A great movie on several levels.
Usually, we are only able to assess the place and impact of cultural artifacts in hindsight. No one in 1986 America could have guessed that The Oprah Winfrey Show would so perfectly foretell the self-confessional and self-absorbed culture of the 1990s. We were all too busy celebrating the machismo of the year’s highest grossing film, Top Gun. Jane Jacobs’s The Life and Death of Great Cities is now a touchstone for criticizing the post World War II welfare state. But when it was published in 1961, America was still a few years away from the great welfare state experiments of Lyndon Johnson.
Every now and again, though, something comes along that attracts us precisely for what it says about our times. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its second and newest installment, The Two Towers, are like that now. It is all uncanny, really. An independent film director from New Zealand spends the better of the politically correct, vain, postmodern, spiritually cynical, and technologically obsessed 1990s developing three films about a) male warriors for whom bathing appears to result only from unhappy accidents near bodies of water; b) a land with nary a computer or wireless device in sight and a politics resembling tenth-century northern Europe; and c) good and evil people who are convinced of the reality of good and evil and who take that to mean that good and evil people go, respectively, to good and evil places when their time on middle-earth is done.
But just before Peter Jackson was ready to unleash the first episode of his cultural irrelevance, last December’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the dot-com bubble burst and the War on Terrorism began. Suddenly, a formerly content, small Hobbit who must yoke the fate of civilization around his neck did not seem so outside our existence after all. And when this Hobbit regrets that such a responsibility ever came to him and a wise old man answers “So do all who live to see such times,” a college textbook case of zeitgeist was written right before our very wide eyes.
The Two Towers extends the themes of weighty responsibility that must be borne no matter the difficulty and cost. These are of course universal themes that apply to all times and places, even if too many of us spent the ‘90s convincing ourselves that they did not. But the particular application to our time and place goes deep in the latest installment. Former alliances among those who must defend civilization have become splintered by self-interest and political manipulation. Innocent civilians are killed and their cities destroyed. Justice and compassion often seem at odds. The terribleness of responsibility isolates individuals even as they need others to carry it. There are strong temptations among characters to surrender when surrender’s cost is uncertain. And most importantly, there is a strong temptation to surrender when the cost is certain. No one in The Two Towers does, however, and this is what ultimately uplifts us as a captive audience and as one who must leave our seats to walk back into a decidedly unmythical world.
To be sure, The Two Towers would be a box office champion regardless of the cultural context. It is lavish and enormous, features intense action and a compelling love story, is masterfully directed, acted as well a three-hour mythic saga can be, and has all the other ingredients that make for a great but worthwhile popcorn movie. In detailing why Towers is a great film in and of itself, however, there is no sense recapping the plot. At exactly one minute under three hours, too much happens to make a synopsis worthwhile. Suffice it to say that, as part two of a trilogy, a bad situation in part one has become much worse in the complication of this movie, and the hope of a happy resolution in part three depends on the resolution of this movie.
(For a small reminder, upon the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship of nine has split apart. Two have died, two have been captured, three have decided to rescue the captured, and the final two Hobbits who carry the “Ring of Evil” have gone off by themselves to destroy it. Towers picks up right at this moment. And a warning: if anyone is wondering about what was bad in part one beyond this reminder, do not watch The Two Towers without first going back and watching The Fellowship of the Ring. There is no exposition—at all—in Towers. Little to nothing will make sense without having seen Fellowship.)
One element of the filmmaking does deserve special attention. Like George Lucas’s Attack of the Clones earlier this year, the use of computers in the storytelling process of The Two Towers represents a radical expansion of what is possible in visually explaining a filmmaker’s imagination. While many reject this notion as justification for determining whether to see a movie or not, this is a silly argument, akin to thinking it irrelevant seventy years ago that actors could suddenly talk. The advancements of Lucas and, now, Jackson are every bit as important to the technical evolution of film as the introduction of sound was seven decades back. Both of these movies give us a glimpse, albeit very different ones, of what the future of much film will be.
Lucas’s main achievement in Attack of the Clones came from the incredibly rich digital environments, or the settings, that he was able to create. A city like his Coruscant was simply not possible before. The Two Towers takes a different track. Most of the locations are actual places in Jackson’s home country of New Zealand. While computer generated imagery (CGI) was used to create details upon the landscape, we never get the sense that much of it could not have been done with matte paintings. Instead, Jackson has used CGI to develop characters and control their interaction in ways we have never seen before and that would be impossible without the technology.
The first and most outstanding example of Jackson’s achievement here is the character Gollum. A small, grotesque, and distorted creature with bulging eyes and protruding backbone, Gollum is the product of the voice and motion-captured physical work of Andy Serkis. This raw data was then manipulated and animated to produce the Gollum that we see on screen.
The result is stunning and completely unprecedented. He becomes the first animated character in a non-animated film to execute a serious dramatic role. Gollum is one of the central characters in the film and, as Jackson has translated Tolkien’s original story, his character development is the most complex and dynamic of all the movie’s principles. He is a truly torn character. In fact, Gollum is schizophrenic. Serkis’s and the animators’ sympathetic portrayal of his insanity results in the best performance of the movie.
The success of this dramatic animated portrayal in a non-animated film opens up a world of possibilities for the future. While the likelihood of CGI’s use to build and operate a human character is low—CGI characters take more time and effort than traditional acting—we now have the ability to present drama within non-human characters. From Wind in the Willows to horror film pathos not named Lon Cheney, the potential impact on the stories we can tell is tantalizing. The Two Towers earns its place in history partly for giving us our first hint at what might be.
The best recommendation for The Two Towers that one can make, then, comes from what the film represents. There are whole new vistas that unreel before us. Some of these are within the film itself: fantasy worlds we have never before seen. And some of these are what we can now imagine for the films that will come after this. The Two Towers is an important moment in an exciting time for the technical evolution of moviemaking. Right now, it is enough that these innovations widen our eyes and wow us a bit.
Besides, right now, we have other, important and difficult things on our minds. The Two Towers gives us three hours to forget about them, to escape. It is a good, simple story about virtues like courage and integrity and the faith that gives us the will to develop these virtues. No doubt it will miss an Oscar or two for being escapist fare or not making Hollywood’s preferred political point. That is too bad. Because during those three escapist hours, the political point it does make is precisely the one we need. And we feel pretty darned good, walking back to our cars, for having received it.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
New Line Cinema, 2002
Directed by Peter Jackson
Please be advised that this film contains scenes likely to be too frightening and violent for very young children.