"I’m glad that’s over!" a woman behind me said, exasperated, when the noisy battle of cartoon blood and carnage finally subsided in Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings—and the movie still hadn’t ended. There’s much more tolerance for things Tolkien these days; the nearly half-hour battle sequence in which 10,000 computer-animated troops storm the fortress at Barad-dur in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers gets viewed with respect more than awe. Director-writer Peter Jackson has locked in on the imagination of today’s moviegoing audience in ways Ralph Bakshi could only dream. Bakshi had the ambition but not the technology; Jackson has both.
Digital optics have delivered to Jackson the means of transferring the fantasy of one medium to another. I don’t mean that last year’s successful launch of Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy with The Fellowship of the Ring proved his fidelity to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, but that popularity came from Jackson hitting upon the right, modish visualization of the gothic epic. If Jackson’s trilogy represents a triumph of something more than marketing (as I suppose it must), it is that of a filmmaker emerging from the margins of occult/sci-fi/fantasy to a central cultural position. He’s done it by bringing the videogame to cinema—and with a straight face. No teenager (or childish adult) could ask for more.
Jackson benefits from groundwork laid down by George Lucas’ Star Wars adventure flicks, the reality-twisted phantasms of The Matrix and the ubiquitous two-dimensional illusions of PlayStation, Sega and XBox. There really has been a revolution in the cultural standard of popular fantasy; Bakshi anticipated it, but his cartoon format was outstripped by Industrial Light & Magic’s realistic fabrications. It took a couple decades of progressive technology to satisfy dungeons-and-dragons whimsy to the point that it’s no longer considered kids’ stuff. People are mightily impressed by Jackson’s movies, more than they ever were by Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts, even though the appeal is the same. The difference is the way Jackson creates his saga; he’s serious. It’s a style of creativity unlike the playfulness of such grown men as Harryhausen and George Pal (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine). Jackson is a triumphant nerd, claiming his Y2K prerogative to indulge in a three-hour, $100 million reverie—squared.
The Two Towers has more verve than The Fellowship of the Rings, which flatfootedly introduced Tolkien’s eccentric characters and strange worlds—the Middle Earth setting resembling a costume party gone berserk and into the Twilight Zone. Here, Jackson hits his stride; virtually every new sequence features a splendid subsidiary character in the puppet-show, horror-movie spirit of the films Jackson made before he landed this once-in-a-lifetime commission. (Only a third-rate culture like New Zealand’s would think a folly such as this was an artistic advance.) Jackson’s script (actually a four-person collaboration) more clearly partitions the parallel plots: Hobbits Frodo (perfectly wide-eyed Elijah Wood) and Sam (husky, loyal Sean Astin) pick up a warped creature, Gollum (Andy Serkis), who guides them to the Black Gates of Mordor where the cursed/powerful ring Frodo carries must be destroyed. In another part of Middle Earth, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the Elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) enter Rohan, a kingdom cursed by evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). With the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the trio fights to restore Rohan’s legitimate ruler. Elsewhere, two other Hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), escape their captors and venture through the Fangorn Forest accompanied by walking, talking ancient trees.
This second installment is powered by Jackson’s fanciful ingenuity. Orson Welles joked about movies being "the biggest train set a boy ever had," but Jackson has created the biggest videogame our culture has ever seen. From individual creatures like the gray-skinned, green-eyed Gollum and the regal, wizened, grotesque trees to that relentless, pounding, soaring battle scene, The Two Towers has an undeniable, obsessive quality. It suggests the mindset of a kid transfixed at his videogame keyboard, because each of Jackson’s visions moves with similar awkward flimsiness, yet shows genuine panache. CGI isn’t perfect yet so, thankfully, some old-fashioned imagination takes over, filling in—almost humanizing—the nonsense. Serkis’ Gollum is a real performance, as sui-generis as Douglas Rain’s vocalizing HAL in 2001. This tortured, ambivalent miscreant is enslaved to Frodo, yet plots to kill him. While recalling Jewish mysticism, Gollum also evokes Shakespeare’s Caliban, a pitiable, malevolent figure, richly anguished. The animistic trees, led by Treebeard, call up childhood memories of Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz successfully realized. And Brad Dourif appears as Wormtongue, Saruman’s spy usurping Rohan’s throne; he’s like Mordred in Camelot but monstrously stylized to suggest both Richard III and Ivan the Terrible.
Here’s the oddest thing about The Two Towers: Despite all the otherworldly evocation and cultural references, Jackson’s enterprise is not about Myth. Yes, he tangles pronouncements and mysticism and historic simulacra, but none of it translates into metaphor or allegory. Tolkien’s books might, but Jackson’s films work only on the superficial level of a spectacular. Last year your average review of Lord of the Rings never discussed what it was about because it’s about nothing. That’s why critical enthusiasm was reduced to the level of teenage gawking. Here, a narrator intones, "[There] are the stories that meant something, that stayed with you because they were holding on to something. There’s some goodness in the world and it’s worth fighting for." But that’s so generic it can be a decal on The Two Towers DVD box as well as the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City videogame.
While acknowledging Jackson’s achievement (I’ve never before seen an idiotic vision this thorough), it is important to distinguish it from the fantasy films that artfully enrich an adult’s consciousness. Kino Video has recently released a marvelous restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1924 Nibelungen saga on DVD. Each part of Lang’s two-part epic (Siegfried and Kriemheld’s Revenge) dealt with myth as a national, personal onus—not simply adolescent fright or wonder. But Jackson’s vision is on a scale you can fold away on floppy disc. It doesn’t linger like Lang’s imagery. Jackson lacks Murnau’s richness, Eisenstein’s vastness, Peckinpah’s rhythm, Bertolucci’s splendor; he begs comparison with those greats, yet falls substantially short.
The Two Towers’ videogame essence doesn’t carry the weight of those directors’ historical representation, or of films depicting mankind’s struggle. Before videogames, pop artists understood the importance of using fantasy to explain daily mysteries, rather than distract people in mass or individual solipsism. With Jackson, Aragorn’s romantic flashbacks are merely gauzy, not a convincing test of man’s basic desires—which was the genius of John Boorman’s Excalibur, connecting English and Germanic mythologies based on sensual evocations from medieval art to Klimt and Burne-Jones recreations. Even Werner Herzog’s recent film Invincible demonstrated the personal interpretation of myth for political and spiritual meanings. That’s the difference between a work of adult seriousness and a film of adolescent frivolity. The only trouble with Jackson’s fantasy so far is that it never feels like (emotional) reality. And though the three-hour stretch of The Two Towers is certainly watchable, when it is finally over you don’t run and tell your friends about it. There’s no feeling like you get from Nibelungen, Close Encounters, Excalibur or even Femme Fatale that without knowing this film you don’t know art or life.