I haven't read "The Lord of the Rings", J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novel, in about two and a half years. I haven't seen "The Fellowship of the Ring", Peter Jackson's first installment in his big-screen adaptation of Tolkien's novels, since an eagerly anticipated night-before-opening-day sneak preview a buddy and I saw last December. I haven't even gone to the Internet, or my copy of the books, to further research Middle Earth's lore.
So when I found myself in a crowded theatre this afternoon, just as the final preview ended and the film was about to begin, and I overheard the girl beside me ask the fellows she was with, "So, where did we leave off last time," I panicked. For I did not remember either! Struggling to hear them over the din of the THX sound-system, I thought I was lost. But then I remembered: Jackson had helpfully included an informative prologue, and much-needed narration, in the first film. Would he do the same for the second?
All begins well, as we are given a recap of one of "Fellowship's" most harrowing episodes: Gandalf defeating, and then perishing at the hands of, the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. We even get a bit more of the scene, as we follow the Grey Wizard and the fiery demon's fall. One epic long-shot, of their slow decent into the waters below, got my adrenalin pumping all over again, armed with the knowledge that not only has Jackson retained his eye for startling and thrilling imagery, but he is also willing to help the ignorant audience members along.
Or so I thought.
For despite the flashback prologue, and some in-movie narration by Galadriel, Gollum, and Sauron himself, "The Two Towers" demands that its audience is knowledgeable of not only the first movie, but much of Tolkien's mythology as well. It is for this reason and this reason alone that I give it a 4-star rating, instead of the previous installment's much-deserved five. Despite some minor nitpicking -- such as the lack of visual cues when changing from scene to scene, or the wasting of Liv Tyler, or Sean Astin's inconsistent accent -- I can say, with some measure of confidence, that the rest of the flick is damn near perfect.
Technically, as would be expected by anyone blown away by "Fellowship", this film is another stunner. Jackson's native New Zealand stands in for Middle Earth, and does yeomen's work looking epic and war-torn all at once. Jackson's camera, manned once again by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, sweeps around the landscape like a curious fly, capturing every bit of the action and always moving swiftly. That being said, the audience never feels like the film is out of control, such is the precision of the shot selection. The images the camera catches are gorgeous, being made up of bright light, or forbidding darkness. The music, again by Howard Shore, is understated and lush, capturing the mood of each scene with relative ease. Production design, art direction, sound design, makeup, costumes
all of Jackson's departments are again running on full steam. The film is a wonder to behold, without ever even considering the actors or the story.
The story is divided along three separate narrative paths. The fellowship, as we learned in the first act ("The Two Towers" is not a sequel, but the middle-third of one long story, which might explain Jackson's tactics), split apart. It has also been pared down to eight from nine (after the demise of Boromir), and those eight are all back, some as more complex characters, some relegated to being just plot devices.
The first story follows Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), as they continue on their journey to Mount Doom, where the One Ring must be destroyed to save mankind. Frodo is still a wide-eyed innocent, but with a touch of world-weariness about him. Wood's adolescent face and bold blue eyes do a lot of work portraying this, but Frodo as a character is given much less to do. He is almost relegated to the background. His traveling companion, Sam, after being just a bit player in the first act, is almost his equal in this part of the story. Astin does his very best playing the "fat hobbit", but in some of the more dramatic scenes is clearly not up to the challenge.
They are joined on their quest by Gollum, the former owner of the Ring ("my preciousssss"). Gollum is, to my eyes, the most perfectly rendered fully-CGI character ever seen on screen. He makes Jar Jar Binks look like a pencil sketch. Gollum moves and slithers along the rocky terrain with ease, interacting with his environment and his human counterparts most organically. The expressiveness of his face dwarfs (pun intended) many of his human counterparts. Voiced by Andy Serkis, he is also the film's most intriguing character. His schizophrenia is showcased in one tour-de-force mono/dialogue, that had the audience both laughing in the aisles and terrified by the depths of his insanity. Jackson and Co. are bucking for Serkis/Gollum to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination. If this is a sincere endeavor, or just intentional tilting at windmills, I'm behind them.
The second story follows the other two hobbits, Meriadoc, a.k.a. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Peregrin, a.k.a. Pippin (Billy Boyd), after they escape from the Orcs who captured them. Much of Merry and Pippin's tale, at least in the context of this movie, is superfluous. Sure, they are the ones who find the Ents (an ancient society of tree people that reminded me of Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" series; come to think of it, the final battle at Helm's Deep, full of violence and action and drama, reminded me of a similar final battle from "Army of Darkness"), and hook up with the wise but dim Treebeard, but whenever the two former merrymakers appear on screen, the narrative comes to a screeching halt.
The third story begins by following Aragorn the Man (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) as they try and rescue Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, far and away my favourite character from the books, is still stern and serene in Mortensen's hands. But it is his unforgiving and stubborn nature that makes him such an intriguing character. Mortensen is at ease in the hero's skin, his confidence contagious for the other characters. Legolas doesn't get to do too much more than he did in the first act, but he doesn't need to. Bloom is such a gracefully physical actor, that his natural charisma carries the day for his character (also, he gets two or three of the movie's finest stunts). Gimli, once again, is the film's main source of comic relief. Not a moment goes by when he's onscreen that doesn't mine a laugh (we even get a second crack at the dwarf-tossing joke from "Fellowship"). Sometimes the jokes come at the most inopportune moments, like smack dab in the middle of the battle to end all battles, but most of the time they are a welcome change from the film's high tone of seriousness.
The last of the original fellowship is Gandalf. It's not spoiling much to say that he is back this time around (Ian McKellan, exuding wizardly authority, is once again front and centre on the film's poster), but the way in which he arrives is a moment too thrilling and poetic to spoil.
The script, this time credited to Jackson, Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair, is deep, contemplative, lyrical, and structurally sound. It rumbles and tumbles to its inevitable conclusion -- an epic battle at Helm's Deep, the impenetrable fortress of the people of Rohan -- while taking time along the way to shed light on the conflict inside the characters ("Three hundred lives of men I've lived on this earth," Gandalf notes at one point, "and now I have no time") as they gallop towards their inevitable demise.
The script also turns in on itself, as when Sam innocently asks of Frodo, "Will they tell our story?" This scene was shot well before "Fellowship" became a box-office phenomenon, and stands as an indication of Jackson's confidence, and of his victory over Tolkien's "unfilmmable" story. Of course they'll tell your story, Sam. And they'll be watching this movie, its predecessor, and most assuredly its successor, for generations to come.
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