Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Peter Jackson)

!! CAUTION !!

I’m finally done struggling through this series again, and it won’t be high in the queue for a revisit. (Did it out of order for practical reasons, and I did not find that it affected my ability to know or care what the hell is going on.) They are downright painful to watch. At least the first film hinted at some sense of levity; this one shows us trees going into battle and still acts like it’s The Sorrow and the Pity. (Yes, I’m aware they’re not actually trees.) No judgment, it’s just not for me, but it seems like there has to be something to all this; I remain disappointed it’s not within my grasp. But not disappointed enough to try again for a long, long time.

I’ve pretty much gotten all my vitriol about the series out of the way in my reviews of the first and third films, so in taking on this one I’ll try to concentrate on the positive aspects. One cannot come away with anything but awe for Peter Jackson; I don’t like these movies, but I’d love to watch them being made. There is something to the spectacle of it all, but that spectacle cannot translate to the television screen on which I watched the movie. Some would say the blame sits with me, arguing that the theatrical showing is the only proper format of the film. But I think much more often TV simply lays bare the merit of a film; Jurassic Park, for instance, is a popular movie by a great director that seemed incredible projected in a big darkened room… but on television it looks awful, because spectacle is really all it has going for it. Spectacle just isn’t enough for me, nor is it even necessary if you’re telling an interesting story. But if we’re reviewing the conviction behind a fantasy, LOTR scores big. It’s just that we’re reviewing the movies, not the good intentions behind them.

As stated previously, I’m not in the audience for this kind of thing and my own ideas about the Lord of the Rings movies are basically as useless as opinions get. But I can try to apply them to a sort of cinematic database, and I fail; they are currently touted as among the best movies ever made, but I find it hard to believe that they, in and of themselves, will retain this status. For certain, the books aren’t going anywhere, tedious as they are. The movies as a final product don’t really do anything more than summarize somebody else’s work, although unlike, say, a Bloom’s Notes volume, the LOTR films clearly bring the material to a broader audience. But they are nevertheless not a singular artistic statement; they’re a cultural artifact. I think Jackson’s King Kong remake, which I rather liked, is probably the same thing, it’s just that it’s an artifact of an aspect of culture that I find interesting. What people will remember is how far out on a limb Peter Jackson went to make his movies; this will live on much more vividly than the films themselves, just as George Lucas’ relentless spoiled-child tinkering will be remembered long after the Star Wars series is quaint kitsch if it isn’t already.

I’m not being as positive as I intended to be. But I must say that there’s never been a bigger chasm between how little I enjoyed a movie and how much I nevertheless admire its creators. The Two Towers specifically is more of a piece with Jackson’s filmography than the first film. It’s much wilder, it moves faster (but still takes forever to move on to each plot point, and still runs an astonishing three hours, which is just obscene for one third of a fantasy story, especially when there’s a longer cut in existence, but now I’m being a curmudgeon), and it feels considerably more like a complete story, and more like a direct communication between director and audience. Obviously the audience-driven policy of Jackson’s films is something to be applauded; one never gets the impression, as one does with Lucas at times, that he makes movies basically for himself. He’s dying to share what he can do. But virtuosity doesn’t count for much, at least not with everyone, beyond a sense of intellectual pleasure at the recognition of it.

As for the actual story of Lord of the Rings and Two Towers in particular, if it made any sense to me I might comment on it. I sort of understand what’s going on but I have to struggle so valiantly to care that I can’t muster up the energy to type anything about it. (Some of the dialogue is good, which is a turnaround from the first film, which had a number of humiliating lines.) It’s admirable that a certain attempt is made to humanize the individual characters, but they are never more than colors for Tolkien and Jackson to paint with. Humans are beside the point, which is a major debit to the film, especially in visual terms; the actors wander through artificial worlds (despite the breadth of the great New Zealand landscapes) past artificial characters, and more often than not one is left with the insanely annoying feeling that s/he is watching a video game and not being allowed to play it.

It’s generally our policy here to take a look at alternate versions of films when they are due to be revisited, but it wouldn’t seem productive to me to try and screen the extended LOTR versions. There’s no chance they will alter my opinion of these movies at all, and I can be of better service to you on other matters. I don’t begrudge anyone enjoying anything, but the official fandom-geared ranking of these three films in the top ten of everything ever is depressing to me — if only because it seems like an eradication of what’s actually interesting and valuable to me about movies. It would be fine if we were all coexisting, but with this a more recognized cultural artifact in the mainstream than The Best Years of Our Lives or Citizen Kane (check the IMDB), I feel more like my team is getting drowned out. In the grand scheme of things, Rings is a less annoying cultural force than Nolan’s Batman films (because it isn’t so smug and dour) or George Lucas’ Star Wars (because Lucas is such a mediocre, passionless storyteller), but it’s more painful and dull to watch than either. The end.

[Slight expansion of the original 2007 review.]

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