New Line/Roadshow Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 172 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Eye wide open...
When the middle chapter of Peter Jackson’s sprawling, hugely ambitious filming of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings rolled into cinemas at the end of 2002, there was no way it could possibly fail on a commercial level. Any doubt that die-hard Tolkien fans and mainstream audiences alike might have had about a cinema translation of this epic tale were instantly dispelled by the first instalment, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the subsequent DVD releases of that film were perfectly timed to arouse interest in the second instalment. But who could ever have dreamed that Jackson and his immensely talented team would be able to get it all so very right? Finding the balance between reverence for beloved material and the demands of modern audiences is the sort of challenge that would have derailed most filmmakers - after all, George Lucas was already cheerfully proving that no matter how much fandom and legend you have to base your project on, it can still turn out to be emotionally lacklustre, visually overbaked and borderline pretentious. But Peter Jackson is an incredibly skilled artisan - he knows how to give natural flow to a story’s emotional arc, and he’s very aware that all the gee-whiz visuals in the world aren’t going to help a film that doesn’t give its audience characters they can relate to and care about, and a world that - however fanciful it may be - they can believe in for the duration.
The Two Towers was accused in some circles of suffering from “middle instalment” syndrome - that it didn’t provide a satisfying story flow seen on its own. While it’s true that you should - no, you must - see Fellowship before you venture into The Two Towers, there is in fact a most definite story dynamic to this follow-up. Picking up where Fellowship left off, the action here gets going a lot faster than in the exposition-laden opening chapter. And with the Fellowship having scattered in different directions, Two Towers has its work cut out for it - distilling several separate, complex story threads into a neat and tidy movie that comes in at under three hours was never going to be an easy task. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are pressing on to Mordor to complete their quest to destroy the Ring, which calls ever more strongly to Frodo the closer he gets; his burden rapidly becomes one that is near-impossible to bear. Complicating matters is the discovery that the twisted, disturbed and decidedly ugly Gollum (a remarkable triumph of computer animation based on the real-life performance of actor Andy Serkis) has been following the pair, hoping to get his hands on the Ring that destroyed him. Gollum is coerced into being their guide towards Mordor, a decision that will prove important. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are trying to rescue the kidnapped hobbits Merry and Pippin (who themselves have a unique adventure with a giant walking, talking tree), eventually being side-tracked by the presence of Sauron’s evil work in the kingdom of Rohan. Elsewhere in Middle Earth, Aragorn’s erstwhile Elven companion Arwen (Liv Tyler) is coming to terms with the fact that she will never see Aragorn again… and then there’s the matter of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who, as we learn at the start of the film, wasn’t about to simply fall to his death and become the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piece.
Behind you!! Behind you!!!
Confused? Unless you know the book already, you probably are, and we don’t blame you. Two Towers has a lot more story ground to cover than the first film, and to manage to do so coherently and succinctly could never have been an easy task for Jackson and the screenwriters. But while staying as true to Tolkien’s vision as possible is paramount throughout, Jackson never forgets for a moment that many who’ll see these films will never have come into contact with the story at all. An audience completely unfamiliar with the source material will, in fact, possibly be even more enchanted with what unfolds on the screen than those who know the tale backwards. That said, events in Two Towers sometimes move forward at a rather hectic pace; the lack of exposition, especially on a character level, means that this is a film you need to pay fairly close attention to. Some story elements are disposed of all too quickly; we’re guessing, though, that the extended DVD version scheduled for later this year will rectify that, and if the extended Fellowship is any indication it will likely turn out to be the version of choice.
Performances are once again honest, believable and well judged, with McKellen and Mortensen undeniable standouts. Others get much less screen time; Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett have little to do this time around, and Christopher Lee’s Saruman is consigned to a few scenes of skulking (indeed, the physical presence of the “dark side” is surprisingly fleeting in this chapter). There are some new faces in this instalment as well; Miranda Otto is perfect as Eowyn (though the character’s not fully fleshed out in this cut of the film), Brad Dourif is magnificently slimy and curiously ‘70s-rock as the manipulative Wormtongue, and David Wenham brings a great deal of presence to the role of Faramir.
The visuals, meanwhile, are staggering. Once again Jackson has brought Middle Earth to life utterly convincingly, using digital effects with intelligence and restraint to enhance a vision that’s already quite spectacular enough thanks to the New Zealand locations and Andrew Lesnie’s evocative cinematography. This one’s made to be seen in its full widescreen glory - though curiously, the climactic Helm’s Deep battle sequence arguably works better on the home screen, where the quick-cut close-ups are less overwhelming and the full scope of the wide image is more easily absorbed in a single glance.
