The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Directed by Peter Jackson

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Peter Jackson's The Two Towers is an impressive, entertaining, but seriously flawed film.

The Fellowship having dissolved, Frodo, accompanied by Sam, continues on his quest to bring the One Ring to Mordor. Meanwhile, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn chase after Merry and Pippin, who have been captured by orcs, and their pursuit leads them to the kingdom of Rohan, which is currently being endangered by the traitorous wizard Saruman.

For most viewers, both those familiar with Tolkien's books and those who are not, The Two Towers will be a rousing adventure. The special effects are stunning, the production values are consistently high, and the acting is generally good. The movie is, however, burdened with a number of serious problems which are likely to trouble at least a few people.

One of the first film's greatest faults, its use of some of its characters as comic relief, is even more of an issue here. The antics of Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) and the silly rivalry between Gimli and Legolas (John Rhys-Davies and Orlando Bloom) are especially annoying. Comedy can be effective in serious dramatic works, but only when it is funny, and it is not here. At one point, for example, unable to see over the battlements behind which he stands, Gimli requests a box to stand on. The movie is full of such clever moments.

The Two Towers also suffers from occasionally sluggish pacing. The middle of the movie, in particular, which depicts a series of melodramatic occurrences revolving around the character of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensesn), is a vapid mess. The dream sequences included there create a tedious morass and should have been edited out. Even the events leading up to these scenes ought to have been removed. The director attempts to use them to create tension about Aragorn's survival, but the incidents he depicts are so manipulative that they are completely unaffecting.

Even the often praised concluding battle left me unstirred. Ralph Bakshi did a better job at depicting the battle in his 1978 film. The action is not particularly dramatic, and the repeated attempts at comedy ensure that whatever tension the director builds up is quickly dissipated.

Sadly, what interest the film is able to arouse in the viewer with such scenes is completely erased by its meandering and pointless ending. Although The Two Towers does not complete the story being told, the dramatic impact of the movie's conclusion could have been heightened. Instead it just peters out. Bakshi's film, by contrast, does build up to an impressive denouement. Tighter editing could easily have enhanced the tension evoked and, consequently, made the victory over Saruman (Christopher Lee) more satisfying.

Some contrast with Tolkien's books should be made at this point. Movies and books are different media, and a movie based on a book (or the reverse) can be judged without reference to its source material, and certainly is by those not familiar with the source. That said, those who are familiar with a book will come to a movie based on it with some expectations of fidelity. When the director of such a film presents material different from that in the book, he should do so because such changes enhance the quality of the movie. When changes would negatively affect the movie, they should not be made. Many of the changes Jackson makes are of the latter kind.

The introduction of an army of elves into the Battle of Helm's Deep, for example, appears to be motivated largely by a desire to have more elves in the film. It serves no other purpose and is absolutely contrived. What is more, their marching in order and turning their heads in unison towards the camera is completely ludicrous. I was torn from a mythic world to a vision of a parade of US Marines with pointed ears.

Among the most conspicuous changes Jackson has made to the book are his insertions of various contemporary touches. Tolkien frequently infused his writing with deliberately archaic qualities so that his dialogue, the societies he depicted, and the values and motivations of his characters all evoke a world substantially different form our own. Jackson's screenplay largely obliterates such differences. By bringing the world of the film closer to our own, the director has, no doubt, rendered his project more commercially viable, but he has also significantly reduced its ability to conjure up some timeless, mythic world. Worse than this, many of the actions of the film's characters are gratingly ridiculous and much of the dialogue is just bad. Even without reference to Tolkien's book, changes to the screenplay would have made The Two Towers a better film.

Finally, it should be noted that the extended director's cut of the movie available on DVD is better than the version released theatrically. Some sequences are more cohesive, and some inconsistencies in the shorter version are resolved. Although many of the problems with the theatrical version are a result of Jackson's having left in the film scenes that should have been excised, the longer version is actually better. The scenes that should have been cut in the one should still have been cut in the other, but those added do on the whole improve the film.

Jackson was perhaps a little too in love with his project. Had the middle of the movie been removed, the end re-edited into a more dramatically compact entity, and some of the dialogue rewritten, he could have produced a much better film than he has. He made no such changes, and we are left with a sweeping but ultimately unsatisfying epic.

Review by Keith Allen

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