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Monday 23 December 2002

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Directed by Peter Jackson

Reviewed by John Shirley

Is it even possible to fairly review The Two Towers, as an individual film? It seems more dependent on The Fellowship of the Ring and the film it presages, The Return of the King, than Godfather II was on the first Godfather film; it's even a little more of a bridge than The Empire Strikes Back was for the original Star Wars trilogy. It may be that the only fair way to review any of the Ring films is to review the whole cycle at once.

But despite being a narrative bridge, The Two Towers is a powerful cinematic experience, for anyone not set against this kind of fantasy — and some people are, despite the general adulation. The story follows Frodo and Samwise as they penetrate further into Mordor, the land where evil does not hide itself. Here they are attacked by Gollum, only to enlist him as their guide; Gollum — Smeagol — has his own quest for the Ring of Power, his own deeper inner quest for hope and light. Smeagol tries to accept Frodo as Master, and feels, briefly, what it's like to have a wholesome place in the world.

They pass through the Dead Marshes, with its nightmarishly preserved corpses, a setting which Jackson presents sharply. Here there's an anomalous horror-moment, a corpse inevitably opening its dead eyes, Frodo briefly falling into the clutches of some malign spirit, a moment to which Frodo doesn't quite fully react. Later they clamber through mountain passes to the very gates of the fell bastion, witnessing marvels — and we marvel, too, at what they see.

The quests of Smeagol and Frodo are derailed, for a time, when Faramir, brother of the tragically weak Boromir, takes them prisoner, and discovers the Ring in Frodo's possession. Planning to turn the ring over to Gondor, Faramir forcibly takes Frodo, Sam and Gollum to ravaged Osgiliath, where, in a nicely realized scene with a fearful Nazgul on a sort-of dragon, Frodo nearly surrenders the ring to Sauron. Perceiving he's in over his head, and hearing how the Ring destroyed Boromir, Faramir — perhaps a little too suddenly — lets Frodo go on his quest.

Meanwhile, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are in hot, impossibly protracted pursuit of the orcs who're carrying Merry and Pippin to Isengard, running many days and nights without food or rest. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters play the "try to make you think they're dead" card again (though I doubt anyone is ever fooled by this), as Aragorn is made to think the hobbits have been killed. But he uses his Ranger abilities to track them to the great forest Fangorn, where they're said to have fallen in with a mysterious white wizard. We suppose this wizard to be Saruman but he turns out to be the returned Gandalf, now Gandalf the White, transformed by his roaring, exquisitely filmed battle with the Balrog and a mystical experience in the aftermath — the latter is something expressed more profoundly in the book. In one of the Christian parallels that Tolkien liked to pretend weren't there, Gandalf seems to have died and... been resurrected.

It's not clear enough how Gandalf sets their minds at rest about these hobbits they've tracked for endless weary days, but somehow he does, and sends them to help out with the beleagured Rohan, where Wormtongue has undermined King Theodan, now gone senile and feebly indecisive. When Gandalf comes to Rohan with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, he reveals his ascendancy to a higher sorcerous level, thrusting Saruman's ghostly presence from Theodan, who instantly rejuvenates to a man in his prime. Saruman is sent skidding away, as a visible presence — and then we don't see what happens to him. The evil sorcerer was there in Theodan's great hall — where did he go? Why doesn't anyone remark him? Probably only Gandalf sees this entity, and we're seeing what Gandalf sees magically, Saruman simply vanishing, but some viewers might find this confusing, and it could've been clarified. [Note]

A vast army of mutated orcs marches on Rohan — a powerful, imaginatively intricate use of special effects — and Theodan leads his people to the lonely citadel of Helm's Deep, which he mistakenly believes impregnable. Here a great battle takes place, quite vivid, often breathtaking, if not always lucidly laid out; for example, Jackson could've made it clearer when a battle was taking place within the breached outer wall.

