Blu-ray Review: The Lord Of The Rings – The Two Towers: Extended Edition
Thursday, December 26th, 2013 at 11:30 am
The Lord Of The Rings – The Two Towers: Extended Edition Blu-ray Directed by Peter Jackson Written by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Fran Walsh; based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, and Sean Astin New Line Home Video Release Date: August 28, 2012
You can read Dr. Geek, Ph.D’s review of The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy Extended Edition from July 2011 here.
When you take a look back at some of the greatest second chapters in motion picture trilogies of all time like The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and (my personal favorite) Evil Dead II it is easy to understand why so many turn out vastly superior to their originals. Since most trilogies use their first story to act as set-up for almost everything that happens next the second is where things really start to take off. In successful film franchises it is also in the second installment where events begin to take darker turns, characters are forced to traverse a metaphorical – and sometimes literal – Hell to reach their personal Heaven, and the endings are very rarely happy or even conclusive.
Because the creators of the series – from the screenwriters to the studio executives with control over the green light to the bravura director and producer(s) who must assemble a crack team of actors and technicians to bring their mutual vision roaring to life – believe that the audiences who made the first movie a smashing success are invested in the ongoing narrative to the point where they will follow it wherever the filmmakers desire. Thus they are granted license to put their beloved characters through a series of traumatizing physical and psychological journeys where the only optimistic outcome is to survive to fight another day, nothing more.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is one of those rare second installments that not only outclasses the film that came before, but it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Empire as the best film of its trilogy. It’s also my personal favorite Rings feature, and a masterclass in epic filmmaking to boot.
Following an attack by the Uruk-Hai forces of the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) the Fellowship of the Ring has broken off into three divergent adventures. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his loyal friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) have set off on their own for Mordor to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom and destroy it for all time, but they soon realize that they are being followed by the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), the former possessor of the ring. At first Gollum aims to take the ring for himself but when he learns he cannot fight back against both Frodo and Sam he instead offers to be their guide to Mordor. Both hobbits have their suspicions but against Sam’s better judgment Frodo reluctantly agrees to Gollum’s services. Meanwhile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) relentlessly pursue the Uruk-Hai party that have captured the hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) with the intention of delivering them into the clutches of Saruman. Through a series of unusual circumstances the two Shire folk soon find themselves in the company of Treebeard (voiced by Rhys-Davies), one of the oldest members of a race of living, sentient trees known as the Ents.
The story of The Two Towers was established when the original novel by J.R.R. Tolkien saw its initial printing in 1954. In translating the dense and fantastical tome into a film adaptation with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair, director Peter Jackson had to take crucial portions of the original narrative and move them around, assign them to different characters, and often delete them from his film adaptation entirely. Having seen the finished film several times – most of them in its 2003 “extended edition” – I can safely that Two Towers is not only my favorite of the Rings trilogy, but it is a far superior film in terms of satisfying storytelling than even the deservedly ballyhooed Empire. Despite being the middle chapter in a blockbuster triune, Towers can at least function as a standalone entry with an actual beginning, middle, and end.
Whatever doubts fans of the original books and lovers of fantasy cinema had going into the trilogy’s kick-off The Fellowship of the Ring were comfortably assuaged by The Two Towers. It took time for Fellowship to really get going and understandably so, as Jackson had to establish the various characters and narrative arcs from Tolkien’s legendary tales with delicacy and intelligence before kickstarting the action. Fellowship was also the lightest of the trilogy in terms of exciting set pieces, outside of some nifty chases and sword fights. The same can’t be said for Towers; even with a running time just one minute of three hours (with more than forty minutes added for the extended edition) it takes off like a rocket and only pauses for a breath whenever new characters arise. Even then we’re given everything we need to know about these people and it doesn’t take much to convince the viewers who are paying careful attention what side they stand on in the war against the evil Sauron for the fate of Middle-Earth. Once again, Jackson has cast these integral roles with the finest actors working in the entertainment industry, and a few seem more than suited for their characters. It’s like they were born for them.
