Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Though Peter Jackson shot the three Lord of the Rings films simultaneously, the technical progress from Fellowship to The Two Towers is immediately evident: the CGI is more detailed even as it expands to absurd dimensions, Jackson's more direct camerawork no longer clashes so garishly with the poetry of the location shooting and set design, which looks even better than it did in the previous film. Indeed, for better or worse, the massive expansion of scope in The Two Towers paved the way for the swords and sandals epic that became a brief fad in the middle of the decade after Gladiator set up the foundation. (The genre eventually fizzled out after most of its entries lost money, with audiences just smart enough to realize they were paying money simply to see LOTR again; still, while we had to suffer mediocrities like Kingdom of Heaven, we also got some fantastic works like... the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven).

The enlarged scope of the action, however, almost entirely eliminates the personal feel of its predecessor. Bifurcated into separate plots involving Sam and Frodo's suicide mission to Mordor and the remaining Fellowship members' fight against corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), the story must leap great distances to follow its characters. Indeed, compared to the endless close-ups of Fellowship, Two Towers tends to track movement through extreme long shots in bird's-eye views, dwarfing characters against the beautiful New Zealand, and where I complained last time that Jackson kept cutting to close-ups when I wanted to see more of the world around the characters, these long shots often prevent an emotional connection with the characters. If it seems at this point that I simply cannot be pleased, know that I am wondering that myself.

Yet one must acknowledge that, compared to the first film, Two Towers zips along with vigor: Fellowship spent a notable chunk of time (particularly in the extended cut) simply roaming the idyllic Shire, giving some time to characters who have no impact on the rest of the story. Following an eight-minute montage of Middle-Earth's past and the history of the One Ring, Jackson never cut away from the Shire until the 32-minute mark and only moved away to other locations once or twice for the rest of the first hour. Within the first 32 minutes of The Two Towers: we see a longer version of the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog that continues after he falls; Frodo and Sam making their way to Mordor, meeting, capturing and "taming" Sméagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis); Saruman's Uruk-hai and Orcs march captured Hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) until the reach the edges of Fangorn forest and the two factions begin killing each other before Men arrive to slay the stragglers; another contingent of evil creatures terrorizes and burns the homes of the people of Rohan; Saruman converts his home, Isengard, from a lush garden into an industrial nightmare to breed (literally) an army; Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn chase after the Uruk-hai who captured Merry and Pippin; Théoden, King of Rohan, is so poisoned by the spell of Saruman that he banishes his brave and loyal nephew Éomer and does not even acknowledge the death of his own son; then, finally, the three Fellowship members chasing the Uruk-hai stumble upon Éomer and other banished soldiers.

Phew. To Jackson's credit, he never flags when jumping across different perspectives and huge physical distances, but here he's missed the point that he understood with Fellowship: The Lord of the Rings isn't about the plot -- which is ultimately no more complicated than a journey from point A to B -- but the finely detailed minutiae that turned the simple act of a long-as-hell hike into one of the great works of 20th century literature. Jackson barrels ahead in such an action-oriented mindset that character and atmosphere falls to the wayside:Legolas and Gimli become nothing more than comic relief, more so even than Merry and Pippin: Tolkien wrote the characters to comment upon intolerance and xenophobia, but they bond here only through light insults and fascistic displays of murderous violence (this existed in the book, but it was never a true competition between the two). Compare their tedious boasting to the bit in the extended cut of Fellowship in which Gimli is so overwhelmed by Lady Galadriel's beauty that he can ask her for nothing but a single hair from her head, and the deference he feels for Elves afterward. Éowyn (Miranda Otto) and Éomer have nothing to except pine for Aragorn and be surly, respectively.

