When we last left our heroes of Middle-Earth, Frodo and Sam had abandoned the rest of the Fellowship to head for Mordor on their own. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin had been kidnapped by Saruman’s Orcs while the rest of the now-dissolved Fellowship—Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli—are trying to hunt down the Orcs and free the hobbits.
In any trilogy, the second film is the least set in stone. The first film is going to introduce us to our protagonists and antagonists, and set up the conflict. The last film is going to present the final confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys. But the second film serves mainly as a bridge from Act I to Act III, with a lot of its efforts spent putting the pieces in place for the last showdown. This can be a mixed blessing. While some second acts feel as if they are treading water or repeating themselves (The Matrix Reloaded, The Bourne Supremacy), others are often considered the best of the series, thanks in part to a lack of necessary exposition or resolution. The Empire Strikes Back, the only legitimately good Star Wars movie, is the best example of this phenomenon.*
*Some might be tempted to put The Godfather Part II in there, but this is wrong because The Godfather is not a trilogy. For one, The Godfather Part III doesn’t count. But more importantly, The Godfather, unlike a real trilogy, was not originally conceived as a three-part story.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is thankfully much closer to Empire than to any of the forgettable second films. Parts of this film do feel like the set-up for a finale, and the plot is a little disjointed since our main characters are split up. But the film is also not as burdened as the first one by introductions and explanations, and the plot moves forward more quickly in this one.
With the plot splintered over three group—Frodo/Sam, Aragorn/Gimli/Legolas, Merry/Pippin—the movie opens with Frodo and Sam, the bearers of the One Ring, on their way to Mordor. As established by the first film, only Frodo can bear the Ring, a corrupt and hardly resistible force of near omnipotent power, and thus only he can take it to Mount Doom to destroy it. There remains one rather large problem, though: Neither he nor Sam knows how to get there.
It is thus actually somewhat fortuitous that they get attacked by Gollum, the Ring’s former possessor who has been completely and utterly enslaved by it. Gollum, who was mentioned in the first film but never actually seen, is a fascinating addition to the story. Everything from his physical appearance to his voice is despicable and grotesque, like a wounded or rabid animal–a horrifying example of what happens to those under the influence of the Ring. Having become so enthralled by his “precious” ring, Gollum has evidently lost all semblance of humanity. Even benevolent Sam proposes leaving him for dead.
But Frodo sees Gollum with more sympathetic eyes, recognizing in him a cautionary tale. Frodo and Gollum, after all, are two of the only people to carry the full weight of the One Ring, and Frodo can feel in himself the same temptations that have overwhelmed Gollum. As Frodo tells Sam, “I have to believe he can come back.” Frodo even calls Gollum “Smeagol,” his name from before the Ring overwhelmed him, in an attempt to draw some semblance of life from Gollum.
For a while, it does appear to work, as Gollum chauffeurs Frodo and Sam through Middle-Earth on their way to Mordor. Everything about Gollum is rendered spectacularly by Jackson and Andy Serkis, the actor who lent movement and voice to the character. His distinctive appearance, mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech (Gollum refers to himself as “we,” encompassing both Smeagol and Gollum, and also has trouble with plurals, referring to “Orcses,” “hobbitses,” and “birdses”) are riveting, and the character dominates every scene he appears in. The best scene of the movie, in fact, features only him, with Smeagol trying to expel Gollum for good. This schizophrenia, which could of course play as laughably hokey, makes Gollum a richly compelling and ambiguous character. Ambiguity, unfortunately, is something largely lacking from Jackson’s epic, since the sides fall so neatly into Good vs. Evil.
The quest of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, though, is only one of three threads pursued by The Two Towers. The other two involve the kingdom of Rohan, a domain of Middle-Earth absent from the first film. Merry and Pippin, captured by Saruman’s army at the end of Fellowship, are being taken through Rohan on their way to Isengard, where Saruman awaits them, thinking Merry and Pippin to be in possession of the Ring. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are hunting them, but it is actually Eomer and his army of Rohan who find them first.
The Rohanese army slaughters the Orcs, but Merry and Pippin sneak away into the forest before they, too, are killed. They spend pretty much the entire film in the forest, killing time. First, though, they run into Gandalf, who has been reborn as Gandalf the White in this film. How Gandalf the White differs from Gandalf the Grey—other than the fact that the former is obviously more powerful and spiritual—and how exactly he was resurrected are never really made clear. The best explanation is that Gandalf the White is “Saruman, as he should have been.” Gandalf leaves Merry and Pippin in the forest, under the protection of Treebeard.
