Beware what you wish for. Words I'm sure Peter Jackson has reflected on many a time in the past two and a half years. After finding a studio to back his dream to bring The Lord of The Rings to the screen, Jackson spent 18 months and a quarter billion dollars to create his vision. Lurking in the back of his mind must have been the realization that the failure of the first chapter would have meant the possible ruination of a studio and the knowledge that the remaining two chapters would sit in the can, never to see the light of day. Luckily for Jackson, The Fellowship of the Ring went on to earn over $800 million dollars and unanimous accolades from fans and critics alike. Now all he has to do is repeat this success two more times.
With the fellowship dissolved, things are indeed looking grim. Frodo and Sam have set out for Mount Doom, and must rely on Gollum, the devolved, delusional, former owner of the ring, to guide them. Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli, meet new allies to their cause and rediscover lost friends, but the joyful reunion is short-lived when they learn that Saruman has dispatched his minions to destroy the stronghold at Helm's Deep, the first assault in the all out battle for Middle Earth.
Anyone expecting the contemplative, leisurely pacing of `The Fellowship Of The Ring' with it's in-depth character development, and ethereal venues will be shocked - action is the watchword for `The Two Towers'. Jackson wastes no time with the obligatory drawn out flashbacks, opting to jump straight into the fray, and notches up the adrenaline quotient in the process. The editing is quick, and deliberate, the settings dark and oppressive, and battles are many.
Once again the cast turn in solid performances. Just as Viggo Mortenson imbues Aragorn with a regal charisma that shines through his bedraggled appearance, Ian McKellen's reinforces Gandalf's evolution, commanding your attention whenever he is onscreen. I especially enjoyed Gimli's role as comic foil - quick with his axe or a zippy zinger - he adds the only real humor to the proceedings. Elijah Wood is the standout once again, demonstrating an even a wider range of emotions and ability. I must admit that I feel sorry for him - he has managed to do such an outstanding job as Frodo that he is going to be typecast for eternity (not that there are many roles for hobbits in other films.) I would be remiss if I failed to mention Brad Dourif who exudes putrescence as the diabolically reptilian Grima Wormtongue - I kept waiting for his forked tongue to peek out when he was speaking. There are two additional new characters of note.
I was unsure how Jackson et al. were going to flesh out Treebeard, the leader of the Ents - I had no difficulty imagining how he should look while reading the book, but didn't know how they would bring him to the screen. I needn't have worried - the CGI work is smooth, natural and avoids being cartoonish (some of the other Ents do not fare as well). And then of course there is Gollum.
Arguably the most important character in the novel - nothing could have transpired without him - it was essential that he be properly rendered (with regards to appearance that is). Rather than talk to a ball on a stick (a favorite prop when dealing with CGI characters), Jackson had Andy Serkis, the actor who delivers Gollum's lines, wear a motion capture suit while he acted his scenes with Wood. The digital wizards at Weta works then turned to custom designed software to create the final screen character. The results are exceptional - Gollum's expressions, movements, and speech are fluid and realistic. On to the action.
While editing the initial footage that had been shot for the Helm's Deep sequence, Jackson decided that they did not impart the spectacle that he intended, so he gathered cast and crew together and went back to New Zealand to shoot additional footage. His instincts proved right. The final product - a combination of live footage and CGI (driven by MASSIVE, his special effects department's customized AI software, which allows the characters to `think' and `act' independently) blend seamlessly. The entire sequence is superbly scored and further enhanced by the sound effects - a cacophony of thunderous chanting, metal on metal, and screams of agony and victory - plunging the audience into the midst of epic orgy of destruction. Phenomenal.
I do have a few caveats however.
I'll start with my pet peeve, the 360 pan shot (where the camera spins around the characters). Whether showcasing vistas or highlighting dramatic moments, this can be a highly effective technique - when used sparingly. But when it gets used at least a dozen times in the first twenty minutes of the film, I say enough already (I was starting to feel a tad queasy). `Two Towers' is definitely not a standalone film - those not familiar with the books (or even the first film), are bound to miss not so subtle references and risk being left out altogether in other scenes. This was evident from the several people, including the friend that I took to the screening, who kept turning to companions for explanations. Also, the battles between Gollum's dual personalities (Slinker and Stinker as Sam Gamgee calls them) are too frequent - the intended dramatic moments become almost slapstick, diminishing their intended effect. One of two `battles' would have sufficed. The Tolkien purists however are sure to cry the loudest.
Jackson takes more substantial liberties with the source material than he did in his first outing. And we're not just talking about incorporating appendix material here (the Aragon/Arwen debate) - there are several fundamental changes. While these do not detract from the story - indeed some actually enhance the story (it is after all a screen adaptation), it took me awhile to get used to them. Stay out of any LOTR chat rooms for the next few months.
Ultimately, Jackson has produced an apt `sequel' to the first film, which is engaging, enjoyable and exciting and he deserves to be lauded for his efforts. But I'll bet even money that he gets stood up again come Oscar time.
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