There's a lot of decapitations and dismemberment for a PG-13 film. But I like that PG-13 can have people's heads being chopped off and their intestines thrown about willy-nilly and still manage to attract an audience. Why? Because I'm a hypocrite.
DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson
I keep starting The Lord of the Rings movies over and over. I want to review all of them, but I just keep watching the first three-quarters of The Fellowship of the Ring (my favorite of the group). These movies, especially in their extended format, are just so long. I get a little burnt out on these movies over time, so I can't ever sit down and review them. This time, I just said start with The Two Towers. Why? Because it's been forever since I've watched it and I know everything that happens in Fellowship. It was a weird choice on my part because The Two Towers was always the weakest of the series for me. What would it be like starting from what I considered a weak spot?
The answer? This movie's pretty great. The only reason that I lumped it in as a weaker film is because I kept on watching it immediately after the one I loved so much. Not having watched The Fellowship of the Ring in at least a year-and-a-half, this reentry to the Lord of the Rings is great, if not super somber. What mainly makes the movie work is the fact that it crushes its four hour runtime. Let's all call a spade a spade: a long movie needs to be great to really be watchable. Someone tells me that the runtime of a movie is over two hours, I'm sure my blood pressure goes up a little bit. For a guy who loves movies so much, I also know that being lazy and looking at my phone is an option. Also, ever since I turned 30, I now havea harder time staying awake during movies. It isn't a commentary on the movie. I love movies. Something just switched off and now I have to be wide awake to enjoy a film. I used to scoff at people like me. Now I'm one of them. What makes the four hour runtime work is the fully developed plots that run simultaneously. I love character development, but the character development of The Lord of the Rings movies comes from indirect characterization and character actions. Very little time is spent wholly on developing character in isolation, but rather in the midst of plot. I'm taking a grad course right now that really stresses the value of character development over plot in great literature. I can kind of agree with that, but I think the Lord of the Rings novels and films show that character development can happen within the context of narrative storytelling. Jackson really gets that with this film. Sure, there are moments where Sam and Frodo are just talking about the burden that the ring is and discuss their thoughts on Gollum, but these scenes are precursors to awesome moments like the journey through the swamp. Similarly, there are characters like Eowyn who are new characters, who get their entire arc through their actions. Eowyn once begrudgingly confronts Aragorn about her position having to defend the women in the caves and that's it. Her entire love for Aragorn is shown through her actions and her lack of action. It's very cool, because that character could be considered burdensome in a movie that already has a love interest. There's no scenario where Eowyn and Aragorn end up together, but by giving her dimensions of willpower, it makes the character so much more interesting. She takes what she needs to take and sacrifices herself for a greater good.
I always knew that Peter Jackson was a stylistic director. I loved The Frighteners (from the one time I saw it) and I didn't care for Dead Alive, but the guy always had an artificial form of reality. (I just wrote "artificial form of reality." I'm a turd.) His world is something that is narratively functional. The story is easy to understand and he never really does any "look at how clever I am" moments, but there is a definite style that I'm surprised the casual moviegoer got behind. I love all of the performances, but the performances themselves are kind of weird. I saw Sam Raimi do the same thing with his Spider-Man films. Both of these guys made really stylistic independent horror movies for a long time and then were given huge budgets to make blockbuster films. They used a lot of their tricks from their indie days to make these movies and there are just these moments where you can see that. The ghosts in the swamp, for example, are straight up creepy as heck and I can just see the creature effects at work. Because of these choices, some of the cooler moments in the movie are allowed to happen. I think the most memorable performance from the movie is Andy Serkis's Gollum. Gollum still looks pretty good for a digital character, but time is starting to show on some of the edges of that character. Regardless, Serkis's performance, especially when the character is speaking to himself, is such a Peter Jackson move that can only work in the context for a stylized blockbuster. (I feel like I'm overselling how stylized it is. It still is a straightforward film, but there is a tint to the movie that still feels like old Peter Jackson.) That moment, where Gollum and Smeagol are yelling at each other, is so bizarre that I'm floored that New Line let him get away with it. (I'm floored that New Line even made these movies, but that's a whole different story.)
There's a ton going on in this movie. There's almost too much to talk about. I want to analyze every major plot point in this movie, but I'm worried it will get to fanboyish. I also have responsibilities to deal with, but I 'll see what I can look at. Sam and Frodo are the A story, but don't necessarily always feel like it in this movie. The Lord of the Rings almost has a television like storytelling method due to the length of all of the films combined. Very rarely do I get to see genuine character changes over the course of a film, but Jackson gets close to that kind of change that we occasionally see on episodic television. After reviewing all of the Star Wars prequels, I can see how hard the line must be to have a character have a light switch moment. Frodo has major jumps into corruption, but these all seem fairly organic. He's also very critical of his own emotional outbursts. We never really see Anakin attempt to fight that element of himself. Frodo doesn't want the ring to corrupt him and that moment when he attacks Sam is terrifying. But he gains a moment of clarity, setting up for The Return of the King. As part of that, the movie does a nice job of teasing the next movie while having The Two Towers stand on its own legs. (I acknowledge that The Two Towers only works as the middle part of a trilogy, but it was still a great movie in itself.) Gandalf, similarly, really gets his moment in the sun. I always thought I understood the Balrog fight with Gandalf, but paying close attention this time had a very different story. It's interesting that McKellan plays Gandalf the Grey differently than he plays Gandalf the White. (As a Doctor Who fan, I get it. I'm sure Peter Jackson, another Whovian, also gets it.) There's a line that Gandalf says about passing through history. He has a vague memory of who he used to be. That's a cool concept. I always prefer Gandalf the Grey, but having that transition into a new character is great.
There's something that sat with me better this time than it had with other times. I never really cared for the Rohan plot before. The world of men is always kind of a letdown in the Lord of the Rings movies, despite the fact that Tolkien was doing his most overt commentary in those moments. I always liked the Battle of Helm's Deep (who doesn't?), but the other stuff always rubbed me the wrong way. I don't know why I liked it so much this time. It's a very simple part of the movie, but there was something noble and majestic. I will question, though, Aragorn's fear of moving to Helm's Deep. That initial place they were seem pretty easy to destroy and surround. Yeah, you are putting your back against a mountain, but the bad guys can't surround you then. You are fighting a one front war. Look how the two front war worked for the Uruk-hai. The answer is "not well." I get that Aragorn can get mad at Theodin for not communicating with Gondor, but the other stuff didn't have a much better plan. The Treebeard stuff, oddly enough, wasn't as entertaining as normal. I love Merry and Pippin, but they didn't grab my attention as much as normal. I, too, grew frustrated with the ents. It didn't help knowing that I just wanted to see them tear down Isengard. Question for you, the reader: Was Saruman kind of neutered in this one? He's not a terrifying foe against the ents. I know, they're giant tree shepherds, but I kind of expected a pretty fantastic fight. Regardless, that sequence is fairly great.
I loved this movie and I'm really excited for my watching The Return of the King, the one in the franchise I've only seen twice or so. It's been some time, so hopefully it will be like a new experience. If I keep feeling it, I might rewatch The Hobbit movies (I haven't watched the extended cut of The Battle of the Five Armies yet, so I'm excited for that.)
Or maybe I'm setting myself up for the same burnout. Who knows?
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.