Monday, 3 December 2012

The Two Towers

Following on from 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the second instalment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy finds the Fellowship disbanded. The plot follows what remains of the party in three separate storylines which barely cross paths. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas set about trying to find Merry and Pippen while killing as many Orcs as they can along the way. The aforementioned Hobbits meanwhile end up in a strange forest full of giant tree herders known as Ents and Frodo and his companion Sam head on towards Mordor, determined to destroy the One Ring. It isn’t long though before they are joined by another companion, Gollum, the former owner of the ring, a creature torn apart by its power and hold over him.

Much like The Fellowship I loved The Two Towers when I first saw it but as my enjoyment of the first has diminished over time, the same can be said for its sequel, only more so. In terms of how much I enjoy the trilogy, this middle part is my least favourite, though not by much. This instalment also has themes which stretch beyond the reach of Middle Earth such as industrialisation and ecology. It also features a battle which lasts close to forty minutes and is considered by many to be one of the greatest ever committed to the big screen.

The Two Towers links nicely with The Fellowship of the Ring in its establishing shots. Sweeping heli-cam shots of Middle Earth are over dubbed with vital pieces of dialogue from the first film before we are taken back to the moment in which the Wizard Gandalf the Grey fell. We then see what happened to him next before once again joining up with the remainder of the Fellowship. The film judges well the amount of time it spends with each strand of the story although I’ve always preferred the Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas thread over the others. The thread featuring Merry and Pippen is given slightly less screen time than the other two and rightly so in my view. It isn’t quite as interesting or integral to the film. That’s not to say that it isn’t important as obviously all three strands weave together to create the overarching view of Middle Earth in its time of crisis.

There are new characters here too. The most memorable is Gollum (Andy Serkis) who first stalks and then helps Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor. Gollum became an instant hit back in 2002 and is still popular today. His “my precious” quote is one of the most recognizable of recent years. Unlike the first film which concentrated on the formation of the The Fellowship, The Two Towers focuses more on the plight of men in Middle Earth. New characters include the King of Rohan (Bernard Hill) and his nephew Eomer (Karl Urban). Eomer’s sister Eowyn (Miranda Otto) also features, creating another love interest for Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn. The additional characters help add depth and life to the sparsely populated Middle Earth and bring focus towards the human cost of the coming war. Overall the acting is a little better than in the first film although the problematic characters remain so. Orlando Bloom’s Legolas suffers from awful dialogue which doesn’t aid his overly feminine portrayal of the Elf. Elijah Wood is a little better in this chapter and Sean Austin manages to just about hold his accent together. I always feel like giving him a free pass as his accent isn’t the stereotypical ‘British’ accent which Americans so often employ but it slips at points.

The standout acting performance belongs to Andy Serkis who plays Golllum. His character was created by WETA Digital using a mixture of CGI and motion capture. Mo-Cap is fairly common now but a decade a go, it was cutting edge technology. Serkis plays Gollum’s dual personality incredibly well and his physicality is extraordinary. It’s no wonder that he has been recast for motion capture roles in films such as King Kong, Tintin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He has become the go to guy where the art form is concerned. To create Gollum the WETA team began work in 1998 and each frame featuring the character took four hours to render. At 24 fps that’s a protracted amount of time but still nothing compared to the forty-eight hours per frame to render the character of Tree Beard, the film’s other great creation. The special effects have held up slightly better than its predecessor’s but occasionally cracks show. Gollum for instance is a little shiny but overall the effects are still very good.

Extensive CGI is used during the battle of Helms Deep, the film’s centrepiece. The battle pits 10,000 Orcs against just a few hundred men in the Rohan fortress of Helms Deep. On first viewing it is a sublimely choreographed extended battle but now on my forth or fifth viewing it has lost some of its wow factor. Even so the scale of the battle is unlike anything that came before it and the effort it must have taken to have so many thousands of CGI Orcs, men and Elves do battle is mind blowing. The Helms Deep sets are also impressive as are the close-ups of the battle. As much as the CGI impresses, I still prefer the shots where one is in the midst of the fight. Unfortunately though the battle contains what is probably my least favourite scene in the entire trilogy, as Legolas skates down a flight of steps on a shield. I think it looks awful and is too reminiscent of our world. I think that editing wise the film manages to show enough of the battle before switching back to another storyline. It does this a couple of times as forty minutes of non-stop battle would end up being quite dull. 

As I mentioned in my opening the film also has several themes which are pertinent to the real world. Saruman’s Isengard encroaches into the neighbouring forest as its Orcs tear down trees to make way for war industry. The character of Tree Beard is a kind of angry Greenpeace member and notes that no one cares for the trees or the forest anymore. They are like forgotten lands. For me this is a statement about our relationship with the forest which we ourselves cut down to make way for settlement, industry and farmland.

Overall The Two Towers is a very good film but I find it less interesting and less entertaining than the films either side of it. It brings some great characters into the fold and manages to handle an ever increasing scope. It also looks great. The effects still stand up well and New Zealand’s natural beauty is once again stamped all over the screen. For me though the battle of Helms Deep loses something upon multiple viewings and I prefer the quest like nature of the story and the parts in which it takes its time. Even so, like the other two films, it is a movie which I keep going back to time and time again and although I wouldn’t say I love it, it is one of only a handful of films of its length that I’ll happily watch over and over again.           

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