Treebeard is what he sounds like—a talking tree, with a beard. The entire forest is animated, in what should be a thrilling visual spectacle, but ends up as a complete waste of time. Unlike Gollum, there is nothing all that interesting about Treebeard, either in his relation to the story or his actual appearance on screen. The entire segment of the movie featuring Treebeard, Merry, and Pippin is there mostly for comic relief. Occasionally this works, but far too much time is devoted so a completely superfluous story.
Back in Rohan, though, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and now Gandalf the White have become enmeshed in the affairs of the region. On some level, this is a little distracting—Rohan wasn’t mentioned at all in the first film, and its importance in the main story is still suspect. It feels a little like this aspect of Tolkien’s story was amplified for its conduciveness to film. This makes certain scenes, like one in which the evil Wormtongue (characters in fantasies always have helpfully connotative names) tries to seduce the King’s niece, devoid of any real resonance.
The political intrigue of Rohan does make for some interesting stories, though. Saruman, operating with the aid of Wormtongue, has been manipulating the King so he can exploit Rohan for its land and resources in his war against Middle-Earth. In the book, evidently, this manipulation is merely in the form of Wormtongue’s ill-advisded council, but in the film Saruman actually inhabits the King’s body. This change mainly seems like an excuse for one of Jackson’s better visual effects, in which the King ages backwards—seemingly coming back to life—once Gandalf has expelled Saruman from the body.
Even with the King back, though, Rohan is not safe—Saruman is still ready to attack it. With the help of the Fellowship Four (Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf), the King leads his people to Helm’s Deep, which appears to be a huge barricade built for just this type of occasion: invasion by a massive army. The Battle of Helm’s Deep takes up almost the last hour of the film, but it doesn’t really drag or get bogged down. I am not really a connoisseur of battle scenes, but I can see why this would get on many Best Of lists. The only real problem with it is its reliance on a deus ex machina ending. Leading up to the battle, we keep hearing how an army of 300 poorly trained civilians is supposed to fight an army of 10,000—and three quarters of the way through the battle, it looks pretty bleak. But then, suddenly, Gandalf comes in with the cavalry and it all ends well.
This reflects back on two problems I had with the first film. First, the reliance on Orcs (and their various different breeds, which I still haven’t gotten straight—I may be wrong in referring to this army as one of Orcs, but it doesn’t really matter, because the differences are never evident or important) is silly. I’m always wary of armies of nameless, faceless, interchangeable yet inherently evil sub-humans—I’m thinking of Storm Troopers, the Puddy Patrol, anonymous henchmen, and the like. They are always absurdly easy to kill, and their deaths hold virtually no significance.
This is similar to the larger problems of villains in general in Jackson’s trilogy. As I said in my discussion of Fellowship, Saruman is a pretty lousy antagonist, and his army is similarly unimpressive. Practically all we ever see Saruman do is oversee the creation of his army—he’s a glorified factory foreman. This may qualify as “villainous” in a Marxist critique of industrial capitalism, but if that was the intent of Tolkien or Jackson, it didn’t really land. At the end of The Two Towers, Merry and Pippin convince Treebeard to lead an army of trees to destroy Saruman’s factory, but the destruction has more of a “finally we can move on” feel than the intended feeling of righteous triumph.
Overall, though, The Two Towers is an improvement on Fellowship. The separate plots leads to a slightly disjointed feel, but this is not so bad, since two of the three have clear and compelling narrative arcs (something lacking a little from the first one, which didn’t so much end as stop), and the third is relatively minor. There are a few tangential or hollow secondary stories—such as a love triangle between Aragorn, the King’s niece, and the Elf Arwen, or a near-death experience for Aragorn—but the introduction of Gollum, the most interesting part of trilogy thus far, more than makes up for it. Perhaps most importantly, The Two Towers effectively does the yeoman’s work of setting up the final leg of the trilogy while still remaining compelling in its own right. The film ends on a decidedly triumphant point, but with a clear reminder that the biggest hurdle—the journey into Mordor and the confrontation with Sauron—is still to come.