With The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the focus of Tolkien's epic story moves from the fantastic to the mythic, from magic and monsters towards men and their deeds, as the expanding panorama of Middle-earth introduces us to the Viking-like Riders of Rohan and the men of Gondor. Which is not to say that Peter Jackson's three-hour second instalment doesn't have its fair share of amazing new creatures--here we meet Wargs, Oliphaunts and winged Nazgul, to name three--just that the film is concerned more with myth-making on a heroic scale than the wide-eyed wonder of The Fellowship of the Ring.
There's no time for recapitulation, as a host of new characters are introduced in rapid succession. In Rohan we meet the initially moribund King Theoden (Bernard Hill); his treacherous advisor Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif); his feisty niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto); and his strong-willed nephew Eomer (Karl Urban). Faramir (David Wenham), brother of Boromir, is the other principal human addition to the cast. The hobbits, though, encounter the two most remarkable new characters, both of whom are digitally generated: in Fangorn Forest, Merry and Pippin are literally carried away by Treebeard, a dignified old Ent; while Frodo and Sam capture the duplicitous Gollum, whose fate is inextricably intertwined with that of the Ring.
The film stands or falls with Gollum. If the characterisation had gone the way of Jar Jar Binks, The Two Towers would have been ruined, notwithstanding all the spectacle and grandeur of the rest. But Gollum is a triumph, a tribute both to the computer animators and the motion-captured performance of Andy Serkis: his "dialogues", delivered theatre-like direct to the audience, are a masterstroke. Here and elsewhere Jackson is unafraid to make changes to the story line, bringing Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath, for example, or tipping Aragorn over a cliff. Yet the director's deft touch always seems to add not detract from Tolkien's vision. Just three among many examples: Aragorn's poignant dreams of Arwen (Liv Tyler); Gimli's comic repartee even in the heat of battle; and the wickedly effective siege weapons of the Uruk-Hai (which signify both Saruman's mastery and his perversion of technology). The climactic confrontation at Helm's Deep contains images the like of which have simply never been seen on film before. Almost unimaginably, there's so much more still to come in the Return of the King.
On the DVD: The Two Towers two-disc set, like the Fellowship before it, features the theatrical version of the movie on the first disc, in glorious 2.35:1 widescreen, accompanied by Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Stereo sound options. As before, commentaries and the really in-depth features are held back for the extended four-disc version.
Such as they are, all the extras are reserved for Disc Two. The 14-minute documentary On the Set is a run-of-the-mill publicity preview for the movie; more substantial is the 43-minute Return to Middle-Earth, another promotional feature, which at least has plenty of input from cast and crew. Much more interesting are the briefer pieces, notably: Sean Astin's charming silent short The Long and the Short of It, plus an amusing making-of featurette; a teaser trailer for the extended DVD release; and a tantalising 12-minute sneak peek at Return of the King, introduced by Peter Jackson, in which he declares nonchalantly that "Helm's Deep was just an opening skirmish"! -- Mark Walker