The color scheme and scenery have both been altered to darker tones and locations for Towers. Gone are the warm greens and browns of Fellowship; the second film in the trilogy is given rich autumnal hues of faded brown, bleeding red, and stone cold grey, all photographed with textural clarity by Andrew Lesnie. It’s unsettling to experience at the start as the sensation of realizing that our noble hobbit, human, elf, and dwarf characters long ago departed the safety of their home environments. The distinctive settings are also made menacing, from the nightmarish depths of Fangorn Forest where Treebeard and the other members of the Ent race dwell to the dead leaves and grass that grow around the kingdoms of men whose monarchs have all but given up hope for salvation. These landscapes, homes, and castles feel authentic and lived-in, as if they were just part of the magisterial New Zealand locales that have become a hallmark of the trilogy’s look and character. The same can almost be applied to the weighty armor and vestments worn by the film’s colorful cast of heroes, villains, and innocent bystanders. Score another one for the genius production designer Grant Major, art director Dan Hennah, and costume designers Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor. These people are at their absolute best with The Two Towers.
The new cast additions gel wonderfully with the main players of the saga and everyone delivers remarkable performances further strengthened by the comfort they all feel as their characters. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, removed from the other hobbits and their non-hobbit protectors, plumb the depths of Tolkien’s unlikely heroes Frodo and Samwise and discover impressive dimensions in those characters in the process. As the other half of the Shire quarter, both Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd grow as actors and are even given more to do this time around, which they do rather well. Viggo Mortensen officially owns the role of Aragorn with his performance in The Two Towers as his battle-hardened loner rises up to become the natural leader he has always been and begin to accept his destiny as the rightful king of Gondor. I love his interplay with the rest of the cast, especially Miranda Otto’s haunted and hopelessly lovestruck Eowyn, who is both a ravishing beauty and a commanding screen presence.
Bernard Hill is one of the strongest among the performers new to Rings as King Theoden, bringing a thunderous, Shakespearean gravitas and strength to the character. Once he is broken of Saruman’s diabolical spell you never once doubt that he is the king. Ian McKellen is once and forever the wise wizard Gandalf and this time around he incorporates the character’s life and mind-altering experiences since he tragically departed the Fellowship into his acting to create a much stronger ally against the forces of Sauron, represented by the deliciously evil Christopher Lee and Brad Dourif. Even in somewhat reduced roles Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Liv Tyler all deliver fine performances, and Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies continue to prove their worth to the series with priceless banter and badass displays in the heat of battle. David Wenham is a very welcome addition to the trilogy as the warrior Faramir, who bears scars that run deeper than the ones he has been given in the service of his people and whose actions have an important impact on the events of Towers‘ third act.
The top acting honors for Towers go to the brilliant Andy Serkis, who brings the loathsome but not completely unsympathetic creature Gollum to frightening life through a groundbreaking (for its day) combination of performance capture and lifelike CGI. I can’t say enough about how great an achievement in the annals of cinema history the startlingly effective teamwork of Serkis and Weta Digital turned out to be. Not since Yoda in the original Star Wars trilogy has a non-human character created partially through artificial means in the film been realized to the point of feeling like an authentic and natural part of that world. Gollum is more than a major visual effects accomplishment; Serkis performed the role wearing a mo-cap suit and provided the character’s voice that sounded like a longtime cigarette smoker being strangled while doing a Tom Waits impression. His visceral acting gave Weta the proper foundation to make Gollum as memorable a character in the film version of The Two Towers as he was in the original Tolkien novel. More than ten years after the film was released, both Serkis and Gollum have not lost the ability to blow minds and affect hearts.
