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May 2003
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Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
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by Kathi Maio

And a Little CG Shall Lead Them

I can really relate to Frodo.

No, I've never been hunted by ring-wraiths. In fact, I've never even had to wander a long, long distance barefoot. (Heck, I don't even walk around the house barefoot.) But I do know what it's like to feel like one very small person up against a giant, unrelenting force. Okay, in my case, it's not evil,really. Certainly not anything on the scale of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. I'm only up against the Power of Peter Jackson and the LOTR movie-making maelstrom, a pop-culture phenomenon that has enthralled the filmgoing universe . . .

. . . except for me (and a few others who have taken cover lest a band of rabid Wargs or LOTR fans rip them limb from limb).

I have been hearing and reading nothing but glowing worship for the last year and a half, but I'm sorry—truly I am—I'm just not buying.

It's not that I lack admiration for the accomplishment of Mr. Jackson, his life-and producing/writing-partner, Fran Walsh, their co-writers, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair, their large cast, crew, and FX production team. They have all done some truly amazing work, joining computer technology and live-action filmmaking into two films that are sometimes jaw-droppingly dazzling. All in all, Jackson and his team have clearly tried to do real honor to the greatly beloved Tolkien books.

In this day and age, the temptation to have a character like the dwarf, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) say something like "Let's go kick some Orc butt!" is very strong, indeed. (Take a look at the thoroughly modern medievalism of Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale for proof of this trend.) Jackson and his cowriters never fall prey to this idiocy. If anything, they are too faithful to Tolkien.

Yes, I know that they cut some interesting bits, as well as lots of uninteresting bits (like Tolkien's poetry), but cutting is clearly something Mr. Jackson prefers not to do, which is why his films are o long.The three hours of the first installment was less painful since there was a more clear-cut tale to tell, and that establishing story was less consistently harrowing, with more variation in tone. (Ah, for the comic relief of Bilbo Baggins's 111th birthday party!)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is another matter altogether. One of the ways in which I know that Two Towers is not the "masterpiece" it is being called is that I could feel every minute that my lower extremities were asleep. (Roughly, the last hour of the movie.) To be very fair, most of the failings of The Two Towers come from the source material, which Jackson treats like a holy canon it is most assuredly not.

The movie version of The Two Towers, which is all striding and strife, with little relief and no real resolution, splits its story three ways and hits the ground running. No clip re-capping is shown, no voiceover bridge and no transitional material is offered, and characters old and new are thrown at the viewer (sometimes by the thousands) so rapidly that it can leave many viewers dazed and confused.

Argue if you must that Mr. Jackson refuses to talk down to his audience. He assumes that any viewer has seen the first movie (several times). Judging from the $860 million-plus in box office, he is probably right, in the case of a great many inhabitants of this troubled planet. He also assumes that you are a careful student of the Tolkien liturgy. And in the case of readers of this magazine, he is, again, probably correct in that assumption.

But what if you haven't seen the first installment or read any Tolkien? Tough luck, Mr. Jackson has said in interviews. The filmmaker has boldly stated that anyone who hasn't seen the first movie has no business seeing the second. (And the way he throws Tolkienian terminology and significant but not yet fleshed out characters into scenes, there seems little doubt that he feels the same way about anyone who hasn't closely read and studied every word Tolkien ever wrote.)

Now I expect that you, gentle reader, are saying, "What's your point, rhymes-with-witch? Any dolt who hasn't reread Tolkien at least five times and hasn't rewatched the Platinum Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring DVD (along with every one of the commentary tracks) doesn't deserve to live, much less go to the movies!"

I get your—and Mr. Jackson's—point. Truly, I do. I just don't happen to agree with it.

Here's one of the cornerstones of my response to cinema: Each movie has to stand on its own, to entertain and challenge and thrill on its own, without a viewer making any immediate reference to anything except, perchance, a little personal knowledge of the human heart. Needless to say, few movies meet this requirement. And prequels, sequels, and series movies tend to fail this test miserably. Still, there you are. For Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers truly to be the "masterpiece" or "great film" as it has so often been called, it would need to be comprehensible and emotionally satisfying as a completely independent feature film.

