Few projects in the history of motion pictures have been as ambitious as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. The director - previously best known for the riveting thriller Heavenly Creatures - filmed his three-part version of J.R.R. Tolkien's acclaimed work back-to-back, with the intention of releasing one every Christmas for three consecutive years. I have not read the books and was not sure this movie trilogy was the kind of thing I would be into. But when I actually saw The Fellowship of the Ring, I was hooked. Now comes the eagerly anticipated second act: The Two Towers. It's a sign of how greatly Jackson's efforts are appreciated that the crowd in my local cinema broke into applause as soon as the words "New Line Pictures Presents..." appeared on the screen.
Our heroes are now travelling in different directions, but the goal remains the same. The infamous One Ring, capable of harnessing evil, must be thrown into Mount Doom and destroyed. Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) makes the trek to the volcano with his trusted companion Sam (Sean Astin). They are met by Gollum, the troll-like creature who initially possessed the ring and would desperately love to have it back. Frodo convinces Gollum to help them get to the Black Gates of Mordor, but Sam is distrustful of the little creature.
Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Legalos (Orlando Bloom) enter Rohan kingdom, which is in a state of disarray. The king (Bernard Hill) has fallen under the spell of evil Saruman (Christopher Lee), who wants to invade the kingdom. Aragorn strikes up a friendship with the king's niece, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), and eventually leads the Rohan army in defending their land. They get an assist from Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who was previously presumed dead.
Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) find themselves wandering into Fangorn Forest, where they encounter Treebeard - a walking, talking tree with an almost royal presence. Saruman has destroyed Treebeard's forest, so he too has a stake in the action. There are also return appearances from Arwen (Liv Tyler), the elf whom Aragorn loved, and Elven Queen Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett.
What was a problem was that the movie didn't recap the events of part one. I found myself sitting there trying to remember who certain people were and what they wanted to accomplish. A quick summary of previous events, a la the openings of the Star Wars movies, would have helped. Compounding that problem is the fact that, as with the original, I didn't understand all of it. Tolkien's universe is so complex and intricate that unless you're a die-hard Rings fan, you might need a scorecard to keep it all straight.
However, I am not complaining. The very things I responded to in Fellowship of the Ring are on display again here. Mostly, I love the richness of Jackson's interpretation. He doesn't dumb down the movie; instead, he luxuriates in the fullness of it. Like Tolkien, he creates an entire world that you can happily get lost in. The director stages plenty of epic battle scenes that are astonishing in their size and scope. A lot of CG effects were used, and although all of them are breathtaking, they are more than a simple demo reel - they add a crucial reality to Middle Earth.
The characters remain compelling too. Despite all the battles, this is primarily a story about the people. Characters like Frodo and Gandalf are hard not to like; their heroism comes from bravery and intelligence, not from brawn. Even Aragorn - who is front and center this time - achieves heroism through skill and deftness. I admire the way each of them has more than one dimension. It makes me want to follow them on their journey. Even a character like Gollum, who is completely computer generated, has more than one side. His cowardliness bumps into a darker, more malicious side of his personality, rendering him one of the most unforgettable movie characters of the year.
The Two Towers has the kind of ambition that few movies these days have. Going to see it is an event. Next year brings the third and final installment. I can't wait to see where the adventure will take us next.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images. The running time is 2 hours and 59 minutes.
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