Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Dear Reader,

Below please find the second of what should be three critiques of the Peter Jackson “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy. If you would care to see the first of the three, look further below.

“The Two Towers” reaches right into our chests and plucks on that old “Gandalf is falling to his death” heartstring, but this time with more vigor than before. It crossed my mind that during that moment where Gandalf hangs there on the broken bridge and says “Fly, you fools!”, he was imminently rescuable. Why did no one rescue him? Why didn’t he wizard himself back up to safety? It looked to me like he let go, and that is only reinforced in this sequence, where he converts into “Lucy Liu/James Bond” Gandalf and rockets down to the Balrog (the fire giant) for more rumbling. Physics mean little in Middle Earth, by the way.

The second film is less good than the first because it has to be. The first tried to tell one main story (and almost pulled it off without a hitch), but the second one has to tell three main stories. It does a pretty good job with the easiest one, a less good job with the hardest, and blows it on the middle one.

The easiest story is the one about Frodo and Sam. They are alone now, trekking through some mountains towards Mordor. They are lost, however, until they learn that Gollum has been following them (he is, of course, the slimy former ring bearer and easily the best developed and most interesting character in the trilogy. He is also a brilliant technological achievement). Gollum becomes the pair’s only-partly-willing guide, and that’s how things go for their story for most of the rest of the film. We’ll get back to it.

The middle story could have been a real joy, but sucks. It is the story of Merry and Pippen, who were kidnapped by orcs at the end of part one. They escape from their captors after a group of men attack and kill the baddies (not noticing the hobbits, somehow) and wander into a Forbidden Forest. Merry hints that the trees in this forest are “alive” (duh!). It can only get better, right? It does, slightly, with the introduction of Treebeard, who is the leader of a race of, well, trees. Shepherds of trees, in fact (because, the movie invites us to assume, the trees of Middle Earth are given to wandering off and getting attacked by wolves and other such stuff). Treebeard and the other shepherds, by the way, are Ents and are also magnificent bits of fx. Treebeard is a kindly soul, as one might expect from a tree shepherd. As it happens, he is a bit too kindly, considering that the evil wizard Saruman has been chopping down his charges for some time now (not much of a shepherd, it seems). Merry somehow knows this, however, and tricks Treebeard into seeing the carnage (or would that be woodage? Pulpage? Arbolage?) for himself, whereupon the Ents up and decide to go whip Saruman (very hasty, hroom hoom!). They do whip him, too. And that is pretty much that. One gets the sense that there is more to these Ents than meets the eye, but they come off as a sort of deus ex machina (or deus ex tree). Saruman, like the Wraiths from part one, seems to be a pushover (if Gandalf were alive he’d probably feel pretty silly about that whole captivity thing!).

AH! GANDALF LIVES! Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn find this out after they trace the orc trail across the plains of a place called Rohan and into the forest. Along the way they meet the “Riders of Rohan”, who are known for their love of horses. The three heroes charm these utter and complete and total strangers into giving up two of their beloved horses, however, and then promptly lose the horses when they enter the forest (after a ride of around a mile). WHAT EVER! By the way, during this first bit of the movie Gimli is revealed to be the comic relief. He zips off one one-liner after another for the rest of the trilogy. Cuz dwarves are funny.

Gandalf is resplendent in his new white outfit and trimmed hair and beard, and reveals that he did, in fact, die. He has been sent back (By someone. Perhaps God? Is there a god in Middle Earth? Are the wizards gods? Why does Saruman seem to suck so bad, then? And how come Gandalf needed a moth and an eagle to escape before when all he really had to do was fall to his “death” and get sent back?). Anyway, Gandalf whistles and up rides Silver (aka Shadowfax). Then, as if by magic, the other two horses appear under their riders and everyone gallops off for the capital of Rohan. Merry and Pippen, who were so important before that the heroes ditched Frodo and Sam for them, are left in the warm embrace of the Treeherds. Um. Ok.

