Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers takes almost much everything that worked in Fellowship of the Ring and kicks it up a notch. If the first Lord of the Rings movie is a masterclass in worldbuilding (which it is), then The Two Towers is a masterclass of build-up to the ultimate climax of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. And like Fellowship, The Two Towers is often regarded as among the greatest and most influential fantasy films of all-time.
Although not nominated for as many Academy Awards as the other two LOTR movies, it still received nominations for Best Picture, multiple technical awards, and it won the awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing. What’s equally impressive is that the CGI in this movie still looks good today. That’s especially true of what Weta Digital accomplished with Gollum. In order to handle all of this movie’s CGI, Weta Digital doubled their staff.
Some of the early challenges that presented themselves would be the first large battle scene in the trilogy, Helm’s Deep. This battle sequence required an Uruk-Hai army of around 10,000 troops. They created special crowd simulation program to handle large sets of troops, the first of its kind. They called it MASSIVE. It needed a lot of work when a number of the individual CGI soldiers would wander off on their own, or reveal other glitches of sorts. MASSIVE also included memory-conservative rendering functions, which allowed for up to 200,000 agents and several million polygons, which they needed for several battles in Return of the King.
Unlike the first movie, where the only purely digital creatures were set pieces like the cave troll and the Balrog, this movie also features two digital characters who needed to act: Gollum and Treebeard. With the computers back then, Treebeard took between 28 and 48 hours per frame to render. For the scenes where he interacted with Merry and Pippen, a 14 foot puppet on wheels would be used, using molds of tree bark applied to the sculpture to create Treebeard’s wooden skin. Actors Dominic Monaghan (Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippen) sat on bicycle seats concealed within the ent’s hands to avoid discomfort.
As for Gollum, Andy Serkis was cast after filming had already begun. At first, the production team planned to film all of his scenes without him, but Serkis’s audition tape impressed director Peter Jackson enough that they used him on set as well, filming every scene both with and without him in the shot. Gollum’s CGI model was also redesigned in 2001 to fit Serkis better. You can briefly see the old model in Fellowship however, as they didn’t redesign Gollum fast enough to put him in the final version of the movie. Over Christmas, 2001, the crew reanimated all previously finished shots with Gollum. However another challenge arrived when everyone realized that Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) performed better in the takes that included Serkis. They eventually rotoscoped an animated Gollum over Serkis’s body in those scenes. Although Gollum didn’t take as long to render as Treebeard, it still took 4 hours per frame to render his shots.
The end result is a massive leap forward for CGI technology, and that alone earned that Best Visual Effects award. But there are other impressive visual effects going on in this movie, from the multiple miniatures used in the Battle of Helm’s Deep to the many practical effects going into the various action sequences.
It wasn’t just the effects department that deserves a lot of praise for this movie either. The actors went through a lot while filming this movie in particular. For example, let’s look at the early sequences where Aragon (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are chasing after the orcs that captured Merry and Pippen. Although Gimli is portrayed by a size double in these shots, all three people running on screen are injured in those shots. Mortensen broke his toe kicking the helmet in a later scene, Bloom cracked three ribs from falling off his horse, and Brett Beattie (the scale double) recently dislocated his knee. After every one of these shots were completed, the three actors would be limping back. Jackson jokingly referred to them as “the walking wounded.”
There’s also a scene where Mortensen almost drowned while floating on a river, after encountering an undertow. Furthermore, during the filming of Helm’s Deep, Mortensen chipped a tooth, and Bernard Hill (King Théoden of Rohan) got his ear slashed.
The Two Towers ended up earning $951 worldwide against a budget of $94 million, making it a massive success. It was easily the highest grossing movie of 2002, with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at number 2 with $879 million, and it was the fourth highest earning movie in history at the time of its release. It also earned a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8.5/10. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in particular is recognized among the greatest battle scenes in cinematic history. In addition to the Academy Awards mentioned earlier, it won three BAFTAs (Best Costume Design, Best Special Visual Effects, and the public voted category Orange Film of the Year). It won the Grammy Award for Best Score (Howard Shore). It won the Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation. And of course, it won three Saturn Awards for Best Fantasy Film, Best Costume, and Serkis won the Best Supporting Actor award. AFI’s 100 years … 100 movie quotes recognized “My precious” as the 85th best movie quote of all-time.
As for myself, this may be my favourite of the Lord of the Rings movies. A good chunk of the movie focuses on building up to the climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep, and it pays off. The battle itself is full of glorious moments, mixed with a general theme of hopelessness and dread. The fight choreography is brilliant from start to finish. There are a number of dramatic moments within the fight, balanced out with some glorious moments, a touch of humour, and Aragon showing how inspirational of a leader he can be. You can the cast and crew put a lot of focus and passion towards this particular battle.
There are other aspects of this movie that work very well. The split personality between Gollum and Sméagol is brilliantly handled through camera work, top notch writing and Serkis’s well varied and entertaining vocal performance. As much as some Tolkien purists don’t like the changes to Faramir’s character from the book (in the movie he first decides to take the ring to Gondor, while in the book, he lets Frodo go right away), his motivation for doing so makes total sense. This is especially true if you see the flashback in the extended cut that shows how strong his relationship with Boromir is, and how Denethor (Stewart of Gondor) is kind of a terrible father.
Faramir’s character changes also help the movie’s pacing compared to the book, since they wanted the movie’s storylines to line up. In the books, the Shelob scene happens at the very end of The Two Towers, even though Frodo and Sam are climbing up towards Shelob’s lair during the Battle of Minis Tirith (the main battle in Return of the King). This also means that The Two Towers doesn’t end with too many climaxes at once. Instead, you’ve got Helm’s Deep, and the quick invasion of Isengard by the hands of the ents. There is still action for Frodo and Sam at the end of this movie, but it’s relatively low key, and helps deepen how Frodo is struggling against the ring. It also acts as a teaser for the battle of Osgiliath in Return of the King.
Unlike Fellowship, I have seen the theatrical cut of The Two Towers, as I pre-ordered the VHS tape shortly after I first saw Fellowship. Around the same time I got my first DVD player, I bought the DVD release of the extended cut for The Two Towers, and I’ve never looked back. The extended cut improves on the theatrical cut in a number of ways. It expands on character motivations. It balances out the general dark tone of the movie with amusing scenes. It adds more fighting to the Helm’s Deep battle, along with several other action sequences. The only extended scenes that don’t improve the movie are the ones that expand on the romance between Aragon and Arawen (played by Liv Taylor). These extra scenes are no worse then what was in the theatrical cut so I won’t complain about them.
Normally, the middle chapter in a trilogy like this is the weaker entry, but The Two Towers completely avoids this problem. While Fellowship of the Ring is the more evenly paced movie, the Two Towers finds the right balance between build-up and payoff, whereas Fellowship is mostly build-up. They are equally incredible films. One could make an argument for either of them being the greatest fantasy film of all-time. If you somehow haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings movies, yet you consider yourself a fan of fantasy films, then you really need to fix that mistake.
Return of the King is up next. I’m considering a couple catch-up posts after I’m done with this Lord of the Rings blogathon, like ranking all the Star Wars and James Bond movies, which I somehow haven’t done yet. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do for movies next month, but I’m considering a theme month for movies based on true stories.