The most troubling development is the massive rewrite of Faramir's story: in the book, Faramir (David Wenham) and his Gondorian Rangers stumble across Frodo, Sam and Sméagol, he questions Frodo and Sam about the Ring and his slain brother Boromir and then releases them, aware of the danger of the Ring and unwilling to risk its corruption to wield its power. Jackson and co. completely rewrote the character into someone scarcely different from his brother: "Filmamir" manhandles the Hobbits and tacitly condones the beating of Gollum, even choking the creature twice in rapid succession in their last moments together. Faramir does not release the Hobbits at first but drags them to the besieged city of Osgiliath, sure that the Ring will somehow help Gondor's fortunes. By the time he does display the nobility and wisdom that separated him from his brother, it's impossible to distinguish between the two. A flashback (deleted in the theatrical cut but available in the longer edition) helps explain the Faramir's motives for attempting to seize the Ring, but it's simply not enough justification. Jackson added such a massive deviation because he moved the book's climax to the third film (rightly so, to correspond with the actual chronology of events), but he ruins a great character in the process, undercutting Faramir's moral fortitude to stress the necessity of Aragorn's return to the throne. Jackson would have served himself better by simply making the more epic Helm's Deep sequence the full climax and using the time allotted by cutting this stuff out by fleshing out the world to the degree he did in Fellowship.

Of course, when Jackson deigns to let us wander a bit, Two Towers has the same epic poetry that its predecessor contained in greater abundance: Rohan is a nondescript, wide-open plain -- the Kansas of Middle Earth -- but Helm's Deep is a masterpiece of miniature construction. A stone behemoth carved from the mountain it's connected to, Helm's Deep promises a hell of a fight before anything happens; for my money, the battle sequence that takes place here trumps the larger one in Return of the King. It lacks some of the dodgy CGI of the later sequence, and it's epic without brushing up against the border of absurdity (oh, that Oliphaunt riding thing continues to grate, doesn't it?). For that matter, Isengard is also a terrific creation, nicely juxtaposing the furnaces of industrialism with the hellfire of Mordor. The real treat of the film, though, is simply following Sam and Frodo on their quest to Mordor: the Dead Marshes, Emyn Muil, the Black Gate of Mordor. All of them look fantastic and suitably unsettling and unwelcoming, offering the only true ambiance of the film.

And, behold, great character development exists, in the form of a completely animated character. Looking back, if Two Towers' animated battle sequences paved the way for mass epics, then Gollum revealed that heavy animation in live-action films could carry emotional weight. He's a masterpiece, owing both to the incredible work by Weta Digital (only occasionally can you spot moments where the technology used on him has dated) and the exceptional, award-worthy performance by Andy Serkis. He captures the character(s) perfectly, imbuing the split personalities of Sméagol and Gollum with such depth and distinctive originality that one can always tell "who" is speaking at any moment -- to find a similarly bravura performance, one would have to turn to Nicolas Cage's performance as the twin Kaufman brothers in Adaptation. He could have been nothing more than a set piece, a bit of technology to be ogled at but never explored (like, say, the magnificently rendered creatures of Avatar), but Serkis and the writers give him pathos and empathetic qualities. Nothing else in the rest of the trilogy is as brilliant as the shot/reverse shot conversation between Sméagol and himself: initially funny, it morphs into a heartbreaking portrait of a wretched creature tortured by a curse that destroyed far stronger people.

So, for all of The Two Towers' flaws, it's still incredibly entertaining, indeed probably the most viscerally and immediately enjoyable of the three. For that reason, it has its ardent defenders, but I can't help but view it as the odd one out; the pendulum simply swung too far from "overly intimate" to "epic but impersonal." Furthermore, where the additions in the extended cut of Fellowship let us languish a bit more in this beautiful world, the deleted scenes of Two Towers interrupt its narrative momentum, breaking up its breezy pace with moments of limp comic relief -- yes, I suppose that Éowyn's lack of cooking skills reflects upon her predisposition to fighting and not "woman's work," but the way this is used to signify her masculine outlook on life is just sexist. Besides, they don't make a convincing case for her warrior spirit (save for a few tough-talking lines here and there) when she spends nearly all of her screen time staring atAragorn with longing eyes. Yet even if The Two Towers is the only one of the trilogy to be hampered by its additional scenes, it has enough breathtaking action scenes and moments of quieter beauty to make the task of sitting through its hefty length an easy one.