This is, as I hinted above, the most complicated part of the movie. It turns out that the king of Rohan is a doddering old dude under the spell of an evil person. How do we know he is evil? Well, for one thing, the actor is Brad Douriff. For another, he’s the only person with black hair in the whole of Rohan (which is like Sweden, but with less ABBA and more horses). Revealed as a black-haired villain in the service of Saruman, Brad chews the scenery on his way out of the plot. And scene! The king of Rohan (Theoden) becomes fit and swordwieldy again, and promptly abandons his capital city for an impenetrable mountain hideout (sort of like Dick Cheney). Why not just have the capital in the hideout? It certainly seems sturdy. Nah, better to wait until it is almost too late. For some reason this troubles Gandalf, so he rides like the wind on some secret mission. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli join the survivalists in the meantime.

It seems that Helm’s Deep (the redoubt) is just exactly where the evil (and not yet treeherded) Saruman knew to look for the Rohaners, because Brad Douriff told on them. What if he hadn’t told? Would Saruman have attacked the capital city instead? If so, all might well have been lost. Or not. Would it matter? We are not told. Anyway, Saruman takes a page out of Clausewitz’s immortal “How to Snatch Utter Defeat from the Jaws of Certain Victory” (better known, perhaps, in the original German as “Oskarpreisversuch”) and throws his main force in waves against the walls of the fortress. The defenses are manned and, thanks to the unforeseen arrival of Haldir of Lorien (the magic elf forest where Queen Galadriel lives), elved by a motley but stouthearted army, so most of the orcs get slaughtered, but some of them break through the walls and manage to die in spectacularly exciting ways (which must have been part of his evil plan).

By the way 1) Haldir brings greetings from Elrond. Did he come there by way of Rivendell or something? I thought he lived in the forest of Lorien. Silly me. 2) How did the elves know that the Rohanians would be there? I guess Brad Douriff wasn’t the only one spying.

Anyway, the orcs are winning by virtue of their fanatical devotion to advancing in the face of all odds when Gimli blows a horn. Gimli, of course, was a Rohanite in a past life and therefore fully qualified to rally the troops. The heroes ride out to certain (glorious) doom when, soft! What light o’er yon hillock breaks? It is the east, and Gandalf (and the Polish army: see the last Turkish siege of Vienna) is the sun! They ride down an impossibly steep hill (it is so steep it has a horizon!) and cause victory for the good guys.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam and Gollum have some quite good scenes together and give us a hint that there’s more to movie making than hewing and hacking and shooting. Dialogue? Finally! They meet some OTHER men, by accident, one of whom turns out to be Boromir’s kid brother Faramir. He shares his brother’s ring fetish and very nearly fucks up the whole thing for everyone (and almost causes cancellation of the third film) but (surprise?) opts against filching the Precious. The Wraiths are back, however, and have deployed their most fearsome weapon: dragons! Dragons can’t be swept away in rivers, so the Wraiths are now free to scream and scream (which seems to be the thing that makes them so dangerous, and to be honest, I don’t like screaming, so I guess they are sort of scary). I wonder how a good thunderstorm would affect the flying Wraiths?

Anyway, Gollum reveals a good and bad side, and for a time it seems that the good side is ascendant. But then he gets his loincloth in a twist about Frodo betraying him (I got mine in a twist about Frodo not explaining to Gollum what the deal was) and the bad side comes out again. His evil plan is to lead the Hobbits into a trap, it seems. And off he leads.

We are left hanging. What are Merry and Pippen up to? Why should we care? Is Saruman really so weak as to be beaten up by a bunch of trees? Does the victory at Helm’s Deep matter at all? Will Frodo and Sam fall for Gollum’s trap? What will become of Faramir? That much I liked (the cliffhanger stuff). Here’s what chapped my ass a bit:

“The Two Towers” doesn’t stand on its own AT ALL. It starts with no real start to anything and ends with no real end to anything. It is three hours of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I mean, at the end of part one we had 1) Frodo and Sam on the road, 2) Merry and Pippen off with strangers 3) Gandalf dead 4) Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli off doing nothing of great importance. At the end of part two we have THE SAME SHIT, except Gandalf is alive again. As pretty as this was at times, I think this movie has little reason to exist.


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