DIRECTOR PETER JACKSON SHOWS SO MUCH reverence for The Lord of the Rings, his fidelity to his source is never in doubt. The question is what exactly he's been faithful to. The charm of Tolkien's trilogy has always lain in the gingery determination of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his fellow hobbits, dwarfed by their surroundings, struggling ever forward, seeking to do the impossible because, well, it's necessary. We hang on their every step because, menaced by Sauron and driven by the imperative to destroy the One Ring of Power, they may at any moment stumble. The Two Towers falters precisely because there's not enough stumbling, and far too much striding gallantly forward.
The soul of The Two Towers isn't in the uneasy interweaving of blackwashed battle scenes, or even in Frodo's journey toward Mount Doom. The soul of The Two Towers is in Frodo's anguished face. The hobbit's struggle to master himself and withstand the Ring's "everything you want" allure overshadows the ink swarm of orcs over the battlements of Helm's Deep. When Frodo cajoles, "Good, Smeagol, good," as though encouraging a pet, he's also addressing the creature he sees himself becoming. Conversely, Gollum's idolizing of his "master" and simultaneous scheme to murder the "tricksy hobbit" shows a longing for who Gollum once was, and a vehement loathing of anyone possessing what he has lost.
Sadly, little screen time is allotted to Gollum's oscillations between kicked dog and sinewy killer: The world's nastiest set of pixels is overshadowed by the humdrum, if earnest, heroics of the supporting cast. As Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen's weathered face brings his character an intensity and life that the book's extensive backgrounding never did; his threadbare regality is more eloquent than any exposition. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, apple wry and dry as ice) again lends the story much-needed authority and conviction; in his standoff with the Balrog (flashed back to in The Two Towers), it's not the massive demon who holds our attention, but McKellen's thundering intonations.
Christopher Lee's Saruman may be pure feudal evil, but alas, his menace dwindles with every scene. His creation of light-resistant orcs is an act of purely technological subversion: He hasn't conjured them, he's made them, an enterprise that is characterized as "unclean." This judgment has a certain resonance, but what it fails to deliver is any real sense of moral danger. Technology may threaten our way of life, but it doesn't necessarily threaten who we are; the power of the Ring does. We're caught up in the drama of Frodo's fall, but not yet in that of Middle-earth, whose destruction never seems possible. Bloodless battles can't be lost; four men holding off an army engages us only in a flat, storybook way. Although Jackson is doubtless reserving the darkest hours for The Return of the King, we long for a greater sense of urgency in the here and now of The Two Towers.
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If Jackson's passion for Middle-earth isn't quite enough to carry the story if he's failed to make a movie as nuanced as it is grand this is all the more frustrating because the epic that might have been is still visible in moments that shine through the dross of hack-and-slash. The shot of Frodo dreaming before a winged Nazgul is the trilogy's most powerful scene so far. As Frodo stands for a soft moment staring at a Black Rider on a winged serpent, his finger gliding toward the Ring, the hobbit's blank facial expression and the disparity between what he's experiencing and what the audience perceives is excruciating. We can't protect him from what he can't see.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, STAR WARS asked a question of our collective psyche: "Can't our struggle be both real and magical?" The Lord of the Rings, unlike George Lucas' recent efforts, has answered with a knelling yes. We asked for a great adventure, and we've been given one, more or less. But over and above the cartoonish villains, the legions of battle-clad orcs and all Saruman's nefarious "industry," we need epics that, while acknowledging our smallness, don't make us feel small. We need Tolkien's war for Middle-earth because it's a war that doesn't exclude us with big historical elbows. Hobbits, small and amiable, curled up in a corner, hiding or hiding away with a prize, are the easiest thing in the world to identify with they're us, watching them. And their tiny clenching of fists is what the fate of their world rests on. Or should.
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