Let's see, where were we? Oh right here! Like a parent reading his children their favorite story, Peter Jackson begins The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the second in his adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, just about where the first one left off. No brief synopsis of the dozens of major characters introduced a year ago in The Fellowship of the Ring, or of the great quest they are bound to serve or thwart. Instead, director and co-writer Jackson begins Part II with a flashback to a literal cliff-hanger: the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) clinging to a precipice and falling, perhaps to his doom. Then, on with the story!
That's how sure of himself Jackson is. His grand notion was always to film the entire trilogy in one gigantic 15-month shoot, and to make of it three separate but seamless movies, each one minutely, imaginatively faithful to Tolkien. That ambition cost him the backing of Miramax Films and other potential sponsors, loath to give $310 million to a New Zealand director with a few oddball critical successes but no mainstream hits. Jackson's confidence has been validated by the box-office take ($860 million worldwide for Fellowship) and the hatching of a blockbuster franchise. So of course he would believe that the audience can follow this complex storyline, without crib sheets, over a two- or three-year span.
And he's right. Taken with its predecessor, The Two Towers makes Jackson's vision even clearer: that the end result will be not three films but one mammoth, majestic 9-hr. artifact that is likely to become the supreme movie epic of our time. Towers, while naturally lacking the variety of moods and settings in Fellowship, has a grave gusto that energizes every moment. For this episode is a very war-y war movie, a long assault to determine whether the crusading companions of Frodo the Ring-bearer will survive to confront their ultimate destiny.
A palpable pall hangs over the realm of Rohan, where King Théoden (Bernard Hill) has been bewitched by evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his spy Gríma Worm-tongue (Brad Dourif, as a slimier Richard III). Heroic Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the elf-warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) band with a revived Gandalf to defend Rohan against Saruman's 10,000 soldier-clones.
Out in the wild, the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) is on a desperate trek with his pal Sam (Sean Astin) and the creepy Gollum (Andy Serkis), a creature who once possessed the Ring and has been mutated by its corrupting power. Frodo, seduced and nearly spent by the Ring, is an uneasy kin to Gollum, who shows flashes of the sweet creature he once was. We see, as Frodo does, that Gollum's devious, cringing present could be the hobbit's future.
Though the crape of impending war hangs over Towers, it is vivid with mortal melodrama and some potent new characters. Treebeard, an Ent (shepherd of the woods) reluctantly drawn into the conflict, has the stately, smiling gravity of Bernard Shaw. And the digitized Gollum is wonderfully complex. At first a whiny Jar Jar Binks as he might be played by Klaus Kinski, Gollum soon reveals a complex pathos and a facility of expression no human actor could have matched. He is one more example of Jackson's pursuit of a tone both entertaining and serious. Other fantasy films may dabble in facetiousness. Here there is no smirking allowed.
Tolkien, the Oxford don who wrote much of the trilogy during World War II, denied his tale was analogous to that great battle. But it is hard to miss serendipitous connections with a current struggle. The Fellowship from the West can be seen as the various countries now under attack from the militantly lunatic faction of Islamic fundamentalism. (Lord Saruman, as incarnated by the tall, lean, bearded Lee, looks eerily like Osama bin Laden.) The enemy's power is daunting; its ruthlessness makes strong nations shiver. As he surveys the carnage of his realm, King Théoden mourns: "So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?" And Aragorn replies, "Ride out to meet them."
The Two Towers is a call, not for preemptive action, but for the resolve of disparate factions to find the will and cunning to defeat an insidious foe. It is also, and mainly, a thrilling work of film craft.