Jackson’s second installment in Ring trilogy may well be a masterpiece
Usually, critics embarrass themselves with the word “masterpiece.” Along with “brilliant,” “triumph,” and many another roller-coaster metaphor, “masterpiece” is one of the hoariest plaudits a reviewer can fling.
So, what to do when a filmmaker actually creates one? What to do when an artist has his best day with his best material and creates something truly masterful?
What to do when co-writer/director Peter Jackson presents The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the best sequel since The Godfather Part II?
Launching only a few frames after the end of last year’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson’s second episode of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy builds on the previous rich and careful set-up to produce an epic as spectacular as anything since Lawrence of Arabia.
Towers returns to Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) as they labor under a thankless task: taking the One Ring of Power to a volcano deep in Mordor, where it can be kept from the hands of the warlord tyrant Sauron and destroyed. While this thread moves forward on a modest scale, Jackson broadens his scope with the other heroes—Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), his elf warrior friend Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies)—until his camera views an entire world. The trio is caught between a modest human kingdom and the armies of evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who is intent on genocide. The culmination of this plotline is two of the grandest battles ever projected.
Admittedly, this at first sounds like a thousand sword and sorcery tales. However, Jackson is working from J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterwork, basically the template for the genre, which has as much interest in emotion as action. The screenwriters demonstrate amazing discipline, maintaining just enough of Tolkien’s world to keep the action rich while it moves. Yet, Jackson has the courage to pause.
While Towers is a rocket compared to Fellowship‘s steady pace, Jackson is never too fast for the human toll: an old king mourning his dead son; a mother desperate to save her children from marauders; a killer cursing his past and wondering if he can ever redeem himself.
And for all the clashing armies, Jackson never dips into the cynicism of Hollywood “action.” The characters may find black humor in combat; however, Towers in no way makes violence “fun.”
As a sequel, Towers has all the strengths and drawbacks of its positioning. There is a familiarity with characters that allows for deeper emotion and humor, but it may be a bit of a hump for newcomers to the series. It is essentially the middle act between Fellowship and next year’s Return of the King.
A final note: As Frodo and Sam struggle on, they’re dogged by Gollum, a ghoulish former possessor of the Ring. Desperate to get it back while regretting the sway it has over him, the emotion, complexity and humane tenderness Gollum puts across is heartbreaking. And all via CGI. The time has come when rules are needed to allow Oscars to go to actors who do their work with the aid of special effects—not in the service of spectacle, but for a new reflection of the human condition. Gollum, with his schizophrenic torment written on his body in scars, bleeding into his awkward movements (captured digitally from actor Andy Serkis) and etched into his acid voice (Serkis again), is one of the most harrowing characters ever put on film.
Towers is that rarest of treats, a film with huge ambitions that actually realizes them all.