It just isn't.

The narrative is fractured and scattered, with too little character exposition and way too much smiting and general carnage.

I can hear you now, gentle reader. You are mentally chiding me that Mr. Jackson is only being (relatively) true to his text. Too bad, I say. I don't care if this is Tolkien's weakest novel in the trilogy—A movie needs to succeed or fail on its own.

Okay, let me appease you a bit by saying what Mr. Jackson's The Two Towers does well: The battle scenes are incredible. All those computer-generated Uruk-Hai really fill a screen. Another impressive bit of CG is his recreation of the Ents, especially Treebeard. (Discuss amongst yourselves: Who does Treebeard look like more: C. Aubrey Smith or George Bernard Shaw? And what current species of tree does he most resemble?)

But the most impressive achievement of the film of The Two Towers has got to be the character of Gollum/Sméagol. The best CG character ever filmed (to date), Gollum is also the most interesting and the most fully realized character in this movie. State-of-the-art FX combined with the voice and motion-capture movement of actor Andy Serkis help bring Tolkien's only deeply conflicted character to complete life. Multiple personality disorder? This deformed baby of a former Hobbit is a clinical case study. Gollum was utterly corrupted by his many years with The One. Nonetheless, a pathetic glimmer of the loyal, moral Sméagol remains. It is this entity that Frodo tries to reach, and is forced to use as his guide to Mordor.

I like Elijah Wood. But, let's face it, his wide-eyed anxiety gets boring after a while. Likewise, I agree that Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn is one hunk of adorable super-man, even with all the grime and greasy hair. Ian McKellen, too, excels as a white wizard of great dignity and benevolence. But there is precious little complexity to their characters. Just as Christopher Lee's portentous Saruman is a perfect istari gone bad—and I mean completely bad.

All that clear-cut good and evil just doesn't make for a compelling movie. That's why the creepy little CG figure of Gollum is the real star of The Two Towers.

There are plenty of other things to kvetch about. And knowing me, you can guess what they are. The race/ethnicity aspect of LOTR is even more disquieting when it is brought to full, visual life. The slimy black Orcs are the minions of evil. The Aryan, pointy-eared Elves and steadfast Viking-like blondish Rohan represent the immortal and human face of what is good. And did you ever notice that Saruman, at the top of his minaret-like tower, looks a heck of a lot like the kind of mullah/ayatollah/bin Laden figure we've been demonizing for years? What's wrong with this picture? You will probably say "absolutely nothing," gentle reader. And you may be right. Or not.

I would have also preferred not to wait till the third movie to see a bit of interesting woman-action. Yes, I know, Tolkien didn't do much with his women either. But Mr. Jackson had two women on his writing team, so I was hoping against hope that the females in this film would do more than be commanded to go off somewhere by a male authority figure. Weepy Arwen (Liv Tyler) is told by her father to get out of town, I mean, Middle Earth. And the newly introduced Éowyn (Miranda Otto) is told by her uncle to go hide in the Helm's Deep cave, along with the rest of the whimpering women.

An inserted love-scene dream sequence between Arwen and Aragorn didn't appease me. Although a little bit of real sword-action featuring Éowyn, prior to her Deborah Sampson routine in Film Three, might have.

I know that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy will probably stand as one of the great achievements in fantasy filmmaking. And I know that it will save New Line studio (for now), and make many people very, very rich.

The character of Gollum is the kind of breakthrough CG that can make a movie worth watching even if the rest of the movie it appears in is totally without merit. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is not that kind of movie. There is much to admire throughout the overlong course of this film. But I suspect that this is, as middle films often are, the weakest section in this three-part movie cycle.

Call it a pretty good film and I'll agree with you. Call it a great one, and I will beg to differ.

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