When I was a kid, I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring an exorbitant amount of times. It was unlike anything I had seen, seemingly attuned exactly to what I needed and wanted out of cinema, something that dialed into an unknown part of me and opened my eyes to the possibility of film and storytelling in general. And on top of all that, The Two Towers was right around the corner.
Needless to say, expectations were high. Not just for the legion of new young fans that were only now being exposed to Tolkien’s enormous fantasy treasure chest, but to astute cinematic observers who noted similarities between this new high-concept blockbuster series and the one that had taken the world by storm some time back. For Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back represented a huge turning point in how the series was viewed, but also in how we viewed storytelling on a grand, blockbuster stage – its twist ending to end all twist endings, its mature, even downbeat tone, its ambiguous and yet totally satisfying conclusion set the highest possible bar for future ‘middle’ trilogy films to clear.
It is a strange and difficult thing, to be a trilogy’s ‘middle’ child. Some (read: most) trilogies, particularly ones that aren’t segmented pieces of a bigger whole, generally coast by on the strengths of the original. For segmented stories, the middle tomes so often feel like interludes, a bridge to get us from one place to another in as condensed an amount of time as logic will allow. There is a commercial value as well (indeed, this is something to which Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films fatally fell victim). To create an Empire Strikes Back, or an Aliens or a Godfather Part Two, is to achieve a rarely perfected alchemy – something that establishes itself as worthy on its own merits while simultaneously paying the proper homage necessary to the story before and moving the overall narrative to somewhere totally new.
Consider Towers in relation to some of those other great ‘middle’ films like Aliens or T2: Judgement Day, that take the inherent claustrophobia and simplicity of their premises and blow them up into something immense, or Empire or even Godfather Part II that focus on enriching our understanding of the characters and their world by calling everything they value into question. From the virtuoso opening dogfight between Gandalf and the Balrog to the triumphant final cavalry charge, Towers serves as an amalgam of both these approaches, and this is what gives it that quintessential ‘middle-ness’. The unforgettable spirit of Fellowship remains in Towers, but in the sense that a second movement in a symphony may play notes already established in new and exciting ways. The Rings films have always defined themselves through a mixing of high fantasy indulgence with serious-minded dramatics – the things our heroes face and the world they live within are on the surface somewhat silly, but the themes and ideas within are eternal and grandiose, as all the best high fantasy inevitably becomes. What Towers does that is so remarkable is humanize these themes in unexpectedly intimate ways, building outward from the characters.
The Two Towers can best be defined by expansiveness – where Fellowship more-or-less followed the trajectory of a single mission, here the narratives are splintered in ways that intercede and thread into each other in thrilling fashion. The introduction of Rohan and its people is perhaps the biggest development in this sense, as the existential threat of Sauron and the Ring are given real victims. Cleverly, the choice to have Sauron take a backseat here to Saruman grounds the viewer in real-world stakes. Whereas Sauron’s dominance is an all-encompassing, almost unknowable evil, Saruman’s villainy is a human of industrialization and capitalism. This makes his assault on one of the purest cinematic visualizations of the ‘common folk’ – the Viking-esque people of Rohan – not to mention the literal environment in the tree-like Ents, all the more tantalizing, thrilling and personal to the viewer. This evolution is signified subtly in the differences in imagery within Towers to its predecessor – the sweeping New Zealand vistas are as vital to this as the first, but here we move to more rustic, rural frames, more concentration on the people existing outside of our heroes. The colour palette shifts from the natural, soothing greens and blacks of Fellowship to focus on pastoral oranges, reds, browns and yellows (in Return of the King, fittingly, a shift to royal blues and silvers).
Beyond this, it is easy to highlight what was fresh and remarkable on first watch and what still holds up fifteen years on. There is of course the technical mastery of the films – Andy Serkis’ CGI performance capture work as Gollum establishing nothing less than a new cinematic language. The art design, score and performances remain remarkably intricate and full. Then there’s Helm’s Deep, the elephant in the room when it comes to considering the importance of The Two Towers on the modern cinematic landscape. Helm’s Deep remains one of the greatest siege battles ever put to film, a gritty, nasty hellscape of a thing that pits our heroes against seemingly unendurable odds.
In Helm’s Deep the symphonic nature of The Lord of the Rings reveals itself in miniature – in the movements, the peaks and valleys, the slow, methodical unpacking of how the armies surround and interact with each other. What was arguably an interlude in the books morphs into something urgent and enormous here. Even though we know and expect the story to continue, the intensity of the sequence calls into legitimate question the survival of our heroes going forward. That sense of unpredictability, especially in a fantasy story, is the essence of a classic ‘middle’ film. It is easy to consider The Lord of the Rings as a large-scale, singular work (and indeed, it is perhaps the best approach to consuming it in a number of ways). However fifteen years on, The Two Towers, destined by its position in the trilogy to be the ‘middle child’ of the family, redefines what it is to be such. Its accomplishments as both a continuation of the series and a singular film in its own right speak volumes, demanding consideration on its own merits by being in its own way intimate and grandiose, magical and mundane, fantastical and utterly human.