The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The question to be answered was, will it live up to the first film; actually, it's much better. Last year's "Fellowship of the Ring" very quickly turned into an endless series of battles and flights, battles and flights, with many interiors just redressed by the design people for the next sequence. Where the first film should have had the courage to take its time, introduce all the players, set the table and start us off on the great quest to return the ring, it settled instead for a single plot line with embarrassingly mechanical scenes and dialogue.
There was no doubt that Book II would make a better film, if only director Peter Jackson could handle it. The book is filled with simultaneous action on many fronts: battles, searches, captures, escapes, giant Ents, Rangers who spy for Sauron, possible romances, cowardice and bravery on all sides, and Gollum at the center of it all. And Gollum - a computer-generated creature voiced by Andy Serkis - is perhaps the most interesting of all the characters in the book; once a hobbit, then corrupted by the ring, now a pawn of Sauron, but with his own tragic needs and piteous desires. The designers have done a brilliant job with him; he is utterly believable, true to the book, as he moves and speaks in the film.
The film begins without any recapitulation of the first part; Frodo and Sam are on their way to Mordor, Merry and Pippin are captured. Aragorn is - well, why worry about the details. Let us simply say that Sauron, whom we never see, and his chief wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) are preparing a military campaign to destroy all that is human on Middle Earth. Only a few brave souls will stand up to them, aided by Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who miraculously reappears after being lost into the bowels of earth in Book I.
In the course of this 179-minute film Mr. Jackson loses sight of some reasonably important connections, while jumping from place to place and principal actor to principal actor. It is likely to be confusing to those who aren't already in the know, but judging by the opening-day lines at every venue there won't be too many of those. I overheard three young men leaving the early morning show on opening day as they made plans to return twice more later in the afternoon and evening.
Films like these are usually actor-proof. If you can read your lines with meaning and move as you speak without tripping, you can be assured of good notices. McKellen, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Christopher Lee and Bernard Hill as Theoden are all fine. But Viggo Mortensen, in the crucial role of Aragorn, while he looks the part, cannot match the others when he speaks. He is a product of more intimate films and I think unaccustomed to declaiming, as is needed here.
But films like these are not quite director-proof, and here we see some weaknesses in Jackson's style. He tends to overcut, even in expansive scenes, as though trying to fit too much into the film's running time. He hardly slows down at all, and there are needlessly jarring sequences. And in the crucial siege of Helm's Deep - a nighttime battle - his editing becomes repetitious. And I must point out Jackson's overuse of helicopter shots that he obviously thinks will help set the locations for the audience. He needs a refresher course in John Ford films, where the camera hardly moves and yet gives an even better sense of place. And yet, and yet - you will have a good time. Just wait till the crowds thin out.