Friday, December 20, 2002

Movie review: "The Two Towers"

Being a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, it was with more than a little apprehension that I entered the theater this time last year to see the first installment of Peter Jackson's silver screen version of "The Lord of the Rings." But "The Fellowship of the Ring" was so impressive that when I lined up for the opening of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" on Wednesday, I had nothing but excitement and anticipation.

Apparently I wasn't the only one. After what seemed an interminable wait for the lights to go down, the packed house broke into applause as the trailers began to play. After that, it was off to Tolkien's magical land of Middle-Earth.

For those worried that this one can't live up to the hype, forget about it. If anything, "The Two Towers" outshines its predecessor. It has all of the amazing effects and gorgeous settings, but it injects a healthy dose of action into the mix. The most hardcore Tolkien purists may be disappointed a bit by the trumped-up battle scenes, but no one else will. They're fantastic eye candy and make for some compelling dramatic moments.

Jackson does take a few liberties with the story, but the changes are primarily cosmetic - a slight tweaking of the timing, a few minor scenes removed, a brief continuation of the Arwen/Aragorn thread and the delay of a couple of scenes for the third film due next Christmas. All in all, there was nothing that I really missed, and I'm pretty picky about that sort of thing.

If you haven't read the books or seen the first movie, you might want to check it out before going. Like the books, the film version of "The Two Towers" dives right into the action without any backstory, and there's a good chance you could be lost if you're not familiar with the tale.

The movie opens by telling the story of Gandalf's fall from the bridge over Khazad-dum and his ensuing battle with the Balrog. The effects are stunning as the wizard and the computer-generated demon battle while plummeting through the center of the mountain. It also prepares viewers for one of the key twists in the movie, (the wizard's transformation into Gandalf the White.)

From there, the story continues its march to the final showdown with Mordor. With Gollum as guide, Frodo and Sam move along on their journey to Mount Doom with the one ring becoming a greater burden, while battle is joined in the rest of the world. Saruman's forces move against the kingdom of Rohan, while Sauron's armies converge on Gondor in an attempt to crush the human lands between them. The elves are boarding the ships that will take them to the Grey Havens and the dwarves are locked in their mountain halls. It's a bleak picture for the world of Middle-Earth, but despite that there are strong threads of hope and determination running through the movie.

Overall, "The Two Towers" is a very intense film, but Jackson also knows where to provide viewers with a laugh from the dwarf Gimli or one of the hobbits to break the tension.

Jackson's casting continues to be picture perfect, with the choice of Bernard Hill as Theoden, Miranda Otto as Eowyn and Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtongue. Despite the excellent casting, it's a computer-generated character that really steals the show.

Viewers became acquainted with Gollum briefly in "The Fellowship of the Ring," but he takes a larger role in "The Two Towers." We learn that he was once named Smeagol, and there's a particularly impressive sequence as the two distinct personalities emerge and battle for control over the creature. Gollum/Smeagol is the most fully-realized and believable computer-generated character that I've seen, and he was able to draw a wide range of emotions from the packed house in the theater - laughter, pity, disgust and even perhaps a bit of fear.

Of course, there's always a character or creature to look forward to. In "The Fellowship of the Ring," it was the Balrog. In "The Two Towers," it's Treebeard and the Ents. I had nightmares of the great tree-herders looking like the talking trees from "The Wizard of Oz," but Jackson has done a magnificent job of bringing them to life. They're not exactly what I imagined while reading the books, but they're still very impressive.

In truth, there are times in the movie when the viewer knows everything on the screen is computer generated, but it hardly seems to matter. You get caught up in the swirl of the story, and everything is completely believable.

With his version of the second installment of Tolkien's trilogy, Jackson ratchets up the drama and excitement for the conclusion, "Return of the King," which promises to be the best of the three films. The only downside I can see in "The Two Towers" is that we have to wait another year to see the conclusion.

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