Spend a scant hundred hours in the Rohan.
The action begins immediately where chapter one, The Fellowship of the Ring, dropped us off: Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) have set out for Mordor, the creature Gollum on their tails; Merry and Pippin are captured by Orcs, headed toward Isengard and the power-hungry clutches of the traitorous Saruman (Christopher Lee); Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) relentlessly pursue their Orc quarry, hoping to spring the hobbit captives.
Meanwhile Sauron, the Dark Lord, has begun laying his own plans, and has started to amass an army of evil for his assault on the free kingdoms of Middle-Earth. With Saruman, also building his own Orc-powered war machine, Sauron’s sights are set on those that defy him most: the race of men.
Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli intersect with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), returned from the great beyond, clad now in white, and the quartet head to Rohan, the kingdom of men earmarked by Saruman for extinction. Gandalf informs his newfound crew of Merry and Pippin’s escape and hook-up with Treebeard, a walking, gruff-talking Ent, a shepherd of the forest and Orc-killer extraordinaire.
What follows are multiple storylines running parallel, each character encountering their own form of battle against the enemy, each facing overwhelming obstacles. Aragorn continues his rise to legend as he and his companions bolster the hopelessly outnumbered warriors of Rohan at the fortress Helm’s Deep in a bravura battle sequence; Frodo, Sam, and Gollum face the men of Gondor, led by Faramir, captain and son of the steward of Gondor, who, too, feels drawn to the One Ring’s power; Merry and Pippin, and their new Ent pals seek vengeance on Saruman.
With the special extended edition of The Two Towers, director Peter Jackson’s continuing epic finds itself longer, meatier, and deeper, yet the question remains: with over forty minutes of new footage and enough extras to command a day’s viewing, is it the success that the previous set had been, hailed as one of the best DVDs yet produced?
First off, let me categorize where I might fall on the “Tolkien Fan Spectrum.” I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy last year, just prior to the movies’ release, The Hobbit long ago, and bits and pieces of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (further tales and history of Middle-Earth). Hence I would place myself somewhere in the middle, not ignorant of all things Middle-Earth, but unable to teach a geography lesson on the Gap of Rohan — between “Whoa, cool, a short guy with an axe!” and “I can recite the Song of Solomon in Elvish.”
Also, let it be said I have long given up the comparison of movies to their source books. They are apples and pineapples, different species that should be allowed to stand to judgment independently. I’ve seen a word-for-word book-to-film translation; it was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and it was boring. My imagination had already done all that work I expect loyalty to the source, but also an original vision.
Enter Peter Jackson.
After his base-clearing home-run last year with The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson has followed up with a fairly polarizing film — a fan-interference ground-rule double perhaps. Some applaud loud and long for The Two Towers, others scoff at its liberal celluloid adaptation. What’s the point of Aragorn’s faux-death? What are the Elves doing at Helm’s Deep? Why is Faramir such a dick? I have heard these questions and more thrown at the film.
The filmmakers, with the new and lengthened scenes and through their disc commentary, have fleshed out and addressed these questions. For some this may be clarifying; for others, Tolkien’s masterwork has still been betrayed.
For my money, I will unequivocally say The Two Towers mightily upholds the excellence started in the first film, and in many aspects, mightily trumps it. The battles are bigger, the characters grow (or wither) more dramatically, and the stakes — and prices paid — are higher.
New footage does for The Two Towers here what it did for The Fellowship of the Ring then; it has brought more depth to the characters, more meaning to their actions, and added some very entertaining aspects. Rather than cover all added scenes, I will hone specifically on those that specially altered the movie.
The major benefactors from this new cut are Merry and Pippin. In the theatrical release, these two, for the most part, hung around with a geriatric tree; but now, their story — far and away the leanest of the three — bulks up with some wonderful new scenes, including some sleep-inducing Ent poetry, more great stuff from Treebeard and his brothers in bark, the truth about Ent women, and the discovery of the pipeweed mother lode. I have found in my conversation with many neophyte Tolkienites that the Ent scenes were some of their favorites; here, with this cut, these folks will be even happier.
Some small added scenes also enrich the characters of Eowyn and Eomer. We see more of Eomer’s dedication to Rohan, making his alienation even tougher, and more of Eowyn’s background; she is a strong character and these moments help set her up for a more pivotal role in he forthcoming The Return of the King. There is also a very funny scene where she serves Aragorn some stomach-knotting stew, and discovers his surprising age.
Finally, the grand enchilada: Faramir’s flashback. Nothing in the film has elicited the feistiest forum back-and-forth than the alterations made to this character. In the books, Gondor’s stud was an all-around good guy; here his character is drastically different. He hungers for the One Ring, abuses Gollum, and comes across as an all-around Gondorian dillweed. With this flashback, it is made much clearer why he’s not the Boy Scout he is within Tolkien’s pages.
