Friday, November 5, 2010

Epic Redux Vol. 2 - The Two Towers Made Better In Its Extended Edition!

The Good: Great acting, directing, characters, plot, special effects, Wonderful DVD bonus features
The Bad: Some of the bonus features are repetitive.
The Basics: Fleshed out to be an even more complete and truly epic film, the extended edition of The Two Towers is the only one worth owning!

Following upon the success of the cinematic rendition of The Fellowship Of The Rings and then the immediate success of the four-disc "Extended Edition" of the first film in the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (click here for that review!), there was little doubt that Peter Jackson's follow-ups would do extraordinarily well at both the box office and the retail outlets for DVDs. When The Two Towers hit the theaters, Peter Jackson promised viewers an even more impressive Extended Edition and, true to his word, when it hit stores a year later, it was worth it.

Jackson had no small task in The Two Towers, the middle act of the Lord Of The Rings, arguably the most challenging episode in the franchise to keep focused and interesting. As a result, Jackson decides to stray some from the narrative left to him by J.R.R. Tolkien and he inflates a rather minor battle from the novel The Two Towers (click here for the book review!) into the centerpiece of the cinematic version. In this way, he takes a cinematic episode that could have been tragically dull with honestly no significant movement and transforms it into arguably the best sequel film since The Empire Strikes Back (click here for that film's review!). And with the Special Extended Edition DVD, he fleshes out the three hour film into a 223 minute epic that is truly amazing.

Recounting the loss of Gandalf in Moria, Frodo awakens to the nightmarish rocks of the Emyn Muil, which is the most direct path to Mordor where he seeks to destroy the evil One Ring. Lost and accompanied by Sam, whose spirits are dwindling some, Frodo soon realizes the pair is being followed. They capture the creature Gollum, who is hunting the Ring and who becomes bound to helping Frodo and Sam when Frodo's compassion gets the better of him and he prevents Sam from killing the creature. Together, the trio journeys closer to Mordor, en route being abducted by an unlikely soldier, Faramir, Boromir's brother.

While Frodo and Sam progress toward Mordor, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas follow the trail of Saruman's Uruk-Hai into Rohan, the realm of the horse lords. There they discover a beaten people and when they find a new incarnation of Gandalf roaming the nearby woods, the quartet sets out to liberate Rohan from Saruman's forces by thwarting his sorceries that keep King Theodin trapped and weak. Freeing Theodin turns Saruman's attentions to Rohan and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas must convince Theodin to stand and fight against the evil that is coming, whether he wants it to or not.

And Merry and Pippin find themselves among the Ents, which are basically walking, talking trees.

I add the last plot point as an afterthought because in some ways, their entire arc is an afterthought. They have a role to play, but it's a distant c-plot and it is only worth mentioning because it contains some of the most impressive special effects of the franchise. Merry and Pippin spend their time surrounded by beings that have almost no basis in reality, yet are seamless with real environments. The artists at Weta did an amazing job with the look and feel of the Ents to make them truly dynamic and believable characters.

Like its predecessor in the extended cuts, The Two Towers - The Special Extended Edition DVD has numerous scenes that were created special for the DVD release or were reintegrated into the film. These scenes tend to add a much richer sense of setting for the film and include a scene that introduces the horselord Eomer independent of Aragorn and the heroes from the first film. With the Massacre at the Fords of Isen, Eomer is introduced quite a bit stronger and when he finds Theodin's critically wounded son, it has an emotional resonance for the audience which its passing mention in the original cut never did.

As well, the film plays on scenes that were extended in The Fellowship Of The Ring, like making note of Sam's elvish rope and its powers. Arguably the most significant new scene is a conversation between Theodin's niece Eowyn and Aragorn, wherein Aragorn's true age is revealed. It is a very distinct scene and it stands out for how much information is conveyed in it. The other additional scene of significance recounts the story of Boromir and Faramir and the recapture of Osgiliath. This sets up the relationship between Boromir and Faramir and their father Denethor explicitly, while it was only implied in the original cut. This certainly fleshes out the importance of Faramir and fans of Boromir will be refreshed to see he was not always a ring-addled jerk. The extra scene adds more time, to be sure, but also more depth of character and setting.

There are, all told, fifteen additional scenes reintegrated into The Two Towers and eighteen other scenes have additional footage returned to them. Unlike some form of prototype or test screening, the extended cut features fully mastered shots integrated seamlessly into the film. The addition of new material is so precise that it could easily go unnoticed because of the scope of the film and is so professionally done that it includes an entirely redone soundtrack to adapt the score to the longer scenes. The integration is brilliant and makes for a far more complete film!

The Extended Edition cut of The Two Towers becomes THE version to recommend because it is a rich, complex film that is not afraid to take its time in developing a nuanced setting and additional character depth.

Of course, the characters ought to be the centerpiece for the film and this episode succeeds with both developing the established characters and establishing new characters who are worthy of attention. The noteworthy characters of The Two Towers are:

Frodo Baggins - A hobbit charged with saving the world by destroying the powerful One Ring of Sauron. He is exhausted and the power of the Ring has begun to drain him so when Gollum surfaces, he welcomes the company of the only other person on Middle Earth to truly understand what he is going through. Watched after by Sam, he continues his treacherous journey, despite the weight he bears,

Gollum and Smeagol - Formerly a riverfolk, now a twisted minion of evil who suffers from a split personality disorder. Frodo summons forth the good in him, reminding the ring-bound Gollum of his peaceful life before as Smeagol. He guides the hobbits, against the judgment and approval of Sam and he seems prepared to do right by them, at least until fate intervenes again,

