Peter Jackson has always kept that The Two Towers is “the second act” of his magnificent undertaking, and probably the true greatness of the middle chapter will only be evident when viewed in context. As a stand-alone film, however, The Two Towers is not quite as good as Fellowship. (Nor, indeed, does it extend the universe or deepen the relationships in the manner of The Empire Strikes Back.) That it still merits the full five stars is merely an indication of how high the benchmark has been set.
Following the Fellowship’s events, this is in some aspects a darker entry, with Frodo (Wood) falling further under the influence of the Ring (giving rise to some seriously scary hallucinations), while Saruman (Christopher Lee) wreaks even more havoc this time around. The film also features the first revelation of Saruman’s spy, the evil Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), and the troubled Gollum, an amazing combination of computer trickery and raspy voice from Andy Serkis (the campaign for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar starts here).
Other new faces find Faramir (David Wenham), the understandably miffed brother of the recently died Boromir, and Éowyn (Miranda Otto), who spends much of her time casting winsome glances in the direction of Aragorn (Mortensen). Eventually the plot complexities become more coherent, setting the action up for the forthcoming finale, The Return Of The King.
As we’ve come to expect, this is amazing stuff – from an opening scene which finds Frodo troubled by dreams about the demise of Gandalf, to the climactic Battle Of Helm’s Deep, which is nothing short of jaw-dropping. But Jackson tempers the louder, brasher scenes with his cleverness with some heartstring-tugging moments, namely peasants despondent as they are forced to leave their villages, Aragorn and Arwen’s troubled relationship, and, how can we forget, the return of Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen, wonderful as ever), one of the film’s most powerful, memorable images that may well leave Ring devotees a little misty-eyed.
Yet, those who still think that the trilogy is beyond criticism may find their opinions challenged by The Two Towers. It’s just as long as the first film, but gets the heroes no closer to a final victory. And, where the first film developed its emotional tone from the brightness of The Shire to a grimmer climax, the sequel is more of a one-note stuff, shadowy in both look and content.
This is especially true of the Ringbearer’s quest, which adds the significant Gollum to the crew, but suffers more than the other story strands from the cross-cutting and ends with an almost identical pep talk from Sam to the emotional speech that climaxed Fellowship. Of course, given the nature of the material, and Jackson’s desire to be faithful, this is all understandable.
And by the time we all wind up under siege at Helm’s Deep, hardly anyone will give a toss about narrative arcs: like Gollum, this is simply gob-smacking, mind-blowing, unique stuff. The Two Towers film may lack the first-view-thrill and natural dramatic form of Fellowship, but this is both funnier and grimmer than the first installment, and definitely more action-packed. A crucial component of The Two Towers is now destined to be among the best movie franchises of all time.