Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Recent Watches: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

These days, multiple part films made back-to-back but released over several years are commonplace. It’s become a good tactic for studios to wring yet more money out of the loyal fandom’s pockets and guarantees them hits year after year. Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings’ trilogy revolutionized this approach. At the time, it was a huge gamble, as there was no certainly that “Fellowship of the Ring” would become the huge hit it did. Imagine if it had bombed, and New Line had been stuck with the hugely expensive other two films to unload somewhere. Naturally, it didn’t. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” rolled out the next year, highly anticipated, and went on to gross even more the first film in the trilogy.

“Fellowship of the Ring” had a fairly simple plot. It wasn’t much more then a chase story, setting up the struggle against the Ring, the heroes pursued by the bad guys for most of the film. “The Two Towers,” meanwhile, has a far more complex construction. Three or four parallel plots play out simultaneously. Frodo and Sam continue their march towards Mount Doom, meeting up with Gollum along the way. The remnants of the Fellowship head towards Rohan, a kingdom under the sway of Sarumon’s powers. The resurrected Gandalf, having evolved into a more powerful Pokemon, breaks the control the evil wizard has over the king. This pisses off Sarumon majorly and he sends an army towards Helm’s Deep. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin hang out in the forest, talking to a tree.

There’s a lot of story inside of “The Two Tower” and the film does a fairly good job of  unpacking it all. Though it’s possible for a half-asleep viewer to mix up Helm’s Deep, Isengard, and Osgiliath, since the whole film takes place under a grey sky, there’s war and mayhem in each location, and the walls are stone and plain at each place. However, the movie hands out interesting plot and crazy action scenes with a decent balance, usually leaving the audience wanting more. When it cuts away from a big set piece, it usually cuts back within a few minutes. And I’m not saying “The Two Towers” is riveting one hundred percent of the time. However, it has less slow spots then “Fellowship of the Rings” and is generally a more exciting and better constructed film. There’s no sequence as droll as the meeting at Riverdell here, that’s for sure.

Of all the plotlines “The Two Towers” is juggling, easily the least interesting is that involving Frodo and Sam’s trek towards Mordor. They’re the most removed from the action, walking towards their destination… Slowly. Frodo, naturally, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders at all time. One of the things that have always thrown me about the power of the One Ring was how it’s supposed to be this great weapon that will allow Sauron to control the world. Yet the only affect it seems to have on people is turning them into junkies and assholes, coveting the ring, absorbed by the sway it has over them. Thus we slowly watch Frodo’s already simpering personality dissolve over the course of the film. He becomes moody, caressing the ring at night and, at the film’s denouncement, pulls a knife on Sam. This causes Frodo and Sam to go over the same conflict they did last time, where Frodo wants to move on alone but Sam insist on staying by his side. Because not even attempted murder can come between their bromance. Faramir’s appearance adds little and that character exists solely to get the more important characters from point A to point B. Anyway, it’s tedious.

Luckily, keeping the weakest subplot afloat is the introduction of the series’ most captivating character. Gollum’s motivations are, by far, the most complex. He desperately desires the ring, as his addiction to its comforting embrace has shaped his entire life. He is vicious and a villain, in that context, willing to do anything to get a fix. Yet he’s undeniably pathetic and, in an odd way, possesses a child-like innocence. The way he sings songs about catching fish or playfully banters with Samwise about the proper ways to eat rabbit is both funny and endearing. The audience’s sympathy for Gollum is ratcheted up because the character is clearly sick. He has a split personality, the calmer Smeagol and the controlling, violent Gollum. This is brilliantly displayed during the scene that most reminds you Peter Jackson also directed “Heavenly Creatures.” The camera cuts back and forth between the two personalities, Smeagol arguing with Gollum. Of course, he’s arguing with himself, the camera cutting between the same shots. Frodo feels sympathy for the critter too, which is why he keeps him around. As a special effect, Gollum is extraordinary, seeming far more real then the Balrog or trolls. Only in a few shots is his CGI status truly evident. They say “actors are the best special effect” and none of this would have been possible without Andy Serkis’ amazing performance.

The second major storyline is more dynamic plot wise if less captivating character wise. Aragon, Legolas, Gimili, and Gandalf in his shiny new robes march into Rohan. When we’re first introduced to the kingdom, there’s some bullshit about the king being manipulated by his obviously evil assistant, with the obviously evil name Grima Wormtongue (because he’s grim and he whispers sinister things), played by the frequently evil actor Brad Dourif. Luckily, Gandalf dismisses that shit immediately. Grima, though competently played by Dourif, is mostly a plot device. He shows Sarumon’s forces how to get to Helm’s Deep. After that, there’s some business about heirs to the throne. Aragon gets a new interest love, which necessitates the film awkwardly disposing of Arwin, not that anybody cares. Mostly, this time is used to develop some personality among the heroes and allow them to develop a comradely with the people of Rohan. Considering they spent the last third of the movie fighting to defend the place, that’s a wise decision.

The movie does have some fun with that action. An entire army of faceless orcs is provided for the heroes to cleave their way through. Which they do with extreme prejudice, creating a ridiculously high body count. My favorite gags both involve Legolas. An often referenced moment has him surfing down stairs atop an orc’s shield and then tossing the shield into an enemy soldier’s chest. Another cool moment has the elf shooting down a ladder, crushing a fleet of orcs under it. The ladders being lifted against the walls  is an interesting enough visual to help mix up the action. There’s a bit too many witty one-liners and light-hearted banter, especially from Gimli who has officially graduated to plucky comic relief by this point. It comes dangerously close to undermining the seriousness of the action. However, as an action film, “The Two Towers” is an improvement over “Fellowship.”

The third branch of “The Two Tower’s” plot has Merry and Pippin lost in the woods. After nearly being eaten by orcs, they’re rescued by a giant tree monster. Treebeard, voiced by John Rhys-David doing double duty, is a great visual. We’ve never had many tree monsters on film before and this one certainly blows the Tabanga out of the water. Treebeard and his Ent brothers brings one of the film’s themes to the forefront. In the first movie, we had extended scenes of the orcs cutting down trees to power their hellish forges. The non-too-subtle ecological subtext is made apparent here. The bad guys are industry, chewing up the world and spitting out weapons and destruction. In the world of Middle-earth, nature can literally strike back. Merry and Pippin show the pacifistic Ents the destruction Sarumon’s forces have reaped. This enrages the trees into action, flooding Isengard and freaking the bad guys out. It’s not nuanced or anything but a fleet of tree monsters attacking smaller monsters and a cool, black tower is a visual I’m glad we have.

Gollum is awesome. The combat sequences are impressive. A number of striking visuals are delivered. The plot is just elaborate enough to force you to pay attention. The film ends with the heroes having won a major battle. But the war is far from over. Gollum comes to a conclusion about what to do with his traveling partners, leading Sam and Frodo into uncertain territory. This is far more satisfying then the shrug of an ending we got last time. Could it be that I’m transitioning into a “Lord of the Rings” fan? No. It’s just that “The Two Towers” is easily the best of the trilogy. [7/10]

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