Denethor, the steward of Gondor, is introduced through this flashback, and Sean Bean returns as Boromir (my favorite character). As Boromir leads the populace of Osgiliath in celebration of resisting the enemy, we see Denethor (Boromir and Faramir’s father) and his divisive treatment toward his sons: Boromir is the favorite, Faramir the goat. This unwavering pressure from his father and the accompanying browbeating is what drives Faramir’s hunger for the One Ring.
This is a great scene, and one that illuminates my favorite theme from the books, and the movies, for that matter: the fallibility of men. To me, men lie between the utter good of Elves and the endless evil of Orcs; they are the median, capable of both good and evil, and it is this struggle, so dramatic in both works, that I find awesomely compelling.
Faramir faces the same temptation his brother faces, and in a sense proves his worth on a greater scale. Both men have decidedly forfeited their lives, but it is a choice they made — to sacrifice themselves for a greater good. The emotional payoff comes from the mouth of Sam, as Faramir escorts the trio out of the city: “You have shown your quality, sir. The very highest.” You may hate the changes made to Faramir, but Jackson and crew have shown where they came from when they did it. I love it.
There are many more scenes peppered throughout, from the amusing (the resolution of Legolas and Gimli’s Orc-slaying contest) to the illuminating (Gandalf’s revelation to Aragorn that Sauron fears him, the man who would reclaim the throne of Gondor).
This version of The Two Towers stands even taller than the imposing monuments to which it owes its namesake.
Half of this mega-set is devoted entirely to bonus hodge-podge. Again, like last year’s Fellowship set, this entry sets the standard for magnitude of bonus features. Hours and hours are available for perusal here.
The first disc offers another interesting feature on J.R.R. Tolkien titled “The Origins of Middle-Earth.” Some light is shed on his relationship with his contemporary C.S. Lewis, another forerunner of the fantasy genre with his Chronicles of Narnia series. “From Book to Script” gives the filmmakers the opportunity to present their treatise on making changes to the storyline; they go deep into Faramir’s character, the shifting of Shelob to the third movie, and the filmed, but not included, participation of Arwen at Helm’s Deep, which sparked a firestorm of criticism among fans.
“Designing and Building Middle-Earth” features an atlas of Middle-Earth and how New Zealand fit the bill to make these fantastic vistas materialize on-screen.
The highlight of this first bout of extras is the detailed documentary of Gollum’s creation, including a side-by-side scene of actor Andy Serkis and his computer-generated counterpart. The scene used is Gollum’s inner dialogue, easily the highlight of the CGI performance; indeed, as so many others have already said, there has been nothing like the achievement of Gollum in film, and the documentary tips the filmmakers’ hands on how they pulled of this marvel. It really is amazing how Serkis’ characterization so closely resembles the final product.
Rounding out are extensive design galleries featuring the peoples, enemies, and locations of Middle-Earth.
Disc Two delves deeper into bringing the script to life. “Filming The Two Towers” opens with a captivating feature on the swordplay required to breathe realism into the battles. Really, it is amazing how much work goes into a fight scene, how much training, and how many black-belt professionals it takes to make an Orc skewered like a marshmallow look authentic. Next is “Cameras in Middle-Earth,” relaying the immense task of filming the different portions of the saga, and how Peter Jackson was the thread that held it all together.
Under the “Visual Effects” menu, a category of “Miniatures” shows the detail and effort that went into creating some of the sets, including Helm’s Deep and a ruined Isengard. Speaking of Isengard, an animatic and comparison of the flooding are included. “WETA Digital,” the workshop fielding the visual effects, gets a feature, and some abandoned concepts are thrown in.
Jackson and his editing cohorts are spotlighted in “Editorial: Refining the Story.” Some interesting facts emerge, like the editors’ affinity for daily quizzes (and disputed scores) and the methods of filming, then interspersing the different stories.
“Music and Sound” reveals the secrets of the film’s score composition and sound effects, and includes a dissection of the Helm’s Deep sound effects, broken into seven layers.
And lastly, “The Battle for Helm’s Deep is Over” reunites us with the cast and filmmakers as they embark on the publicity tours and opening nights for The Two Towers, and the new-found international fame they have all attained (dig the massive Gollum!).
Phew. There is so much stuff packed on these discs it is simply overwhelming. But for further enlightenment, the feature presentation sports four commentary tracks: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens (the writers); the design team; the production and post-production team; and the actors. For secrets on the technical hocus-pocus, go with the two production commentaries. Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens keep the mood light, while also offering their defense on some of the more controversial story alterations. The cast, as in last year’s track, keep the mood even lighter, trading anecdotes and ruminations (e.g., Sean Astin has seen The Fellowship of the Ring 12 times in the theatres).
Or, simply go with the DTS ES mix, an awesome display that outperforms the excellent Dolby Digital track from the theatrical DVD; trust me, when the Orcs march on Helm’s Deep, your neighbors will heed the battle-cry.
Okay, enough, I’m exhausted.
The court thanks the right, honorable parties for their contribution to epic cinema, making “Uruk-hai” a household word, and producing the finest DVD set this year, if not ever. All are released and given lollipops and balloons!