The action sequences reach their absolute peak in Towers, culminating in the climatic Battle of Helm’s Deep that occupies the final third of the film. It’s a marvelous sequence of terrifying beauty and mounting thrills to equal the widescreen epic adventures of the 1950’s and 60’s, with Jackson and his cast and crew utilizing each and every one of their considerable filmmaking gifts to make this rousing battle the full force action highlight of the trilogy. Howard Shore returns to provide the Rings films with its musical voice, fusing the themes and motifs he created for Fellowship with newer pieces reflective of the changing tone and raised stakes. The standouts in Shore’s soundtrack work this time are his themes for the embattled kingdom of Rohan, with its stirring use of sparse violins, and the music that accompanies the ending battle. The classic theme of the Fellowship makes an appearance from time to time, reminding us that even when things look their darkest the good will always triumph.
My only real complaint with The Two Towers stems from the footage added for the Extended Edition, with one notable exception. The original theatrical cut was just about perfect and moved at a ripping pace with zero fat left on thanks to a skillful editing team captained by Michael Horton (Once Were Warriors) in his only assignment on a Rings film. The added footage is mostly extraneous extensions of scenes and repetitive dialogue that disrupt the flow of the narrative. At least the extended version has one marvelous virtue and that is the newly added sequence that gives us some valuable insight into Faramir and his relationship with both his brother Boromir (Sean Bean, always welcome even in flashback) and disapproving father Denethor (Fringe‘s John Noble), the latter of whom would have a larger role in the trilogy’s conclusion. For those of you who have never viewed this cut of Towers it is worth it for these scenes alone and I won’t spoil what they convey.
About the Extended Edition:
Originally released with a running time of nearly three hours including credits, forty-four minutes of previously excised footage were restored to The Two Towers for the first release of this Extended Edition on DVD in November 2003.
The extended edition has been remastered in 1080p high-definition and is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1, which is not the ratio the movie was filmed and exhibited in. No matter, the transfer looks simply stunning for the most part. The lush storybook quality of Lesnie’s cinematography is enriched by the video upgrade and the picture bursts at the seams with immaculately preserved detail and texture. Daytime scenes are much stronger visually than night scenes, the latter containing a greater deal more grain that is actually noticeable at times. This works well in the film’s favor as the CGI effects are better able to blend with the practical effects. English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.
Our only audio options are English and Portuguese 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Both tracks are spectacular and make ideal home theater demo discs, depending on your language preference. Creating the immersive soundscapes of the Rings trilogy was a heroic task that paid off beautifully when the sound department received multiple Oscar nominations and wins. The music, dialogue, and sound effects mixes never overwhelm each other and work in tandem to replicate the glorious experience of seeing the movie on the big screen.
The bulk of the extra features are split across the two Blu-ray discs that contain the main feature as well as three standard-definition DVDs and were all ported over from previous incarnations of the Two Towers Extended Edition. Each initial Extended Edition release of the Rings trilogy contained the same bonus materials, but when they were re-released in 2006 most of those great supplements were left out in favor of new feature-length, fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the production of the movies shot by New Zealand filmmaker Costa Botes, who had previously collaborated with Peter Jackson on the 1995 film Forgotten Silver. What is not presented here are the bonus materials from the theatrical cut DVD and Blu-ray releases, which are mostly promotional documentaries and theatrical trailers. Athough their presence here would have made this a complete set the absence of those features is fortunately negligible.
On the first two discs the main feature is accompanied by four audio commentary from the majority of the principal cast and crew. The first brings together Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens – recorded at the same time most of the participants on the other tracks – for an enlightening, straightforward talk about the massive undertaking of adapting the Rings books into feature films and then bringing those scripts to the screen. It’s a very comfortable and conversational track with these three longtime collaborators enjoying the pleasures of each other’s company and discussing topics that hold a special place in their hearts.
The second features four members of the design team: production designer Grant Major, costume designer Richard Taylor, and conceptual artists John Howe and Alan Lee. The third unites members of the production and post-production crew including Lesnie, Shore, and several of the producers. The final commentary has sixteen members of the cast. Most of the commentators were recorded separately and there are many of them to found here, but fortunately there is a on-screen text that identifies each one when they are speaking as to avoid confusion. You’ll find a veritable wealth of stories and production insights from all involved. Breaking down each participant’s contribution to the commentaries is a tiring and thankless task. Rest assured, each track aids immeasurably to the viewing experience and will further enhance your appreciation of the movies and the great skill and devotion that went into making them.
