New Line // 2002 // 179 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // September 15th, 2003
It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Those were the stories that stayed with you.
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films have thundered onto the big screen like no other literary adaptation in film history. Extraordinarily detailed and complex, and retaining most of the flavor of the books while making some sacrifices to the cinematic format, these films have already emerged as some of the greatest adventure epics of all time.
Now, the second installment, The Two Towers, comes crashing onto DVD courtesy of the digital wizards at New Line Home Video. This is the first of two appearances that The Two Towers will be making on DVD this year. This nicely done two-disc set contains the theatrical version of the film, while hard-core fans are already salivating at the thought of the fully loaded four disc Extended Edition that should be hitting the shelves just in time for the first big wave of holiday shopping in late November.
The Fellowship of the Ring is broken. The Hobbit Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, makes his way to the evil land of Mordor with his loyal friend Samwise Gamgee as his only help. Frodo's cousins Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took are captives of a band of Uruk-Hai, a particularly nasty variety of Orc created by the wizard Saruman. Aragorn, the Elf Legolas, and Gimli the Dwarf seek to rescue Merry and Pippin.
All of this transpires against the backdrop of a looming war between the evil forces of Mordor, commanded by the Dark Lord Sauron, and the rest of Middle-Earth. Sauron's ally in this planned conquest is Saruman. It is from this alliance, between Sauron's dark tower of Minas Morgul, and Saruman's towering stronghold of Orthanc, that The Two Towers draws its name.
The only hope for those who would oppose Sauron rests with the two simple Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, as they struggle towards Mount Doom and the fiery chasm into which they must cast the One Ring of power, forged by Sauron in the distant past and key to his eventual conquest of all Middle-Earth.
More than a few people thought Peter Jackson certifiable for even trying to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic to the screen. Most of the naysayers were silenced with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in December of 2001. The Two Towers, released theatrically in December 2002, continues the story in grand style. Jackson has so completely steeped himself in things Tolkien that his movies fairly drip with authenticity, and the few times that he is not completely faithful to the original text are forgivable in light of the overall quality of the finished product.
The cast is so uniformly good that it is hard to single out any one performance, but Orlando Bloom deserves mention for his straight-faced derring-do. Here, as in this summer's Pirates of the Caribbean, Bloom shows himself to be the second coming of Errol Flynn. His wry facial expressions, deadpan humor, and enthusiastic physical style all serve his character well; Jackson cooperates by giving him some wonderful swashbuckling moments, such as swinging up onto the back of a galloping horse or "skiing" down a stone staircase while standing on a shield.
Faring less well is poor Elijah Wood as Frodo, the Ringbearer. Frodo is supposed to be falling deeper and deeper under the control of the Ring and experiencing wrenching inner struggles along the way. Wood's performance isn't very successful at showing this. He seems to veer randomly between indecision, hostility, and catatonia, never really getting a handle on Frodo's plight. Part of this is due to a script that doesn't give him much to do or say in this installment. As a matter of fact, the continued minimizing of the roles of the Hobbit characters in the films is one of the most glaring differences between Jackson's vision and the feel of the original books.
New Line has earned a reputation for putting out DVDs of excellent technical quality, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is no exception. The picture is rendered anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is as close to a flawless transfer as I have seen to date. Every frame is sharp and clear, gorgeous to behold, with color fidelity dead on the mark. I looked as hard as I could, and I did not see any evidence of digital transfer issues or any of the usual ills that plague DVDs. I did not see any evidence of excessive edge enhancement or halos, or any other defects. The visual presentation is as good or better than it was in the theater, with one exception, which I will cover later on.
The audio flavor of choice on this disc is Dolby Digital EX 5.1. It is for the most part very good, with excellent clarity and sharpness, and good directionality in the surround channels. However, the soundtrack score seems to be a bit overmixed, rising over important sound effects or dialogue from time to time.
It would be easy to write off this release of the theatrical cut of The Two Towers as a superfluous distraction as we wait for the big four-disc version later this fall. It would also be a mistake. This edition contains enough additional features to make it a very solid set. There are over two hours of extra material to supplement your viewing experience; it is important to note that these are unique features that will not be simply rehashed and repeated on the Extended Edition.
