"The Two Towers," the second installment of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," is a magisterial caesura. That may be an odd thing to say about a movie that climaxes with one of the most amazing epic battle sequences ever put on film, a movie that, like its predecessor, conjures up new worlds seemingly every time you blink your eyes, a film that keeps dropping wonders into your lap like precious gifts casually given.
With "The Two Towers" it seems very clear that we are in the midst of one of the great achievements in fantasy filmmaking and in epic filmmaking. Pauline Kael once said that directors die on movies of this magnitude and turn into technicians. Miraculously, Peter Jackson hasn't died. The filmmaker is alive and well alongside the tactician he must have had to become to pull off the feat of turning Tolkien's books into movies. For all the lushness and wonder on the screen in the two installments we have seen of "The Lord of the Rings," there are also tremendous reserves of discipline.
You could hardly blame Jackson if he fell in love with the sets created by production designer Grant Major and let Andrew Lesnie's camera dote on them. But the strictness of both Jackson's pacing and D. Michael Horton's editing tells you that you are in the hands of people who realize that wondrous effects are only good to the extent that they advance narrative and deepen emotion. Jackson has set the standard against which all other special-effects movies must be measured, not just because what we see here is so spectacular but because Jackson never allows the effects to become the movie's raison d'être.
That discipline is especially important in "The Two Towers" because the film is the difficult middle child of the trilogy, without either the cumulative storytelling power or emotional surge of "The Fellowship of the Ring." It's a fractured tale that cuts between the temporarily broken band of the fellowship as they meet separate challenges on their way to destroy the evil power of the Dark Lord Sauron. Frodo (Elijah Wood, whose performance is both intensely physical and vibrating with a sense of spiritual terror) and his faithful companion Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin, whose doughy cheeks bring the movie a grounded touch of the ordinary and familiar) are making their way to Mordor to dispose of the Ring of Power, which will destroy the dark forces.
Separated from these two, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen, whose performance brings the character close to being one of the movies' great romantic heroes), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom, with his angelic pixie looks), and the dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, whose boisterous aggression and appetites make him deeply funny) are on the trail of hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who have fallen into the hands of the Orcs. Hanging around the edges of the story are Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who has been transformed into an even more powerful wizard, and his dark doppelgänger Saruman (Christopher Lee, who, with a stick-thin build that seems as if it were being eaten away by sheer corruption, looks like Rasputin reincarnated as an evil saint).
And there are new characters: Théoden, the King of Rohan (Bernard Hill), whose kingdom is threatened by Saruman's army of Orcs and who has fallen under the spell of one of the dark wizard's minions, Gríma (Brad Dourif -- with his black stringy hair and Dwight Frye grin, he looks completely at home in the world of Tolkien). There is also Théoden's niece Éowyn (the Australian actress Miranda Otto, who also looks at home in Tolkien but for reasons having to do more with enchantment than evil), who begins falling in love with Aragorn -- whose own lady love, Arwen (Liv Tyler), may be sailing to the Undying Lands of the west with the rest of the elves to escape the coming wrath of Sauron.
These films have been impeccably cast. I don't know why, playing a wizard, McKellen should seem more human and be more likable than he has ever been on-screen. It can't be just the bulbous fake nose that gives him a touch of fleshiness. It's that he plays Gandalf with a mischievous sagacity that, in the dramatic scenes, translates into real authority. And as in the first film, we continue to experience the terrors of the heroes' quest through the blue of Elijah Wood's wide eyes. Wood manages the very difficult feat of playing a good character without becoming sappy or dear. When the ring starts to weigh him down (literally) we fear for Frodo because we are confronted with the real possibility that this good hobbit will go bad.
And that possibility is reflected in the movie's major new character, Gollum. No movie creature has been as mesmerizing since the initial appearance of Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back." The role is credited to the actor Andy Serkis, and apparently Serkis (who also supplies the voice of the character) was present acting in the scenes and his image was then computer animated. However the filmmakers did it, Gollum is a stunning creation. He made a brief appearance in the first film, the creature in the dark pond hissing about his "preciousssss," the ring that Frodo's uncle Bilbo discovered and took away from him. He reenters here, tracking Frodo and Sam, determined to retrieve his precious, and winds up as their guide to the land of Mordor. But what kind of guide?
Gollum, whose real name is Sméagol, was once a creature quite like the hobbits. He was driven mad by his lust for the Ring and the movie implies that his fate is the one for which Frodo is headed. Gollum is inhabited by both his former self, who surfaces as a painful memory of lost contentment, and the mad, grasping passion to which the Ring has felled him. If Gollum is to work at all, we must find him pitiable in his wretchedness and, I'm assuming thanks to the combination of the CGI and Serkis' performance, we do.
He appears both wizened, his body shrunken like that of a frail old man, and with the unlined skin of a newborn. There is something fetuslike about Gollum, both figuratively and literally, especially in his wet, baby-wide eyes. He is unformed, a creature who can go either way. The strangled, hissing voice that Serkis employs conveys the sense of a creature in pain beyond his comprehension. We are both repelled by Gollum and moved to compassion. There wasn't a second he was on-screen when I felt I could take my eyes off him. He is the most amazing of this installment's wonders.
That scanty plot summation may give you an idea of how disparate the story is in terms of location alone. It also hints at the niggling dissatisfaction of "The Two Towers." Because it is the middle of the story, the film doesn't offer the anticipations of a story's beginning or the resolutions of its end.
