The Lord of the Rings 2: The Two Towers

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Runtime: 179 mins. Reviewed in Dec 2002
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Rating notes:

Following last year’s highly successful “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” director Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth with “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (New Line), the much anticipated second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.”

Having garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, last time around, Jackson once again flexes considerable creative muscle. He impressively orchestrates an army of technicians and crew and a cast of thousands, seamlessly blending live action and cutting-edge digital effects in bringing to life a timeless fable of the eternal struggle between good and evil.

With an epic price tag of $300 million for the trilogy, New Line has a lot riding on the film’s ability to work similar magic at the box office as its predecessor did.

“The Two Towers” takes up the action where the last film left off. The Fellowship — a band of nine companions representing the free races of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits — has been broken. Their quest to destroy the One Ring seems all but doomed. Already, two of their number have fallen: Boromir (Sean Bean) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the benevolent and wise wizard, lost in mortal combat with the Balrog, a fire demon, at the climax of the previous film.

In his tower fortress of Barad-dur, the dark lord, Sauron, who forged the Ring ages before, has set his malicious will on reclaiming it, and wielding its power to master all of Middle-earth. Vying with Sauron for control of the Ring is Saruman (Christopher Lee), an evil wizard of insatiable ambition. From his own stronghold at Isengard, the second “tower” of the title, he has unleashed his army of vicious Uruk-hai orcs to seek out his coveted prize.

Splintered into three groups, the ragtag members of the Fellowship remain firm in their resolve to see their mission through to completion, no matter what the cost.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), the Ringbearer and reluctant hero, along with his fellow hobbit and trusted friend, Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), find themselves alone and lost in a desolate wasteland. Chosen by fate to carry the Ring into the shadowy region of Mordor and cast it back into the fires of Mount Doom from which it came, Frodo is already showing signs of wearying under its corrosive weight. They soon discover they are being trailed by Gollum (Andy Serkis), a pathetic, mercurial creature, himself warped by the Ring. His familiarity with the terrain is equaled only by his lust for “his precious” (the Ring), making him a valuable but dangerous traveling companion.

Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), also hobbits, abducted in the last film by Saruman’s orcs, have escaped their savage captors and fled into the mysterious forest of Fanghorn.

Among the forest’s eerie boles, they encounter an unlikely ally, an Ent named Treebeard (voice of John Rhys-Davies). An Ent is a sage-like tree shepherd and one of Middle-earth’s most ancient inhabitants, whose forest has been decimated by Saruman.

Meanwhile, the remaining members — the valiant warrior, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elfin archer, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the bellicose dwarf, Gimli (also John Rhys-Davies) — track their comrades to Fanghorn.

To their disbelief, they happen upon Gandalf, resurrected and transfigured as an ethereal Christ-like figure. He journeys with them to the besieged kingdom of Rohan, a Viking-like nation of horsemen. Rohan’s king, Theoden (Bernard Hill), has been bewitched by Saruman through the manipulations of the duplicitous court adviser Wormtongue (Brad Dourif).

With Saruman’s vast army on the warpath, Aragorn and Gandalf must forge an alliance with Theoden and ready Rohan for a massive, climactic battle against the forces of darkness, with the future of mankind and all Middle-earth hanging in the balance.

Though much of the box-office appeal of “The Two Towers” is sure to be generated by the film’s spectacular visual effects and epic scope, Tolkien — a lifelong, devout Catholic — chose to emphasize the underlying religious concepts as the wellspring of his story’s lasting appeal.

While borrowing heavily from classical Celtic and Norse mythology for inspiration, especially the Icelandic sagas, it is orthodox Catholic theology that forms the bedrock upon which the various themes explored are built.

True to the spirit of the book, Jackson incorporates several such themes into the film. “The Two Towers” is a veritable passion play, with Frodo serving as a Christ figure, bearing the Ring, an emblem of sin, like a cross on his own Via Dolorosa — selflessly exercising free will, willing to sacrifice even his life so others might live.

The Ring symbolizes the Catholic understanding of the parasitic nature of evil. The Ring, in and of itself, has no power beyond its subtle but potent ability to corrupt the desires of all who come in contact with it.

Other Christian motifs recurring throughout the film include the redemption of sinners (Gollum), communion with nature versus materialistic industrialization, death and immortality. Even the Elfin “Lembas bread,” which sustains Frodo and Sam throughout their trials, echoes the Eucharist. The story’s overall message of hope in strife, and the ultimate victory of light and goodness over darkness are as reassuring to our troubled times as they were when Tolkien wrote it during the horrors of the Second World War.

Though aficionados should respond enthusiastically, the film’s myriad characters and three-hour length may prove daunting to the uninitiated. While strangers to Middle-earth can still enjoy the film’s exciting, escapist tenor and stunning effects, those unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work are at a distinct disadvantage. It would be well worth watching “The Fellowship of the Ring,” available on video and DVD, before seeing “The Two Towers” — or, better yet, reading the books.

Having originally been conceived as part of a single story, “The Two Towers” seems more like the middle act of a longer work than a traditional sequel. Despite the film’s imposing running time, large portions of the 400-page tome had to be streamlined, resulting in much of the action unfolding at a dizzying pace, without the luxury of the clarifying exposition afforded by the first film.

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