The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Review: An Enduring Second Act

New Line Cinema

Peter Jackson and his army of cast and crew returned for a second trip to Middle-earth in 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, based on author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic of the same name. Centered around the breathtaking Battle of Helm’s Deep, a council of talking trees, and a band of hobbits on the perilous road to Mordor, the sequel surpasses the introductory Fellowship of the Ring. The Two Towers offers more swordplay, scares, and magic than its predecessor.

Andy Serkis, who lurked in the shadows in The Fellowship, supplies a groundbreaking performance as the treacherous, motion-captured Gollum. Gollum, under the titular ring of power’s spell for centuries, is fiendish and only devoted to reclaiming his precious jewelry. The computer-generated imp never quite resembles a real person (or even the remnants of one), but Serkis is as unnerving today as he was nearly 20 years ago.

The Two Towers picks up where The Fellowship left off, with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continuing their journey to destroy the One Ring in the fiery heart of Mount Doom. Frodo and Sam soon notice Gollum stalking them, so Frodo naturally offers the maniacal, scheming monster the opportunity to guide them to Mordor. Across Middle-earth, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) track the roving group of elite orcs who abducted their friends, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).

The adventures culminate in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, an epic 39-minute battle scene that took more than three months to film. It remained the longest battle sequence on film until Game of Thrones’ ill-regarded Battle of Winterfell aired in 2019. Helm’s Deep has become The Two Tower’s legacy even though the battle only encompasses about 40 minutes of its 179-minute runtime. Jackson juxtaposes the rain-soaked fight with a gathering of Ents, a diverse group of tree people, adding surrealist levity to a dark, desperate, and violent clash.

Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair never manage to communicate the magical rules that govern Middle-earth, though. Even in the extended edition, which adds a full 47 minutes to the nearly three-hour length, magic is yada yada’d. Jackson and co. would’ve benefited from fewer time constraints (as will be the case in Amazon’s upcoming LOTR production), but three hours is more than enough time to explain string theory. Surely the writers could’ve dedicated two minutes to fantasy logic.

Once again, Howard Shore’s swelling score lifts The Lord of the Rings to its highest highs. Shore is Kobe Bryant during his 81-point game, only with higher efficiency. The composer hits love, adversity, and gallantry with equal verve. The score is as affecting as it is memorable. It’s a peerless achievement that will outlive the last gasps of our sun.

The chink in The Two Towers’ proverbial armor is its characters. Merry and Pippin are a Jar Jar Binksian error. The two are played for farcical laughs for kids. They are—as I remember in the theater as a nine-year-old child—annoying. Aragorn openly flirts with Éowyn (Miranda Otto) while his true love, the ethereal, elven princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), dreamily communicates with him telepathically. Mortensen has palpable chemistry with Otto. He and Tyler exchange anesthetized looks. He turns Éowyn down.

In spite of incoherent fantasy logic, poor characterization, and a complete lack of chemistry between the central OTP, Jackson stays the course with The Two Towers. His first Tolkien trilogy is a cinematic fantasy tome. For generations to come, this is the fantasy film adaptation that all others will attempt to measure up to.