THE BEST ENTRANCE in The Two Towers belongs to a horse: Shadowfax, a white stallion, arrives galloping in slo-mo through a beautiful New Zealand—sorry, Middle-Earth—field to nuzzle the hand of Gandalf (who, despite being a wizard, and having survived a very long fall in The Fellowship of the Ring, makes his modest reappearance merely bathed in white light). Perhaps the horse has more scenes in the Tolkien book; but here it's just ta-da! Shadowfax! Then he disappears back into the three-hour morass of characters and subplots—which could've easily been 30 minutes shorter and a dozen names fewer. (The film opens Dec. 18; see p. 108 for theaters.)
When we last left our fellowship, its members were scattered, and this time they remain scattered for the duration, as director Peter Jackson busily intercuts between three narrative strands: Frodo and Sam transporting the dreaded ring to toss it inside a volcano; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas looking for them but sidetracked by political intrigue in Rohan; Merry and Pippin held hostage for the entire movie (mostly by a giant walking tree that talks . . . very . . . slowly). With Aragorn, you get action. With the hostages, you get, well, the tree. (Treebeard? Treebored is more like it.)
With Frodo, you get Gollum, and I just wish Jackson had given all the tree's screen time to the creepy, funny little bugger. Who or what is Gollum? I couldn't figure out his exact genealogy (despite my meticulously detailed press kit), but he seems to have been some kind of Middle -Earth denizen until his long custody of the ring warped his mind and body into something like a frog crossed with a fetus, with fish-white skin, oversized ears, and baby-fine hair on a balding pate. He crawls, swims, and crouches but almost never stands upright. He likes meat raw, not cooked. Also, he has trouble with plurals.
Gollum's the best character in the movie, and he's all CGI, integrated near-seamlessly into the live-action sequences. His huge blue eyes are startlingly vivid; he's more alive than Shrek, Scooby-Doo, or Dr. Aki Ross. More important, he's nastier—and completely schizo, carrying on moonlight debates with himself as to whether he should help Frodo or kill him in his sleep to snatch the ring. Though he wears a loincloth, Gollum's like an ingratiating, supplicating dog who just might lunge at his master's throat.
Gollum, like the movie, is all about duality—the good and evil Tolkien sets into mythical opposition in all of Middle-Earth and its characters. He's not quite so far gone as the bad wizards (one of whom has decayed into a great, fiery, and almost vaginal eye), and it's not such a stretch to see him as Frodo's double—the sour raisin to Frodo's plump little grape.
THE NEXT GREAT surprise—for me, at least—is that orcs now actually talk! In Fellowship, they just howled and grunted like so many extras being deprived of higher-paying speaking parts. Here, they're given a funny scene that hearkens back to Jackson's zombie-movie past (Dead Alive). What's a hungry orc to eat after a hard day of lugging live captive hobbits? Well, one orc reasons, the little fellows aren't really going to need their legs again—will they?
Towers' more serious centerpiece comes in the epic battle when 10,000 orcs lay siege to the ravine fortress of Helm's Deep, where Aragorn has holed up with 300 refugees from Rohan. There's more than one way to kill an orc, and I've seen most of them now. In Fellowship, they were decapitated, stabbed, axed, impaled, trampled, and shot full of arrows. In Towers, they are additionally thrown from castle walls, crushed by stones flung from ramparts, drowned by torrential waters, and stomped by giant walking trees.
It's exciting, but also too much. The ordinarily useless elf archer Legolas rides a shield like a snowboard down a flight of steps, but it feels like a cheesy Gen-Y sop. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is dashing, but he never really cuts loose in a swashbuckling Errol Flynn kind of way. When he grabs hold of a rope to make a narrow escape from orcs, you expect some amazing stunt; instead his pals just drag him huffing to safety. Then there are opportunities that Spielberg never would've blown. Those screeching black ringwraiths show up riding flying dragons (!), and much more could've been made of them. Ditto the giant four-tusked war-elephants that briefly lumber through the picture; they could've been like the giant walking tanks in The Empire Strikes Back. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the hobbits are always being bound and gagged and handled like sacks of potatoes—hardly the picture of active, dynamic heroes.
There's also too much bother about Rohan and its spellbound king (into whose ear Brad Dourif whispers like a cross between Karl Rove and Marilyn Manson). Jackson gets carried away with balancing his three main story lines, and he unwisely adds a fourth strand—flashbacks to Aragorn's elf lover, Arwen (Liv Tyler, who should've been replaced by CGI).
OK, NONE OF THESE reservations really matter. Everyone is going to see this movie. (In for the first, in for the next two.) Towers amounts to a big, exciting marshaling up of forces to take a stand against evil. It's a war film, really, with both the subtext of combating fascism in the '40s (when Tolkien was writing) and the accidental parallel with Iraq today. When Christopher Lee's evil wizard Saruman looks down from his tower at his assembled orc army, it's like the Nuremberg rallies. Sounding suspiciously like Winston Churchill in the end, the hobbit Sam says, "There's some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for."
Maybe it's the sheer inevitability of combat that makes this so-called fantasy film into serious cinema. Towers leaves no room for peace. Sanctions against Saruman—to say nothing of the big red eye—won't work. There is no United Nations of Middle-Earth. The whole Tolkien trilogy is coming out just too late to be called millennial, but there's something apocalyptic about it. How many more orcs must be slain? How many more times can the members of the fellowship narrowly escape death? All that carnage takes a toll.
Still, I can't wait for next year's final showdown.