Here I have to make a confession. Though I believe it's generally the critic's duty to know the sources of literary adaptations, I have never read Tolkien. I fully intended to after seeing "The Fellowship of the Ring" but -- perhaps I may be forgiven for this! -- because I was so thrilled by the film, I simply didn't want to know what would happen next. The changes that Jackson has made here, which have been outlined to me by a trusted friend who knows the books backward and forward, may outrage some Tolkien purists. But if the opinion of someone who hasn't read the books is worth anything, it seems to me that there is one way that Jackson has honored what I have long heard Tolkien admirers speak of: the author's creation of a new language.
Despite the fact that the first two installments of "The Lord of the Rings" (and, I imagine, the final one) are overwhelmingly visual, they also seem to belong to a great tradition of oral storytelling. Think of how the first movie begins, with the screen shrouded in darkness for what seems like minutes while a narrator introduces us to the story and images slowly emerge. To someone who hasn't read the books, the words here have an almost incantatory strangeness. During both movies I found myself wondering, "How do you spell those names?" and trying to imagine how any combination of letters could do justice to the richness and weight of the words and names that set your imagination racing.
What we are watching here is just part of one long film. That's the peril of judging it in isolation, which is what seeing it spread out over three Christmas movie seasons compels us to do. "The Two Towers" isn't a botch or a falling off. Jackson doesn't violate the cardinal movie rule of telling us instead of showing us -- he doesn't wallow in exposition. But we sometimes feel whisked away from one plot strand when we want to stay with it for a while, and that division of our attention hinders the movie's dramatic momentum. Given the nature of the story, I'm not sure there was a better solution.
This problem is particularly noticeable in the sections where Merry and Pippin are taken up (literally) by Treebeard, the head Ent, a guardian of the forest who looks like a giant walking tree. The movie periodically cuts back to Treebeard leading them to his forest home and it seems as if they are walking and walking for days. Those scenes feel as if Jackson had suddenly remembered Merry and Pippin and dashed back to check on them.
Jackson must have sensed that. He ends the Merry and Pippin thread with some of the movie's most extraordinary images, of Treebeard and the Ents convening in an open glade before setting out to do battle. (And the battle scene featuring the Ents is sheer magic. There's a shot of an Ent ducking his flaming branches in the spume of a rushing flood that happens so quickly you register it on the rebound -- it's like a doodle on your subconscious.)
And the sequence isn't an isolated bit of magic. The glittering images Jackson puts on-screen are an embarrassment of riches. Like the sight of the years literally dropping from Théoden's visage as the curse on him is lifted. Or a flashback to Gandalf's battle with the Balrog, a huge, dragonlike creature. Or the warrior Orcs, as terrifying as they were in the last movie, with their skin looking as if oil-smeared leather had been dragged over their bones (you imagine the foul stench they give off whenever the Orcs are on-screen).
Then there is the battle of Helm's Deep, about which it is not too much to say that Jackson risks comparison with the great battle sequences of Akira Kurosawa and D.W. Griffith. (The sight of the massed Orc armies arrayed for battle recalls the epic precision of the troops arranged for battle in Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus.") The sheer scale of this battle scenes doesn't lend itself to the horrible intimacy of the hand-to-hand combat in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Those scenes, in which we were conscious of the physical exertion of the warriors, of their being smeared with earth and sweat, called up Orson Welles' staging of the Battle of Shrewsbury in his "Chimes at Midnight" (for my money, the greatest battle sequence ever put on film). The combat in that film anchored the fantasy to a recognizable physical reality. It gave some weight and tragic resonance to the film.
In "The Two Towers," the battle of Helm's Deep seems to take place in some vision of hell dredged up from our collective imaginations. Théoden and the armies of Rohan, assisted by Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli, are besieged in their fort by 10,000 Orc fighters in the midst of a pitch-black rainy night. At the beginning of the scene you can't imagine that that sky will ever clear, and it seems to be the dread and blood lust seeping out of the skins of the combatants that have turned it black. The sheer size of the sequence is awe-inspiring (particularly the sight of the Orcs' raised spears, which appear to go on for miles). But it's not just the size that's impressive here. Jackson has staged and shot the scene with a masterly clarity, the sort that most contemporary action directors can't seem to manage in a simple shootout. It's not just that Jackson is succeeding on an epic scale here, it's that he's working on a scale most directors wouldn't dare.
The battle of Helm's Deep is the strongest evidence of what is so startling about Peter Jackson as a filmmaker. Unlike almost any other director I can think of who dares to work on an epic scale, Jackson doesn't seem to have a whiff of megalomania to him. There may be simple reasons for that. The fact that the relative economy of his budget (and when the average action movie costs nearly $100 million, $270 million for three three-hour movies is bupkiss) compelled him to keep focused. But I think something else is at work, not only Jackson's sense of duty to the legions of Tolkien admirers but his own love for the material. It may even be that the story of heroes who have put themselves at the service of a cause has inspired him to put himself at the service of the material.
The film has the feeling of teamwork, as if Jackson were engaging his production crew and cast in his own grand quest. If humility is possible in epic filmmaking, Peter Jackson possesses it. Time and again in "The Two Towers" the camera swoops over the mountains and valleys of Middle Earth and you think that this must be what it's like to see with God's eyes. Luckily, Peter Jackson hasn't forgotten that he's a human being.