Ultimately, there’s no point in critiquing Two Towers for the many fans of Tolkien’s work - they’ve already seen it and made up their minds, and the majority of them seem to approve wholeheartedly. But the real magic that’s being worked here, in the end, is that Peter Jackson is telling this story for a wider audience than that while still aiming to stay true to the source. The fact that he largely achieves that is testament to the skill and care that’s gone into this gargantuan project. “It’s film history in the making,” says Ian McKellen on one of the disc’s bonus features; it’s possibly the first time in history that such a weighty statement has also happened to be the truth.
A dangerous place to catch the view...
When we saw The Two Towers in the cinema last year, it was a surprisingly disappointing experience from a technical point of view. At a modern, well-equipped and highly-praised cinema, we were treated to a brand new 35mm print of the film on its opening night. And disappointment would be an understatement; the image on the screen was grainy, dull, and lifeless, and the overall colour and contrast balance changed noticeably with every reel. Add to that the uncomfortable seating, the climate control in the packed cinema being set to “tropical rainforest”, the odour of sweat from the surrounding audience members, the talking, the popcorn fumes, the crackle of food wrappers and the reluctance of the projectionist to turn the sound up loud enough to be satisfying, and you’ve got a whole pile of good reasons why it’s arguably more rewarding to watch your favourite films on DVD at home than it is to see them at the cinema.
On DVD, The Two Towers looks utterly stunning. This is the kind of video transfer that will ultimately put DVD reviewers out of a job; after all, there are only so many ways to say “perfect”. Presented at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this gorgeous transfer captures all the nuances, detail, rich colour and ethereal imagery of the film so well it’s like seeing it properly for the first time. While the crisp vision does show up a handful of CG effects as being perhaps a little less than realistic (something that’s only noticeable because the rest of the effects work is so seamless), there’s absolutely nothing to note in terms of visual problems - either on the source film or in the MPEG compression. This is how The Two Towers is meant to look.
The 172-minute movie takes up the entirety of a dual-layered disc, filled almost to capacity; the layer change, almost exactly half way through, is reasonably well placed and not too disruptive, though it is noticeable.
Probably not a contestant on MiddleEarthian Idol...
After all the controversy about the very audible artefacts introduced on the Fellowship DVDs by the pitch-correction done for the PAL edition, many will be listening closely this time. And they won’t hear any problems, either - the good news is that the issues of last time are completely gone, perhaps due to New Line hiring a different company to master the final DVD this time around. Once again, by the way, the theatrical sound mix has been “remastered” for DVD by the Mi Casa Multimedia team, who tweak the audio on many of New Line’s discs these days.
Like last time, this soundtrack was mixed in Dolby Digital Surround EX; unlike last time, the track has the EX flag set so compatible decoders will turn on the extra rear speaker automatically.
Make no mistake; this is the soundtrack of (mount) doom. Those equipped for Dolby Digital surround are in for a genuine treat, and the more capable your sound system, the more fun you’re going to have. It’s a totally immersive mix right from the opening seconds of the film, as Howard Shore’s evocative music score - recorded in full surround - rings out from all around you, as though you’re sitting right in the middle of the orchestra while they’re playing. It’s an unusually feisty use of the surround speakers, but it works spectacularly well, effortlessly drawing the viewer into the movie’s world.
After some problems with too-quiet dialogue on the Fellowship discs, it’s a relief to hear a clear, well-defined centre channel this time around, the all-important dialogue very forward and present. It makes a huge difference, and not once is there a need to strain to hear what’s being said. The effects work is stunning, with the full surround soundstage used to maximum advantage throughout - rarely have the surround speakers been used so effectively in a mix. There’s more than one occasion where the extremely directional sound effects will have you looking over your shoulder to see what’s behind you; it’s equally effective in standard 5.1 as it is when decoded in EX.
If you’ve got a decent sized subwoofer, meanwhile, get ready to rumble. The LFE channel is constantly active, used to great effect to underpin key action scenes and to provide chilling atmospheric effects elsewhere; it also comes into play to give the music score some grunt.
This is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting movie mixes we’ve heard to date - incredibly dynamic, it’s a high fidelity immersive audio experience that sets a new standard for home video sound. Little surprise, then, to see audio guru Gary Summers’ name in the end credits along with that of main sound mixer Christopher Boyes.
There’s also a Dolby Surround 2.0 track here for those who need it; for what it is, it sounds fine, but it’s not a patch on the multi-channel mix.
"Look, Mr Frodo! Black bars!!"
As with last year’s Fellowship double-disc edition, the extras platter this time acts as a kind of promotional archive, storing a great deal of material used in the lead-up to the release of The Two Towers. Naturally, the real extras treat will come with the four-disc extended set in November; while there’s little of real depth to be found here, it’s good to have access to a snapshot of the marketing campaign for the film on a handy single disc.