The only other extras on the first two discs are a two-minute trailer for the Lord of the Rings: War in the North video game and a hidden Easter Egg held over from the first DVD release that features Andy Serkis accepting an MTV Movie Award and getting bum-rushed Kanye-style by a pissed-off Gollum. Apparently Gollum doesn’t think too highly of Dobby from the Harry Potter movies.
Disc three contains the third part of the Extended Edition trilogy “Appendices” which houses the bulk of the supplements on this set. Titled “The Journey Continues” and devoted to the pre-production phase of the production, this part opens with another documentary devoted to the work and legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Origins of Middle-Earth” (30 minutes). “From Book to Screen: Finding the Story” (21 minutes) once again gives us an eye-opening glimpse at the difficult process of adapting Tolkien’s epic into a cohesive film, including shifting certain events from the second book into the script for Return of the King.
“Designing and Building Middle-Earth” features two documentaries – “Designing Middle-Earth” (46 minutes) and “WETA Workshop” (46 minutes) – and two design galleries – “The Peoples of Middle-Earth” and “The Realms of Middle-Earth” – that offer mini-commentaries by the design team on select images. “Gollum” is naturally devoted to the creation of the film’s magnificent CGI creation under the sub-menu you’ll find the fascinating documentary “The Taming of Smeagol” (40 minutes), an animation reference for actor Serkis (2 minutes), a short featurette called “Gollum’s ‘Stand-In'” (3 minutes) in which producer Rick Porros recounts a time when he had to substitute for Serkis on a day when the actor was unavailable and wear the motion capture suit. It’s brief but very amusing.
Another design gallery with select artist commentaries, another Middle-Earth Atlas that charts four different character paths throughout the story and is illustrated with short snippets from the film, another “New Zealand as Middle-Earth” interactive map with seven featurettes regarding the filming of certain key locations with interviews and video scouting footage, and DVD credits round out the supplements on disc three.
On disc four you will find the fourth part of the Appendices, “The Battle for Middle-Earth Begins,” that covers the physical production, post-production, and release phases, beginning with a minute-long introduction from Elijah Wood. “Filming The Two Towers” is split into two parts: “Warriors of the Third Act” (21 minutes) focuses on the film’s stunt team preparing for on-screen battle and sword training with the legendary Bob Anderson, and “Cameras in Middle-Earth” (68 minutes) devotes its time to the principal photography. “Filming” also features a gallery of production photos with mini-commentaries on select images.
Next we have the sub-menu “Visual Effects,” where you will find the documentaries “Big-Atures” (22 minutes) and “WETA Digital” (27 minutes), an animatic for the Flooding of Isengard sequence where the Ents are played by sticks and plastic sheeting represents water, seven galleries of miniatures with select artist commentaries, and image galleries for two abandoned concepts – “Slime Balrog” (with select commentaries) and “Endless Stair”. “Editorial: Refining the Story” (22 minutes) is focusing on assembling the massive amounts of footage into a coherent whole. Under the “Music and Sound” sub-menu you’ll find two documentaries – “Music for Middle-Earth” (25 minutes) and “The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth” (21 minutes) – and an interactive Sound Demonstration for the Battle of Helm’s Deep sequence that offers you the option of toggling between eight separate audio channels representing the various elements that went into creating the sound mix.
“The Battle for Helm’s Deep is Over…” (9 minutes) offers premiere footage and final thoughts. Another few pages of DVD credits closes out the fourth disc. Finally, on the fifth disc, we have Botes’ feature-length documentary “The Two Towers: Behind the Scenes” (106 minutes), with even more candid behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.
Boasting an astounding audio and video upgrade and extensive bonus features, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers stands tall on Blu-ray as the best of the trilogy and Peter Jackson’s finest hour as a director. Recommended without hesitation. What more can honestly be said?