Holiday moviegoers should be forewarned: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, while not to be missed, requires an adjustment from its blockbuster predecessor, The Fellowship of the Ring. Decidely a middle part, The Two Towers adopts the first film's "gathering storm" motif into this film's melody. J.R.R. Tolkien saw his Lord of the Rings as a single novel, its three parts now inspiring three separate film releases. Filmmaker Peter Jackson--by filming the new trilogy primarily in one long shoot--observes the story in faithful spirit, and this "part" is, distinctly, a middle part.
Similarly judicious in adaptation to the first film, The Two Towers again makes smart use of montage and narration to insert breaths into the ballad and remind the audience of the far-flung story elements (one of these breaths comprises the entirety of Cate Blanchett's role in this installment). Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), the awestricken but heroic Hobbits, continue their mission to defend and ultimately destroy a dangerous and magical Ring, which represents the devilish corruptive power of its maker, the Dark Lord Sauron. Meanwhile, the other members of the splintered fellowship of heroes protect themselves from the enemy--Sauron's minion Saruman (Christopher Lee) and legions of Uruk-hai warriors--while mustering the strength to fight back. A pitiable creature named Gollum forges a tentative alliance with Frodo and Sam, while man-who-would-be-king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) entrenches himself in the besieged kingdom of Rohan.
The compounding of portents here--building to the epic battle of Helm's Deep--may test the patience of more casual filmgoers, but the payoff is all the more striking for the meticulous restraint which precedes it. Jackson ensures that viewers will experience palpable tension--even fear--at the sight of the enemy's long-expected approach. The breathless battle itself--a supreme projection of countless mythic clashes from centuries of storytelling--maximizes all of the formidable tools at Jackson's disposal: marvelous sets, the stunning convergence of choreography and composition, dazzling special effects, and nobly archetypal--yet credible--acting.
Though the effects elsewhere in the film lack the immersive effect of the battle, the sheer volume of them cannot help but impress. Gollum, thanks to the human efforts of actor Andy Serkis and a large team of animators, works; the best work goes into the trickiest bit--facial expression--while too-fluid CGI body movement comes up a bit short. The other creatures--the furry Warg and the wooden (literally) Ents--come off as more unreal, but what do you want from a fantasy? The talking-tree Ents--led by the grave and amusingly slow Treebeard--have a certain clunky charm which cannot help but evoke another eternal film fantasy: The Wizard of Oz.
Though the first film will likely remain more indelible as a driven wellspring of adventure, The Two Towers's novelistic flair produces richer themes within its singular frame. Deepening the notion not only of the external war of good and evil, but the internal one--most notably explored in the first film's Boromir--screenwriters Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair express in Gollum a mad schism. The Two Towers also--thanks partly thoughtful reshoots--alludes to its own power of myth to speak to successive generations with regenerative relevance. Here, a post-9/11 audience remains receptive to the core visual and narrative theme: the light of hope against the power of darkness.