Two made-for-television behind the scenes specials make their appearance here. On the Set: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers originally appeared on Starz, and Return to Middle-Earth was produced for the WB. They run 14 and 43 minutes, respectively. More avid fans of Tolkien and the films will find a lot of this information rather general and basic, but there are some interesting moments and bits of behind-the-scenes trivia. In addition to these looks at The Two Towers, there is a collection of eight short featurettes that were originally produced for Lordoftherings.net. These featurettes, all very well done, average about four minutes each in running time, and give a concise but detailed look at various aspects of the production. Among the interesting revelations we learn that Christopher Lee reads The Lord of the Rings in its entirety at least once a year, has done so for many years, and even had the opportunity to meet Professor Tolkien once upon a time.
Promotional materials archived here include the teaser and full trailers, as well as sixteen 30-second TV spots. The trailers are nice to have, but the TV spots get quite repetitive in a hurry. Fortunately, there is a "play all" option, which is quite welcome here. Other promotional materials include a five minute preview of the upcoming Extended Edition release, which looks excellent, and a 12 minute behind the scenes preview of Return of the King, which also looks excellent. Also included is a three-minute trailer for the upcoming Return of the King video game, which will be available for all major platforms. I was ready to dismiss this as a mere commercial, but in fact it is quite interesting and features many of the film's stars talking about their involvement in the making of the game.
As an added bonus, Sean Astin's short film The Long and the Short of It, filmed during a break in the production of The Two Towers, makes its debut on this DVD. There is also a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this film.
The final piece of extra content is a music video for "Gollum's Song," featuring Emiliana Torrini. I suppose this is a good inclusion, but "Gollum's Song" is the one part of the film's soundtrack that I truly despised, so I didn't enjoy the video very much.
While The Two Towers is as faithful to Tolkien's original as one could expect, there were some changes made to the film that will prove especially jarring to those that love the books. More to the point, these changes hurt rather than help the film in dramatic terms. Of particular concern is an entire sequence in Chapters 25-27 which puts Aragorn into a cliffhanger situation (literally) that seems more a distraction from the plot than anything else. It is a cheap attempt to build suspense and it fails miserably; one need not have read the books to sense that Aragorn is destined to play a huge role in the culmination of the trilogy, and certainly would not meet his doom in so pedestrian a manner. Bookending this sequence are a pair of dreams/daydreams/hallucinations where the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen is elaborated. Jackson is quite skillful in his use of this material, and it feels a lot less like exposition than it really is or than it would in the hands of a lesser director, but it still feels unnecessary. More to the point, it creates situations and conflicts that I don't remember reading about in the novel and eats up screen time that could have been much more productively used, perhaps by spending more time on Frodo and Sam.
The other major change to the film was the moving of Tolkien's cliffhanger ending into the third film. This was frustrating, but I can understand Jackson's stated reason for doing this. He has said that without moving this incident, The Return of the King becomes mostly a movie about two guys walking up a mountain. I can buy that, but the absence of this scene at the end of The Two Towers was the biggest disappointment I had with the film when I saw it theatrically.
Overall, despite the massive battles and adventures depicted in this film, there is a sense that Jackson et al were holding back a bit. There is certainly a lot of eye candy in this film, but somehow it fails to resonate emotionally as much as it should. This is a spectacular, exciting film, but it feels strangely toned-down, as though Jackson was saving his best emotional fireworks for the grand finale that is yet to come. The battle of Helm's Deep, for instance, is a massive, impressive spectacle in every way, yet it lacks the emotional punch that should come from such a small band of heroes defending the keep against an enemy that massively outnumbers them. Perhaps this is not all bad; as the middle chapter in the trilogy, The Two Towers needs to tell its own story while also whetting our appetites for The Return of the King. It certainly accomplishes the latter in spades.
Jackson's WETA Workshop special effects house has garnered a lot of positive buzz over their work on this trilogy. For the most part it is deserved, but there are instances where the CGI effects simply did not look convincing. The wargs in Chapter 26 looked particularly unfinished, and the Ents in their various scenes looked just a little too cartoonish in their movements. Even Gollum, a digital creation that has been almost universally praised, reminded me a little too much of his distant digital cousins Yoda and Jar-Jar for my tastes. Of course, I'm not nearly as fond of Andy Serkis's performance of the character as everyone else seems to be either, so perhaps you can just label me a curmudgeon.
