A Film by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson's second installment in his sweeping cinematic adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, like the second book itself, had to pick up where things left off at the end of Fellowship: in the middle of a sprawling, complex epic. And like the second book, this film must come to an end without coming to a resolution. Given such narrative constraints, The Two Towers can't satisfy us with a complete story. Nor can it dazzle us with a completely fresh vision: we've all seen Fellowship. So while the meticulous filmaking, flawless casting and stunning New Zealand scenery are still gratifying, they aren't really new. Towers can't help but suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome.

And for all that, the movie doesn't merely work. It triumphs.

This film will immediately grab you and not let you go for hours, perhaps days. From the opening scene, in which Gandalf battles the smoking Balrog as they both fall into the bowels of the world, to the magnificent conflagration at Helm's Deep, the film storms forward, always beautiful, always entertaining. Jackson succeeds with a simple strategy: remain true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Tolkien's masterpiece. If anything, he has deviated more from Tolkien's text than he did with Fellowship--as I'm sure no shortage of whining Tolkienites will delight in pointing out. But for all the compromises, Jackson hews just as close to Tolkien's vision as before. Surely, he had both opportunity and motive to inject his own vision--and that of his corporate supporters. Another director might have caved. Alternatively, another director could have translated Tolkien's vision with more fidelity -- but not with such cinematic power. Jackson continues to walk an intractable high-wire. Two thirds of the way across, he hasn't fallen yet.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in Jackson's Middle Earth. Gimli, the redoubtable dwarf-warrior, is played up for laughs, usually at a moment of danger, a ploy that only works against dramatic tension. It's such a hackneyed Lucasian tactic, a nod to that damnable C-Threepio (who always rubbed me the wrong way), that I can't understand how Jackson fell into it. The subplot of Merry, Pippin and Treebeard feels as if somebody stuffed it into the movie here and there, wherever it would fit. The gifted and perfectly-cast performers find it difficult at times to deliver Tolkien's wooden dialogue without sounding...well, wooden.

But who cares? Middle Earth is majestic, Frodo's plight is heart-rending, Sam's devotion is quietly heroic, Theoden's grief and shame are palpable, and the hordes of Sarumon are so horrific you can...smell them. The battle sequences are bone-splitting, jaw-dropping, heart-pounding. The climactic fight for Helm's Deep is already being compared to the glorious and terrible violence of Kurosawa's Ran and Kagemusha. I think that's extravagant, but Jackson's rendition of Helm's Deep is certainly a monumental balance, constantly shifting its focus between the sprawl of clashing armies and the plight of individual warriors, a presentation of unimaginable violence without reveling in gore. And throughout this sequence, the viewer never gets lost in the fog of war. We always know exactly what's going on. It's a breathtaking achievement.

And then...there's Gollum. Helm's Deep is awesome and stirring, but Jackson's computer-generated Smeagol, haunting and pitiable, is the film's real triumph, its spiritual core. Gollum is perfectly realized, an homunculus of the human spirit, at once embryonic and degenerate. Frodo recognizes Smeagol, and so do we. He is us. Like the monster in Gardner's Grendel, Smeagol is the twisted innocent that lives in Everyman. He has bound himself to a thing, and his lust to possess it superposes with his desperation to be free of it. The Ring has cleft Smeagol in twain. His predicament is so human it hurts. I can't say enough about the power and pathos of this animated miracle.

As I left the theatre, I couldn't help wondering: what will be the impact of Jackson's achievement? How will the images and ideas from these wildly popular movies resonate through our culture, and will the effect be superficial or substantive? It's anybody's guess, of course--unlike Middle Earth, Postmodern Earth tends to revile the sublime and exalt the profane.

Jackson uses Sarumon as an icon of the evils of industrialization, and in the middle of Towers Christopher Lee intones a heavy-handed manifesto for earth-raping capitalism and the virtues of a military-industrial complex. In The Lord of the Rings, the good and noble live in harmony with the earth, defending their woods, mountains and plains from the genetically-engineered orcs who issue forth from the smoking factory-pits of Isengaard. How will the culture digest this representation of good and evil--if at all? Of course, it would be silly to credit George Lucas with the fall of Communism, and it's wildly premature (and optimistic) to predict that LOTR might temper, at some unconsious level, our civilization's unbridled love affair with overdevelopment and our infatuation with military and economic might. More likely LOTR will just spawn a Mount Doom of non-biodegradable Aragorn action figures and an orgy of orc-pleasing Happy Meals.

Still...I wonder if anybody else will be haunted by the image of Sauron, the very last image of The Two Towers: the evil, all-seeing eye, hovering atop the DarkTower over a polluted wasteland, guiding the armies that will subdue the world for Mordor. Of course, I'm just being silly. After all, Jackson started his production long before we began our War on Terror, and certainly before the Dark Lord Poindexter took command of Total Information Awareness, whose icon is an all-seeing eye floating over a pyramid of dead rock.

Sullydog Approves.

Reviews Index