not so much as a single fault. In the movie, he is genuinely tempted by the power of the One Ring (and the oppotunity to gain the approval of his father). This hint of humanity and depth in the character sent Tolkein fans into proxysms of indignation. What they fail to understand is that what works on the page in a novel structured like an ancient epic doesn’t necessarily work for 21st-century movie audiences. Peter Jackson provided enough texture to the character to flesh him out while still keeping him an essentially noble and decent man.
As a movie, The Two Towers stands on its own relatively well. The climatic battle at Helm’s Deep gives it enough closure to make it a satisfying story by itself while still setting up the final chapter. It remains, in some ways, my favorite of the trilogy. That is not to say it’s superior to the other two films, just that it had intangible qualities that earned my affection just a little more than the others.
Women of Rohan learned long ago that those without swords can still die upon them. I fear neither death nor pain.