Theodin - King of Rohan, kept ensorceled by Saruman and his corrupt servant Grima Wormtongue. Awakened from his long slumber by the newly reincarnated (and more powerful) Gandalf The White, Theodin mourns the loss of his son. It is that loss that paralyzes the king and makes him retreat from the threat of battle. Determined to protect his people, he sends them to Helm's Deep, the last refuge of Rohan in the hopes that they might survive without having to resort to fighting,

Aragorn - A man whose destiny seems to be to rise up and lead other men, he finds himself desperate to convince Theodin to stand his ground and not surrender territory to the encroaching armies of Saruman. When it becomes clear Theodin will not do that, he retreats with the citizens while Gandalf searches for the roving horselords and he becomes determined to make a stand at Helm's Deep that will lead to survival as opposed to surrender. Eowyn is smitten with him, though his heart still belongs to the Elfmaiden, Arwen,

Faramir - A man from Gondor, the strongest nation of men, son of the regent, brother of Boromir, who he knows is dead. Upon stumbling upon Frodo, Sam and Gollum, he sees it as his duty to bring the One Ring back to his father, though he fears its power could overcome the weakened Steward. When the lands nearest his territory fall under siege again, he is forced to make a decision between duty and what he suspects is the right thing to do,

Saruman - A powerful wizard who has leveled all living things around his tower Isengard and now sets an army in motion using war machines unlike anything Middle Earth has ever seen. His forced turn their attentions to Rohan and he becomes committed with his might to wiping out the one of the two nations of men,

Eowyn - Theodin's niece, she objects to being treated as less than a man. She fights for equality and a place in battle, pining to be alongside Aragorn. Instead, she is sent to the refuge of the caves to watch over those citizens of Rohan who are unable to fight for it,

and Sauron - He appears solely as an Eye in the film. He is not yet corporeal, but it seems his essence is calling the ring and if it can be reunited with its master, Sauron will take form and be invincible.

The Two Towers is populated by wonderful characters and the performances of the actors - even those of the lesser-featured characters - was enough to launch the careers of many. The actors are pretty exceptional and while most of them deserve mentioning, the bulk of the film falls upon the shoulders of two actors to carry: Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood. While Bernard Hill's portrayal of Theodin is impressive with his dignity and bearing, this seems far more the functioning of great casting. In all of the bonus features, Hill appears kingly, making his playing Theodin seem like child's play and dress up. He's legitimately great, but his performance does not make the movie.

Viggo Mortensen, on the other hand, truly comes into his own in The Two Towers. Here he grows into the leader of men that he only began to discover in the last portions of the prior film and Mortensen brings a new energy, enthusiasm and strength to the part that he lacked the first time around. He is confident and plays Aragorn with a resolve that is steely and precise. If anything, his performance in this film makes his turn in A History Of Violence somewhat less impressive because he has already illustrated his ability to play cold and hardened in this film. But it's easy to see his greatness and ability here as his character is given far more to do this time around. As well, Mortensen balances his performance with a deep humanity and compassion and while Aragorn has resolve, Mortensen infuses him with a reluctance similar to Theodin's about the need for war.

Also giving a great performance is Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. Frodo is a reluctant hero, like a kid who would rather sit home and goof off with his friends when he suddenly discovers he has a destiny, and here Wood brings a sense of physical exhaustion to the role that instantly gives the viewer the sense that his character is transforming as we watch. As well, he is playing off actor Andy Serkis (Gollum) through most of the film, yet we never have the sense that Wood is seeing anything but the digital recreation the viewer sees. That takes talent!

Truly, this is a pretty classic tale of good versus evil, even if evil is mostly disembodied. And thus it comes down to how the story is told and in what setting. Middle Earth, as created by Peter Jackson and the team at Weta Workshops is a beautiful and well-defined world that has some obvious appeal to it.

On DVD, this extended edition sets standards for both the source material and the bonus features. The feature film spans two discs and there is no option to play the theatrical version on this DVD. The reason is simple; that would require a SIXTH soundtrack! There is the primary soundtrack for the Extended Edition and FOUR different commentary tracks on both of the first two discs! There is a commentary track featuring cast members, one featuring Peter Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, one featuring production staff and another featuring effects artists and the like! It's a pretty extensive series of commentaries (well, the cast one is just plain fun but not nearly as informative, save hearing about Mortensen breaking his toe when kicking a helm and other injury reports) and it is rich and fleshes out a great deal of the thought processes behind acting choices, writing decisions, and production elements.

Discs three and four are a treasure trove of additional information on the production, the world of Middle Earth, the genesis of the film project, the labors of love that went into making the extended cut, virtually everything one might ever want to know about the film, how it was made and all the elements that went into making it. There is some (at least a tenth) overlap between the information presented in the commentary and the extensive information presented in the bonus featurettes. The especially decent aspect of the two bonus discs is that the featurettes can be played as one or three very long featurettes on the making of The Two Towers and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy without stopping every few minutes to reload based on the chapter subject ending. It's worth it to simply hit the "Play All" button whenever given the option!

In all seriousness, the bonus features are extensive and basically catalogue every thought that went from translating the book to a script and from the script into a film. There are also two easter eggs: the preview for The Return Of The King that was eventually attached to prints of the theatrical version after the film had been in theaters for a while and the MTV movie awards featuring Gollum accepting the award for Best Digital Character, which is as funny as it is foul-mouthed!

The extended cut of The Two Towers is the essential edition for anyone looking to get into the film series and add the movie to their permanent collection. The theatrical release DVD is available for archivists and anyone who doesn't truly love fantasy films. But for those who want a movie that will stand the tests of time and will continue to entertain and inform an audience that wants to gain an appreciation of how films are made, this is the only version worth recommending!

For other fantasy works, please check out my reviews of:
New Moon
Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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