Picking up in the aftermath that split the fellowship apart, the Two Towers has a lot on it’s shoulders. Frodo and Sam are now on their own, making their way for Mount Doom to destroy the ring. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are trying to rescue Merry and Pippin, who are believed to have been kidnapped by Orcs.
We quickly learn that Merry and Pippin found escape from the orcs on their own. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are diverted by Gandalf who directs them to Rohan. Gandalf realizes the time has come to prepare the armies of men for an epic battle against Sauron and his forces.
Rohan is under the influence of the Wizard Sauroman. Their king is in a sickly trance, poisoned by Wormtongue, the agent of Sauroman. Upon arrival, Gandalf excises the presence of Sauroman and chase out Wormtongue. They warn the people there of the coming danger, and all agree they must make their way to an old fortress to protect everyone.
Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin discover the ancient race of Ents. The Ents are ancient and sentient trees. Pippin becomes determined to convince Treebeard and his fellow Ents to fight against the advancement of Sauroman and his orc army before it can join Sauron’s army.
And of course, there is Frodo and Sam. Theirs is a somewhat less exciting route, as they are trying to avoid being seen. Frodo confronts Gollum, who has been shadowing he and Sam in his attempt to get the ring back. Frodo takes pity Gollum, and chooses to take him along as a guide.
In the first film, we only had glimpses of Gollum. This character presented a huge challenge and still stands as a monumental achievement in CGI effects. Coupled with a terrific performance by Andy Serkis, Gollum comes to tragic and frightening life. Serkis takes on a voice that can seem almost painfully childish and monstrous…sometimes at the same moment. The film has a great moment using reflections and camera angles in which Gollum argues with himself over serving Frodo faithfully versus betraying him and stealing the ring back.
In the book, the stories are separated into two parts. The first half follows Frodo and Sam and the second half follows the other characters. In one way, this does allow some interesting storytelling moments. Frodo and Sam’s story will reference them seeing stuff we only see played out in the second half of the book. But it also can make the Two Towers a tough read. It does not break up the story enough.
Gimli continues his slide into little more than comic relief and Legolas even ends up having plenty of his swashbuckling antics coming off as comedic and cheesy (using a shield as a surfboard).
The film also undermines the character of Farimir, brother of Boromir. In the book he is not tempted by the ring in any way. He is a strong and confident man in ways his older brother was not. Unlike Tom Bombadil, this not being tempted is an effective statement of Farimir’s character. The film makes him much less sure of himself. He is haunted by the ghost of his brother and his father’s greater love for Boromir. He does, of course, make the choice he makes in the book, but the overly wrought drama of giving him severe daddy issues works against the character in frustrating ways. Yes, it allows Sam to be a dramatic voice of reason…but it really is an unnecessary detour that also makes Farimir come off as needlessly cruel at times.
The Two Towers does start to feel a bit meandering at times. The extended cut suffers from this even more, though some of the additional scenes are quite entertaining. While not quite an Empire Strikes Back (which is a bit leaner storytelling) it still is a pretty impressive film.