I think it’s safe to say that The Lord of the Rings is easily one of the most important trilogies of my generation. While the baby-boomer had the original Star Wars trilogy, us early 90’s kids had The Lord of the Rings. True, The Phantom Menace came out a few years before The Fellowship of the Ring, but even as a child something about Episode I rang hollow to me. It wasn’t until 2001 when I, a scrawny nine year old child, sat down at my local theater to watch what would turn out to be one of the most awe-inspiring films of my short life. I vividly remember holding back the incessant urge to pee, and the pain of my numbing butt, in order to continue watching the three hours of pure epicness unfolding before me. So, as you might imagine, I was ecstatic to hear that Peter Jackson was returning to Middle-Earth for The Hobbit. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to revisit one of my favorite trilogies of all time in preparation for The Hobbit. For the next week or so, I am going to re-watch all three of The Lord of the Rings films and see if they’re as amazing as I remember, or if I am simply fond of them due to my nostalgia for my childhood. I’m not necessarily going to review each film, but rather discuss how the films hold up today over a decade later.
Having already broken down The Fellowship of the Ring, let’s move on to the second installment in the blockbuster trilogy, The Two Towers
The Two Towers is widely regarded as the best entry of the Lord of the Rings series and for good reason. It is the perfect middle chapter that continues the story of the first movie, sets up for the final chapter, and has its own contained narrative, all within a three-plus hour film. It also doesn’t hurt that it has one the best and most epic battles in film history and introduces one of the most memorable characters of the last decade. It is for many of these reasons that The Two Towers caused me to fall in love with the Lord of the Rings series.
As I stated in my Fellowship of the Ring write-up, as a kid I wasn’t initially enthralled with the series and its universe. I was definitely intrigued and entertained, but it was The Two Towers that initially cemented my obsession and love for The Lord of the Rings. So it’s an understatement to say that I was excited to get the chance to re-watch one of my favorite childhood films, especially one held in such high regard. However, I was even happier once I had finished the film, confident that it was just as amazing as I had remembered. Like with Fellowship of the Ring, my memories and opinions of The Two Towers remained consistent throughout the re-watch, and again I was able to appreciate these films unlike I ever had before.
The first thing that sticks out about The Two Towers is its significantly darker tone. Whereas Fellowship of the Ring was a relatively lighthearted adventure film, The Two Towers is a surprisingly dark depiction of war and death. While no main characters die in this film, there is a much larger body count, both with Orcs/Uruk-hai and with random human and elf civilians. There are drastically more battle scenes and a lot of darker imagery. Fellowship had the benefit of being the introduction to the series and the world so it didn’t need to be as dark; there didn’t need to be as much at stake. The Two Towers, however, is the start of the end of the story, so the stakes need to be raised. The world needs to feel like its bursting at the seems with danger and death so that our heroes can rise up and save it, or else the conflict, and the movie as a whole by default, is meaningless and hollow. Peter Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens perfectly achieve this by making the odds inherently tipped in the dark forces favor. Sauron and Sarumon are both striking at the hearts of Men, Sauron in Gondor and Sarumon in Rohan with tens of thousands of Orcs and Uruk-hai. This immediately heightens the tension as you finally witness the devastation that the Dark Lord Sauron is truly capable of, which is mostly only spoken of in the prior film. The rest of the film follows suit, as we get a greater glimpse into the mindset of the Orcs and Uruk-hai and their desires for hobbit flesh, the rings increasingly dark influence over Frodo, and a creepy pale stalker who’s willing to sell out his entire race in order to get what he wants. It’s a grimmer and more mature film, but it’s also an all around better film than Fellowship of the Ring.
One of the major reasons Two Towers is able to upstage Fellowship is the many fantastic additions the filmmakers make to an already elaborate story. You would think that Fellowship had more than enough characters and locations, but Two Towers manages to one-up the previous film by introducing some of the most memorable people and places of the entire series, with a significant addition being the kingdom of Rohan. Rohan itself is an amazing setting, filled with mountainous plains as far as the eye can see. Jackson perfectly manages to capture the spirit of Rohan through unbelievable set design and camerawork. Almost every shot of the Rohan countryside is breathtakingly beautiful and exceptionally crafted. Every single building and hut has an elaborate design that is unique to the Rohan people and their customs; they’re so elaborate that it’s hard to watch the film without thinking about the amount of hours it must of taken to build each part of the set. However, as good as the sets are, it’s the characters that inhabit Rohan that really make their mark, specifically King Théoden who is expertly played by Bernard Hill. Théoden’s introduction and subsequent freeing from Sarumon’s grasp is a fantastic scene, and for the rest of the film he chews the scenery as the conflicted king who is desperately trying to protect his people.
