Don’t settle back in your seat and wait for a rehash of the first three-hour epic in the “Lord of the Rings” series to remind you who everyone is and where we left off a year ago. Even with another three hours, director Peter Jackson does not have a second to spare to get you up to speed. Every moment of chapter two is packed full with the same breathtaking audacity and scope of the first one, plus three times as much action.
There will be two kinds of audiences for this film. The Tolkien devotees will be looking for their own particular visions brought to life. Those who are new to the stories will just be looking for an epic with a heroic quest and a lot of action (and a little romance). Both should come away very satisfied.
It seems a little chicken to say that so much goes on in this movie that it is hard to summarize, when Jackson has managed to pull off the vastly greater challenge of realizing it on screen. But so much goes on in this movie! And everything goes on at once, as Jackson’s extraordinary pacing (like the book) cuts back and forth between stories, leaving the characters in the direst peril while we look in on the other group we left in the direst peril just moments before.
In the first episode, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is apparently the only creature pure in heart enough to possess an ancient ring that calls to the worst in everyone else who comes near it. The ring has almost unlimited power, and those who wish to inflict evil on the world will do anything to get it. A small group accompanies Frodo on his quest to return the ring to the place where it was made, the only place it can be destroyed. At the end of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the group has been splintered, some dead, captured, or waylaid. Frodo and his trusted friend Sam (Sean Astin) set off together.
“The Two Towers” picks up each of the members of the remaining fellowship and cuts back and forth between their adventures. Frodo and Sam find a twisted creature called Gollum who himself embodies the book’s struggle between good and evil. Once utterly corrupted by his attempts to steal the ring, the remaining good within him begins to awaken under Frodo’s kindness, but that may not be reliable enough for him to become the faithful guide they need.
Meanwhile, Frodo’s Hobbit friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are caught up with Treebeard and the Ents (tree creatures of enormous size). Also meanwhile, the human warrior Aragorn and dwarf dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) try to get help from King Theoden (Bernard Hill), who has been enchanted into befuddlement so that they can fight the vicious Uruk-hai throng of White Wizard villain Saruman (Christopher Lee).
The first movie had a lot of thundering hoofs and meaningful looks and introduction of characters and portents of doom. This one flings us from cliffhanger to (literal) cliffhanger, with mighty legions hurtling into battle. Every moment on screen is filled with masterfully handled detail. The vast New Zealand landscapes are a perfect realization of Tolkien’s middle earth. The vast armies of hulking monsters stretch back for miles. Every button and belt buckle seems both new and eternal. Gollum, computer animated but based on the movements of actor Andy Serkis (who also provided the voice), is as real as any of the humans. The human actors hold their own, giving gravity and heart to the effects and panoramas. The only drag on the proceedings is Aragon’s love triangle, which feels like something between a distraction and a place-holder.
Parents should know that this movie is non-stop, very intense action, with extremely violent battle scenes and intense peril.
Families who see this movie should talk about the many representations of the war between good and evil. King Theoden comes back. Gollum may be coming back. Where else do you see the dualities expressed? What does it mean to say that Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels and no longer cares for growing things?” At several points, characters have to decide when to fight and when to give up or retreat. What do they consider in making that decision? What should they consider? Why is it important to Gollum that Frodo calls him by his old name? Why do Sam and Frodo wonder if they will ever be included in songs or tales?