Both discs, by the way, feature elaborate animated menus, all of which have skippable transitions built in - something that is greatly appreciated and should be done more often!
Starz Encore Special: A 14-minute fluff piece made to the usual formula - lots of short clips from the film, lots of hyperbole, lots of hype. Watchable enough - but not especially rewarding - this is for those people who need to be told the entire plot of a film and reassured that it’s good before they contemplate stepping into the cinema. 4:3 with letterboxed film excerpts.
WB Special - Return to Middle Earth: A 43-minute special made for the WB cable channel in the US is a much better proposition - sure, it’s loaded with hype as well and sure, it visits some familiar territory, but there’s enough behind-the-scenes footage and interviews to make it worthwhile. Though the film excerpts and the behind-the-scenes and interview footage were shot on 16:9 digital video, this special is presented in 4:3 with wide material letterboxed.
The Long And The Short Of It: A short film directed by actor Sean Astin on a spare day during reshoots for Two Towers, and using some key film crew members as actors - including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and a bus-driving Peter Jackson. It’s all cute enough, but there’s nothing much of substance here from the hilariously lengthy end credits. We hereby challenge Liv Tyler, Ian McKellen and Miranda Otto to come up with short films for the Return of the King DVD...! Shot on digital video, this one’s in anamorphic 16:9.
The Making of The Long and te Short o It: An eight-minute short documentary on the production of Astin’s short film. Somewhat tongue in cheek, and ironically a bit longer than the film itself. 4:3 full-frame.
lordoftherings.net Featurettes: All eight mini-documentaries from the official web site, all offered in 4:3 full-frame. While quite cursory, they do provide a chance to see a bit of background to the production, ahead of what will undoubtedly be the mother of all documentaries on the extended set later in the year. The running time of these comes to a total of 34 minutes.
Theatrical Trailers: Both the teaser and final trailer for The Two Towers, each presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The video transfers of both are stunning, and give the technically-minded a chance to see some of the film’s footage before it was fully colour-graded.
TV Spots: 16 (yes, sixteen!) US television ads for the film. There’s a “play all” option here for those brave enough to sit through eight and a half minutes of pure unadulterated hype.
Gollum’s Song Music Video: The end-credits song, performed by UK-based Italian/Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini, who sounds more than a little bit like Bjork on this beautifully orchestrated Howard Shore composition. While we’re not usually keen on end-credit pop ballads on “serious” films - they tend to date quickly - this one’s a perfect match stylistically for the movie, and anything but conventional in sound or style. This “music video” is really just a set of clips from the film, with the occasional shot of Emiliana singing into a studio microphone. Letterboxed 4:3.
Special Extended DVD Edition Preview: Just to get you salivating in anticipation of the extended version of the film, here’s a five-minute sneak peek at it, with Peter Jackson and others explaining its existence. Going by what we see here, the slight lack of character detail in the theatrical version should be rectified in November. This one’s presented in 16:9 with Dolby 5.1 audio.
Behind te Scenes Preview o The Return of the King: And here’s the bit that most fans of the series will be heading for as soon as they get the disc home. Peter Jackson introduces a “snapshot of where we are today” on the final film in the trilogy, and there’s some deliciously lovely-looking footage to feast your eyes on as well as some behind-the-scenes snippets. It does indeed look as though the closing chapter is going to be a cracker. In 16:9 with 2.35:1 letterboxed film excerpts and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
The Return of the King Video Game Preview: An ad for the Two Towers and upcoming Return of the King games, with more actual film footage than game, amusingly (possibly because there’s no way any video game could look even a tenth as impressive as the real thing). An incredibly pretentious ad, but gaming fans will be interested. In 16:9 with Dolby 5.1 audio.
Booklet: A nicely-done three panel fold-out colour card featuring a chapter list and a guide to the extras.
The battle at Helm's Deep reaches its climax.
A magnificently dark, beautifully rendered telling of the second part of the trilogy, The Two Towers is another stunning achievement by Peter Jackson, his cast and his crew. The middle film it may be, but it still offers plenty of story, more action than last time, and some of the most gobsmackingly amazing images you’ll ever see. Add a well-considered script and a uniformly excellent cast, and you’ve got something truly exciting to behold - a film that will, like its predecessor, be cherished for years to come.
Roadshow’s DVD is a mirror image of New Line’s US release (not surprising, as they were mastered at the same place), missing only the minimal DVD-ROM content of its overseas counterpart. With stunning picture quality and astonishing surround audio, this DVD is true demo material that does full justice to the movie it contains.