Théoden’s desire to keep his people out of harms way leads to one of the best sequences of Lord of the Rings, The Battle of Helm’s Deep, which was easily one of my favorite parts as a child. As I mentioned in my Fellowship write-up, nothing is better to a pre-teen boy than epic battle scenes, and The Battle of Helm’s Deep was the quintessential battle scene of my childhood. I remember reliving the battle over and over again both in the videogames and in my head as I daydreamed in class. It was one of the most awe-inspiring moments I had ever scene on film, and it remains to be one of my favorite battle scenes ever a decade later. While the actual battle itself is incredible, the build-up to it is just as fantastic. The scenes as young boys are taken and given armor as their mothers cry behind them is heart-wrenching and topical even today, and the scene when Théoden reflects on his decision to bring his people to Helm’s Deep as he dresses for war is a great insight into the mind of a leader who has had to make an impossible decision.
However, no matter how good the build-up is, it easily could have all fallen flat had the execution of the actual battle been lacking in anyway. Thank god for Peter Jackson though, as he manages to create one of the most intense and satisfying battles of my generation. It’s one long forty-minute battle scene that is perfectly paced. You never once think about when it’s going to end, you get so wrapped up in it and everything that’s at stake that you pretty much forget you’re watching a film. Jackson also manages to put in some fantastic comedic relief through the competition between Gimli and Legolas over who’s killed the most Uruk-hai. This is a brilliant move by the screenwriters as it leavens some of the tension and pokes fun at the fact that Gimli and Legolas have some serious plot-armor.
As fantastic as The Battle for Helm’s Deep is, it still isn’t the best part of the film. That honor goes to the one and only Gollum. To say that Gollum is one of the greatest achievements in the past decade of film can be an understatement. The combined forces of the performance, technology, and filmmaking create such a believable and nuanced character that has never been replicated quite as well as Jackson and Co. did with Gollum. It’s amazing just how remarkable and realistic the CGI for Gollum still is today. I think it’s safe to say that there still hasn’t been a CGI character that has managed to outshine Gollum, thanks to both Andy Serkis’ amazing performance and the mind-boggling work done by WETA on the CGI. Every movement and action Gollum has with both the environment and the other characters feels completely real, to the point where you start to forget that he’s a digital creation and not an actual creature. The way his face is able to completely change in any given second is a huge testament to the unparalleled work done by WETA and their animators.
While the technology played a big part in bringing Gollum to life, it is the writing and Andy Serkis’ performance that make him truly memorable and the best character of the series. When you first meet Gollum, he appears to be nothing more than an evil, paranoid, and insane creature. However, as the film progresses we see that Gollum is at war with himself and the influence the ring has had on him. He’s almost like a drug addict in how badly he needs and desires the ring, but there is still a part of him that tries to resist its temptation. You can visibly see how conflicted he is and how the ring has created another personality within him. The ring has physically and mentally dilapidated him to the point where he no longer looks recognizably human. Gollum also serves as a perfect foil to Frodo, who wants more than anything to believe that Gollum can overcome the rings influence, that way there is still some hope for Frodo. While many of these ideas are thanks to the writers, they easily could have been unrecognizable if it wasn’t for Serkis, who completely devotes and loses himself in the role. The amount of physicality and insanity Serkis brings to the role is incredible and Oscar worthy. He is so convincing as both Sméagol and Gollum that you truly want Sméagol to win out and regain control. He is a fantastically nuanced character and represents a huge stepping-stone in the development and hybridization of CGI and performance.
There is one last thing I want to bring up before I wrap this up, and that’s the fact that I’ve been watching the Extended Editions of the films for the first time for these articles. While I’ve always heard the Extended Editions were significantly better, I had already purchased the regular theatrical cuts at the time so I never got the opportunity to watch the Extended Editions. Now that I have, I understand what everyone was talking about. While I didn’t think the Extended Edition of Fellowship of the Ring was significantly different or better, there is a lot more extra footage in The Two Towers extended version that really adds and enhances the story, specifically the back-story given to Faramir in which Sean Bean gets to briefly reprise his role of Boromir. As I stated last time, Boromir was one of my favorite parts of Fellowship, so any more Sean Bean is a welcome addition. However, that isn’t what makes this scene so great, it’s rather the way it fleshes out the familial relationship between Faramir, Boromir, and their father. It makes Faramir a much more sympathetic character and helps flesh out his actions in the film a lot, so much so that I felt they could have cut other parts of the film in order to keep this scene in, that’s how great it is. I was initially hesitant to watch the Extended Editions thinking they may skew my perception of the films, but in the end it was a great decision cause I get to experience parts of Lord of the Rings I never have before.
Even more than Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers fell completely in line with my expectations and even managed to exceed them in some aspects. I never was able to truly appreciate the nuance and amazing technology that went into Gollum and the Battle of Helm’s Deep, so it was amazing getting to re-experience these aspects and get to really appreciate them. It’s remarkable how much I love about this film that I still haven’t mentioned yet, like the Ents, Aragorn’s increased character development, and Sam’s escalating courage. There are just so many different aspects of this film that work perfectly that it would take an entire essay for me to mention everything. So I think it’s safe to say that The Two Towers hasn’t lost any of its prestige in the last decade. It is still an incredible achievement and an all around great film that should have no problem standing the test of time. Now onto the final chapter, The Return of the King!
Article by James Hausman