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The Two Towers

[Our Sunday Visitor, December 22, 2002]

“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” is big. You knew that. And it’s noisy—hoo boy, with the surround-sound, it’s like being inside a washing machine. A Victorian poet hailed “ignorant armies [that] clash by night.” Now imagine that literalized, with the help of computer graphic software that creates gazillions of little critters, each programmed to pick a fight with the nearest other critter, and each given individual levels of weariness, impulsiveness, and intelligence. Push a button and a hundred thousand of these start whaling at each other. In the dark. In the rain. For a long, long time. If you’re like me, after not much of this you start planning dinner and trying to remember where you parked the car. Be patient, the storyline will eventually resume.

That’s the problem; the movie isn’t made for people like me, but for people who are eager to see little critters pound each other at length. I’ll buy a ticket only once (well, twice), but they’ll buy three or twenty. In an interview in early December, director Peter Jackson hinted at his frustration. “I have to make the most successful film I can,” he said, “both financially and artistically.” It was clear that those aims aren’t always in concert. He brightened when talking about the “extended version” of this film that will be out eventually on DVD, which will restore the “small character moments” sacrificed to squeeze in more go-boom. The extended DVD of the first film, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” has just come out, and thirty-five restored additional minutes results in a movie that, paradoxically, feels shorter. Now the motivations make sense; now you care about the characters. We’ll have to wait a year to get the same insight into “The Two Towers.”

This second installment has the same virtues and flaws of the first. Every continuing actor perseveres as before, unsurprisingly, since all three films were shot simultaneously without regard to story sequence. Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn continues to tilt his beautiful face down like a Pieta, eyes turned inward and filled with storm-clouds. It’s a very expressive face, but it has only this one expression, and he needs someone to hold him down and tickle him for a half-hour. (Ladies: No, I don’t know where you can sign up to volunteer.)

Elijah Wood, with bulldog neck and golf-ball eyes, continues to evoke the Anderson fairy tale of “a dog with eyes as big as the round tower.” He has a few more expressions than Viggo, and in this film gets believably testy with Sam, but remains essentially brittle and superficial. His superficiality is well-earned; I had the impression in the interview that he has stalwartly resisted any temptation to read the book. Sean Astin, on the other hand, is an intelligent, thoughtful actor who has studied Tolkien closely. Unfortunately, Sam Gamgee is not a role that allows much range beyond “earnest.” It’s the Pillsbury Doughboy with a backpack.

The role of Gimli, played by John Rhys-Davies, is cranked up to supply more comic relief, to the loss of its dignity. When, in the first film, he exclaims, “Nobody tosses a dwarf!” it backslapped the bizarre British joke sport of dwarf-tossing. In this film Gimli says to Aragorn, “Toss me,” and he does. From that point, Rhys-Davies becomes this film’s R2-D2. (And they have the same initials! Coincidence?)

The series graduates most likely to succeed are Dominic Monaghan (Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin). They constitute a match made in Middle-Earth, a clicking of two whimsical, absurd senses of humor. They hope to team on projects in the old Peter Sellers mode, for which they will have to discover roots to ground their carefree, but ultralight, chemistry.

Roots they had in this film, strapped as they were for hour after hour into a 15-foot-tall animatronic tree. Treebeard is one of the beloved characters of the second Tolkien book, and the episode of the Ents gives a languorous break in the novel’s muscular narrative action. Not till Treebeard appeared on the screen did I realize that this simply cannot work in a movie. There is already no time (gotta squeeze in more fightin’ critters!). There is especially no time for a character who takes a very, very long time to do everything. So we get little glimpses of Treebeard’s world, out of pace with the rest of the rushing plot, yet not enough to establish its own gravity. It’s an unsolvable problem.

The technical showpiece of the film, of course, is Gollum, a computer-generated character based on the movements and expressions of actor Andy Serkis. Serkis performed in a bodysuit studded with markers; he was then erased from the film, and replaced with a stylized version of himself as a grayish, depraved river hobbit. Perhaps feeling claustrophobic in this shadowy incarnation, Serkis knocks the role to the ground and throttles it.

Gollum is an impressive effect, but even more so is the transformation of Theoden. The old king, under the baneful influence of Wormtongue, is walking dead. Gandalf perceives the hand of Saruman controlling him, and performs what any Catholic would recognize as, essentially, an exorcism. As Theoden reawakens, the makeup department shows us one idea of what we’re looking for when we say, “I look for the resurrection of the dead.” Looks good.

A similar transformation occurs when Gandalf reveals himself to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as Gandalf the White. He stands above them in garments glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them, while the three disciples shield their eyes. Wait a minute, I was thinking of the Eastern Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration. They look a lot alike.

“The Two Towers” is real big, because beneath the cinematic trappings there’s an older and grander story than many fans, or even cast and crew, perceive. Those who know the deeper story, the one that Tolkien loved, will find even more to think about, while those cranky critters scramble around in the rain.


Video club

Enjoy teeny-weeny Elijah Wood, eight years old, in Barry Levinson’s poignant, funny film about a Russian immigrant family in Baltimore, “Avalon” (1990). Here he’s a Chihuahua with eyes as big as the round tower. I wish I’d thought to ask Elijah during the interview, “Young man, do you know the difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’?”


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