For those of you in a rush this holiday season, allow me to give you a quick, encapsulated review: This is a tremendous movie, an amazing visual ride with a tremendous score and slate of sound effects, and a showcase for just how well Computer-Generated Images and effects can be woven into a storyline. This film is also an example to other filmmakers (George Lucas, PLEASE take note) of how one goes about including a fully CGI'd character and have it work. This film is one of the best of the year, and it is worth any price to see it in the theatre, on the big screen, with the digital, multi-speaker sound.
Now, for those of you, who have maybe a couple extra minutes, allow me to expound on my former paragraph a bit. Wow. I'm an experienced theatre-goer, but I was hard pressed to keep myself from becoming fully immersed in almost every part of this film. I managed to step back a couple times to appreciate the scoring and sound elements, but for the most part I was sucked into this film fully.
First off, let me just say how much I appreciate the faith Peter Jackson and crew show to the movie-going audience. There is not one jot of "Last time, in the Lord of the Rings..." to be found. The movie opens with sweeping panoramic shots of the mountainous countryside, and immediately leaps into a further exposition of a scene from the first film, which spins us off into the story of the Two Towers. Jackson and crew show faith that their audience is intelligent and faithful, and simply begin where the first film left off, as if it had been only a few days (instead of a year) since the last film ended. This is the sort of faith and trust that endears an audience to a filmmaker and a film series, and it's working.
I won't recap this film for you; you can find that elsewhere if you're really interested. Suffice it to say that, if you haven't seen the first film "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring", don't see "The Two Towers". See the first film, then go and experience this one. If you have seen the first, see this in the theatre. It's going to look amazing on DVD, but you'll miss out on the experience of the big screen and full sound if you don't see it now. The experience is one that you'll remember for years to come. I remember thinking that "Fellowship" was the leading-edge of fantastic filmmaking. I've revised my opinion now, since "Two Towers" has pushed the leading edge farther than I could have imagined.
Since I'm edging towards it, allow me to revel in some geek tech awe for a moment. After "Phantom Menace", I had certain expectations when it came to CGI scenes of mass movement and battle. The droid army was impressive but disappointing in its conformity. Needless to say, my expectations weren't high. So I was beyond amazed and impressed when I realized that what I was seeing wasn't a small army of extras, but a CGI'd scene of extraordinary complexity and skill. As it turned out, a new piece of software was invented and written, which allowed each figure on the screen to have what amounts to their own behavioral parameters. Each computer-generated individual was given its own algorithm which allowed it a limited decision-making ability, and thus the fight scenes, instead of looking like shoddily-choreographed marching, looked like complete and utter chaos, which is exactly what one expects a battle of such size and scope would look like.
And on the other end of the size-spectrum, there was Gollum. Jar-Jar Binks, eat your floppy-eared badly animated heart out. Here, finally, is a CGI-created character that is as engaging as any of the live actors. Gollum comes across exactly as he should, as a tormented, pathetic creature, trying to find his way back from a black abyss of the soul, and suffering from a torturous inner conflict between his former self and the part of his spirit that was enslaved by Sauron. The expressiveness of this character, facially, is astounding, and the artists who rendered and animated him were even able to capture the emotion that exists within the human eye for Gollum's eyes as well. That such a created character could elicit smiles, sighs, contempt and compassion is both a work of art and a filmic coup.
The cast is extraordinary. The returning crew, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monaghan, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving are all just as good, if not better, than they seemed in the first film. Much of this has to do with more exposition and familiarity with the characters, but the work is outstanding. There are two new individuals, in the roles of new characters, which are worth mentioning. Bernard Hill, portrays "Theoden", the King of Rohan, and Miranda Otto, plays his niece "Eowyn." Both do a tremendous job, and I look forward to seeing more of the character "Eowyn" as her relationship with "Aragorn" is expanded and finalized in the third installment. And hats off to Andy Serkis who voices "Gollum/Smeagol". The effect of this character on audiences is also due, in no small part, to his sound, and that falls squarely in the lap of Mr. Serkis.
Visually, the film is stunning. The sweeping camera fly-bys that allow the audience to gain a true appreciation for the scope of the film (and the entire story) truly set the palette for the scenes which follow on sets and soundstages. The cinematography is wonderful, giving depth and scope to scenes that otherwise might have felt a bit flat had they been handled with less care and vision.
Soundwise, the film soars. One reviewer of film scores compared Howard Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings films with writing an instrumental opera, and that seems the best description I've come across. His score is, in every sense of the words, epic and appropriate, conjuring dread and suspense when nothing else in the scene would suggest such a thing. The music behind the Elves retreat, and under the battle at Helms Deep are two of the most unique and stirring, in different ways of course, tracks of music I've yet experienced, and I look forward to acquiring the soundtrack straight away once the holidays are finished.
Overall, this film gets a full-throated and open-hearted A+. This is, once again, what going to the cinema should be like. Peter Jackson has done such a tremendous job with this series that his place in the upper echelons of film direction is not only assured, but padded and plated in gold. Now if only that petition to have him direct the third Star Wars film had any chance of working... oh well. The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be, to this generation, what the original (good) Star Wars films were to mine in the 70's. Long live the new King.