  1. 'oh, that Oliphant riding thing continues to grate, doesn't it?'

    Does it?? I have no problems with Legolas surfing on shields, swinging around horses necks, fucking up giant elephants, whatever. Orlando Bloom isn't gonna give us any fireworks, so WETA digital might as well go crazy.

    But on to serious matters. I don't think the Faramir stuff is that bad, tbh. I loved the character in the book, but I agree with the filmmakers -- translated to the screen, there's just not enough there. In the book, Faramir pretty much shrugs off the temptation of the ring. Having invested a film and a half establishing the ring's power, the writers had to do something more dramatic, or the audience were just gonna get confused. I don't think what they resorted to devalues the character. He still makes a different choice. And the extra flashback scene adequately explained the conflicting pressures that lead up to that choice. (I think that scene is probs the most important addition to the extended cut). So I'm pretty happy with the way Faramir turned out.

    The stew scene didn't ring any sexism bells for me. Doesn't Eowyn's lack of culinary skills, and yet her socially allotted role of cooking for the menfolk, rather suggest a comment on female oppression? Also, I don't remember the scene too well, but wasn't it more about her relationship with Aragorn, and wasn't it mostly about the funny? In any case, Return of the King hit loads of female empowerment notes, so I'm inclined to think the writers knew what they were doing.

    But otherwise: another fine review! Totally agree about Gollum. His schizo scene MAKES this film. I also admire the way it does the very difficult job of tying Helm's Deep and Osgiliath together thematically, through Sam's speech at the end. You need that unity for the film to work as a film, and not just part two of a trilogy. I think it's the most impressive writing feat in the whole series. Doesn't quite pull it off, sadly. Fellowship and Return still pack a much bigger punch.

  2. Oops. My post's a lot longer than I thought. Apologies for spamming...

  3. Your post was in no way spam.

    My problem with Eowyn in this film (not ROTK) is that she's all over the place: she's a kind and loving caregiver for her uncle, then she's smitten by Aragorn. Then she turns around and delivers pissy, vague dialogue about the lot of women in society and demonstrates her lack of classical oppressed femininity (which she displayed in abundance earlier) with bad cooking. This is pure speculation and thus should be taken with a grain of salt, but I kept thinking that Jackson wrote the character one way and then his female writing partners wrote her the proper way (i.e. independent and Spartan), and the resulting clash diluted her to the point of bizarre ambiguity.

    As for Faramir, I do understand why they felt the need to spruce him up a bit, but I would rather they have added some suspense to the decision to take or release the Hobbits while in the Forbidden Pool instead of adding half a third act's worth of stuff. Really, I just didn't like how Jackson took Sam and Frodo's arc, which was beautiful and haunting and personal and borderline poetic, and force it into a rigid plot like everything else in the film.

  4. Right on, Jake, I couldn't agree more with your analysis of the Faramir re-write. Of all the changes Peter Jackson made for the movies, I thought that was the worst. Turning him into Boromir Part Two was a huge mistake in my opinion. I always thought that the point of the contrast between Faramir's and Boromir's responses to the lure of the Ring (as well as Boromir/Aragorn's responses, and the similarities between Aragorn and Faramir) was to show that it was possible to resist its power if one possessed a truly pure and noble heart. Boromir's lust for power made him susceptible to the Ring, while both Faramir and Aragorn were attracted to what the Ring seemed to offer, but were able to master their desire to possess it (or at least were able to send it away so as not to fall prey to the temptation).

  5. I don't see that contradiction in Eowyn's character. Surely an empowered woman can be kind and loving as well as 'spartan'. Or if there is a contradiction between a desire for freedom and attachment to the things keeping you oppressed, surely that only reflects that much more powerfully the feminist experience.

    However, I take your point on Faramir. His arc does weigh in on the Frodo-Sam-Gollum relationship. I found him interesting enough to go with it, but I understand why it could be frustrating.