Thursday, December 15, 2016
Best of the 2000s: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
In my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I remarked on how interesting it was to return to Fellowship in the wake of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit, because I thought many of the critiques reviewers made about The Hobbit 1-3 were apparent in Fellowship, such as a surplus of characters and a dearth of interesting dialogue. Well, critics raked Jackson over the coals for his tendency toward bloat in their reviews of The Hobbit 1-3, a tendency that was on full display the previous decade in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
Once upon a time, Miramax was going to create a two-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but when the project went to New Line Cinema under the stewardship of Jackson, the project increased to include an additional film - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was never supposed to exist, and it shows. Two Towers has no beginning. It has no conclusion. Worst of all, Two Towers doesn't even feature a compelling confrontation between a protagonist and an antagonist. The primary antagonist of Two Towers is Saruman (Christopher Lee). It's hard to say who the main protagonist is - Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) maybe? It doesn't matter. The film's villain, Saruman, never meets anyone who might be considered a protagonist. Consequently, Two Towers simply lacks everything necessary to focus or maintain a narrative.
Jackson has made some changes to Tolkien's original narrative in this middle chapter, but the essential framework remains the same. Two Towers follows the characters of the now broken 'Fellowship of the Ring's' attempt to thwart Saruman's plan to conquer the Kingdom of Rohan. Unfortunately, in Jackson's rewrite, Saruman's plan makes no sense. Saruman begins by raising an army of orcs or uruk-hai (I confess, I can't tell the difference between them). Then, he visits a group of peasants (or something) and exhorts them to rise up against the 'Horse-Lords of Rohan' (who are some people [maybe] from a place the viewers have barely seen). Who these peasants (I'm going with peasants here) are, where they live, whether they have an extant political grievance against the Horse-Lords - none of that is actually explained. I know I decried the narration that opened Fellowship, but Two Towers would have benefited from a little bit more exposition.
All that said, this initial cavalcade of unexplained mysteries is not what really knocks Two Towers off track. After Saruman's initial machinations begin, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) ride to Rohan's rescue and discover that Saruman has taken control of the mind of King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill). That's not how Tolkien wrote it, but the upshot is that in Jackson's rewrite the entire war in Rohan never needed to happen. Saruman had conquered Rohan before the film even began without even drawing a sword. There's no need for the orc/uruk-hai army, no need for the inexplicable peasant uprising, and no need for the Battle of Helm's Deep.
The Battle of Helm's Deep was much hyped when Two Towers was initially released. On a second viewing, that hype is much ado about nothing. From the second, Aragorn and Company arrive in Rohan, they are informed that Rohan’s army is insufficient to defeat Saruman’s, and they stomp around feeling sorry for themselves and their imminent demise.
But why? Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are each more powerful than Saruman's entire army. In the opening scene, they discuss how they have been running for three days without any food or rest while running. Legolas can see human sized orcs/uruk-hai at a distance of twenty or thirty miles in great detail. Shortly afterwards, Aragorn demonstrates his ability to precisely reconstruct skirmishes from the previous night by looking at slightly disturbed dirt. Once the Battle of Helm’s Deep actually begins, Legolas and Gimli don’t appear to be too concerned about their hopeless situation. They simply calmly tick off the number of orc/uruk-hai kills they are racking up. They appear to be able to kill each of their enemies with a single blow or arrow. At one point, Aragorn throws Gimli onto a bridge crowded with orcs/uruk-hai wiping dozens of them off the map at once. Legolas fires arrows while surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield and never misses. That’s a thing that happens in this totally awesome, believable, serious, meaningful movie that is beyond criticism. The characters are simply too powerful for all their jawing about their imminent death to mean anything to the audience. Worst of all, this allegedly hopeless battle never comes to pass because Galadriel (Cate Blanchett who hasn’t been seen since the forest encounter in the last movie) has some kind of long distance telepathic conversation with Elrond (Hugo Weaving, also unseen since sometime in the previous movie) who sends an elf army to aid Rohan. That's right, in addition to being more powerful than all the faceless CGI monsters Jackson can throw at them, these characters are saved by deus elf machina.
Amid all this, the ostensible protagonist of The Lord of the Rings saga, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), ends up feeling remarkably unnecessary in this movie. Actually, the guy bearing the Ring could be lifted completely out of The Lord of the Rings 2. Not only would this not damage the film, it would improve it. One of the worst aspects of Two Towers is its ending. I hate a cliffhanger ending, but this ending isn't just a cliffhanger. It's a cliffhanger worthy of part one of a two part episode of a children's cartoon.
And yet, nine reviewers named it one of the best films of the 2000s. Two of them named it (as part of the trilogy) the best film of that decade. Why? It's continued technical achievements? There's nothing here that wasn't in Fellowship. It's epic scale? It's all on hard drives. Jackson wasn't commanding a cast of thousands using flag signals.
I really think the reviewers just gave New Zealand's landscapes 5 Stars. I'll give New Zealand 5 Stars, but Two Towers is a 2 Star film, and I might even be being generous there.
Next time, I'll finish my sojourn in Middle Earth when I review The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
From Out in the Void,