While the video and audio live up to New Line's usual outstanding reputation, there is one glaring flaw; the layer change is very pronounced and comes in such a remarkably bad place in the movie -- just as Aragorn falls over the cliff in Chapter 26. Given New Line's usual attention to detail and quality, this is quite a disappointing bit of carelessness.
While the special features provided on the second disc are for the most part quite good, beware the "exclusive online content." I found it hard to navigate and full of things that looked interesting but were not actually available to click on. It also requires you to download and install a seemingly endless stream of components that will take up about 5MB of hard drive space; the installation process took long enough to make me lose interest in whatever online content I was about to see. Worse yet, although there are promises that you will only need to install these components once, the website will try to re-install everything on each subsequent visit, which is a headache most of us don't need. Once installed it will interrupt you constantly with Shockwave registration nag screens.
Worst of all, this whole experience requires the InterActual player software in order to make the internet connection. Be warned: the InterActual software includes spyware. There is no warning given about this; I found it by accident while experimenting with various options and settings. It reports on your system configuration periodically, and also monitors your viewing habits and reports them to various marketing agencies and other nefarious entities. We here at DVD Verdict find this sort of stealth spyware repugnant, and we cannot in good conscience advise any consumer to install InterActual. However, if you insist on installing it, you can disable these features by going to the configuration menu, selecting the "Privacy" tab, and de-selecting both options. You may also want to run an anti-spyware system cleaner such as Spybot just to be sure, and it wouldn't hurt to install a software firewall like ZoneAlarm that allows you to specify which programs may access the internet and under what circumstances.
You won't be missing much, however. The "exclusive online content" really isn't worth the effort required to view it anyway. For the most part it simply provides a clunky interface to access video clips from the documentaries that are already included on Disc Two. That's right; once you buy the DVD, you hold in your hands the bulk of what passes for "exclusive online content." The only truly exclusive item I found was a collection of filmographies; save yourself a lot of headaches and head over to the IMDb for the same information.
In fairness, there might be some section of the online content that I missed. If so, it is due to the screwy navigational interface provided -- one more reason to forget the online stuff altogether.
For almost any other film, this would qualify as a nicely done special edition. For casual to moderate fans, this edition will do quite nicely. However, there is the specter of the fully-loaded goodness of the Extended Edition looming on the horizon, just a few short months away. Which one you choose is largely a matter of how much a fan you are of these films and how long you can hold out without a dose of Jackson/Tolkien cinematic goodness. I consider myself a fairly enthusiastic and serious fan, but I have to admit that I still haven't plowed through the wealth of information included in the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring I received last Christmas. If the extra dose of special features and the extended footage seem like overkill to you, then this release of the theatrical cut will be a very satisfactory alternative. Rest assured, however, that I for one will be including the Extended Edition on my Christmas list. (Got that, Mom?)
Not guilty! Peter Jackson and all the rest are free to continue their epic quest.
New Line walks away on a split decision. The DVD is just fine; they could have easily blown off this release, but they put in a lot of effort to make it just as worthwhile, in its own way, as the big box that comes later. Still, foisting spyware on innocent fans and consumers is a serious offense, especially when the "exclusive online content" that one gets in return is this lame. Shame on you, New Line.
InterActual is remanded into Federal custody to await trial on espionage charges.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 179 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots
* Documentary "On the Set: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (Starz/Encore Special)
* Documentary "Return to Middle-Earth" (WB Special)
* Lordoftherings.net Featurettes: "Forces of Darkness," "Sounds of Middle-Earth," "Edoras & Rohan Culture," "Creatures," "Gandalf the White," "Arms & Armor," "Helm's Deep," and "Gollum: Andy Serkis, Bay Raitt"
* Emiliana Torrini "Gollum's Song" Music Video
* The Long and Short of It, Short Film by Sean Astin
* Featurette: The Making of The Long and The Short of It
* The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Preview Featurette
* The Return of the King Video Game Preview
* The Two Towers Special Extended DVD Edition Preview Featurette
* Really Crappy DVD-ROM Online Content
* Official Site