The men of Rohan are vastly outnumbered, but an army of elves comes to shore up defenses, and Gandalf rallies other forces: hope is renewed. Aragorn's newly minted relationship with Eowyn, niece of Theodan, and the apparent dissolution of his troth with Arwen, are handled in sweetly dovetailing flashbacks. Flashbacks are often problematic, but they're used in The Two Towers so expertly it's all of a piece; not a cinematic stitch is dropped, not a beat missed.

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin meet the treelike Ents, Merry cunningly bringing wise old Treebeard to see the destruction wrought by Isengard on the forest, so that the ancient, craggy old tree-herder is motivated to attack the tower of Saruman — for the environmental statement is sharply defined in The Two Towers, as the trees take their revenge against clearcutters and the mindlessly industrial.

Theodan's struggle to regain his kingly gravitas and decisiveness, the delightful relationship between Legolas the elf and his unlikely friend Gimli, Frodo's brinksmanship with the temptation of the Ring, all of this is superbly handled, within the inevitable limitations imposed by the financing studio — but the moral core of the film is with Smeagol. A lesser filmmaker wouldn't have spent so much time on Smeagol's struggle with the wicked self (which we see, literally, as Smeagol sees it, two contrasting Smeagols arguing). We see the workings of conscience dramatized, all rather resonant of C.S. Lewis's work, somehow. (Lewis was a presence in Tolkien's life when he was writing The Lord of the Rings; indeed, Tolkien read the manuscript aloud to Lewis.) The scenes showing Smeagol's personal agony are an important cinematic milestone — and I don't mean because of the admirably advanced CGI in use to create Gollum/Smeagol. We see the two natures of humanity starkly displayed, the tension between them, the disastrous result of the inability to trust, the incapacity to sacrifice: the fundamental human dilemma, acted out. This is what's greatest in Jackson's The Two Towers.

There is perhaps not enough of Saruman in this film, and certain large events in the novel The Two Towers are skirted or put off to the third film — those are the hard decisions of film making, and will probably turn out to be necessary. Though perhaps not exactly Tolkien's story, the film will satisfy most Tolkien fans.

The special effects are stretched to their limits. Though magnificently designed, some of Mordor looked like miniatures, and Smeagol — well, this is bound to be controversial, but I've always felt it was a mistake to make Smeagol a special effect. Despite the motion-capture, and the excellent voice acting, and though they do as good a job as the art can presently do, he doesn't look quite real, especially at first. But it's interesting how we collaborate, mentally, with the film makers: how when we first see Yoda in Star Wars, he looks like a puppet, but after awhile we've adapted him in our mind's eyes so he looks realer. The same mind-trick works very well with Gollum, helped by meticulous detail on his skin, his contact with Frodo's clothing, wetness clinging to him after he's in the water, and so on. I think filming a good actor, with some prosthetics, would have done better than motion-capture-enhanced CGI, but that's a subjective call. Ultimately, Gollum/Smeagol works. And so do the Ents, a little better. They're very well designed — one doesn't think of those talking trees in the movie of The Wizard of Oz at all. Or scarcely.

Count on some backlash to the adulation heaped on this film — some Britishers, who hate the twee, seeming cutsiness of elvish things associated with British culture, have already reacted, calling the whole thing kitsch, over rated pseudo-myth-making, mere escapism. But Tolkien was always about the human condition at the level of the great ebb and flow and crashing breakers of symbolized history. Tolkien rarely has the inspired lyricism of a Shakespeare or a Keats, but he's a great poet in his way — in Tolkien, the drama is the poetry.

Note: John Shirley acknowledges he (and his companions at the theatre, as it happens) were confused by the scene in The Two Towers where Gandalf exorcises Saruman from the king of Rohan — he knew Saruman was in Isengard but thought this 'sending' of him was visible, as it was expelled, in Rohan, but what we see of Saruman in the scene is something happening in Isengard, as a number of readers have pointed out. "I must've blinked — the editing could've been sharper there."

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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