The confrontation of good vs. evil in mythical Middle-earth continues. Let’s jump right in—as the film does—to the second act in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy [for information about act one, see our story summary for The Fellowship of the Ring]. With the fellowship broken, warriors Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli embark on a rescue mission, tracking the detachment of battle-bred Orcs that made off with Merry and Pippin. In the process, they encounter horsemen of Rohan and visit a kingdom facing extermination at the hands of Saruman’s Uruk-hai army. The Rohan monarch, King Theoden, has had his mind poisoned by a traitorous advisor named Grima Wormtongue, leaving Theoden incapable of ruling his people. But intervention by Gandalf (we learn that he conquered the fiery Balrog and emerged as Gandalf the White) restores Theoden to full health. Wormtongue is exiled, and returns to his true master, Saruman, who plans to wipe out Rohan at the hands of 10,000 Uruk-hai soldiers in a climactic battle at Helm’s Deep.
Merry and Pippin escape the Orcs on their own and wander into Fangorn Forest where they meet Treebeard, part of a race of tree-like creatures called Ents. The Hobbits appeal to the Ents to join the fight against Saruman, but the complacent Ents are reluctant to do so until they realize their future may be threatened as well.
Meanwhile, ringbearer Frodo and his trusty companion, Sam, must proceed alone toward Mount Doom to fulfill their mission of destroying the seductive gold band coveted by the dark lord Sauron. The pair realizes they’ve been followed when a pathetically emaciated, psychologically tormented creature named Gollum is caught stalking their camp. Gollum’s history with—and addiction to—the ring make him both a valuable asset and a potential liability to their quest. Gollum can guide them to Mount Doom. But are his intentions honorable? Is he simply biding his time in order to kill the Hobbits and steal the ring? It’s a risk Frodo—who is beginning to show wear and tear from his immense burden—believes they should take.
positive elements: The films may lack the richness of Tolkien’s novels, but they are vivid attempts at faithfully retelling his deeply moral story with its Christian worldview intact. Evil is seductive and all-consuming. Gollum, who carried the ring for centuries, is obsessed with obtaining it. He’s like an aging heroin addict desperate for his next fix. His obsession manifests itself in unpredictable, unattractive ways that invite comparison to any number of addictive behaviors teens should avoid. In dealing with Gollum, Frodo wants to believe the best of him and see the creature redeemed (he even calls him by his given name, Smeagol, as opposed to the one he later earned for the raspy, guttural sound he makes). Frodo says, "I have to help him, Sam, because I have to believe he can come back." Frodo’s mercy toward Gollum is in sharp contrast to Sam’s acute suspicion of him. Sam’s distrust actually creates friction with Frodo, raising interesting questions about the proper balance of kindness and skepticism in a complex case such as this.
Tolkien’s animosity toward technology and the industrial revolution as enslaving, ecologically destructive forces is even clearer in Towers. Here, the legions of darkness so wantonly ravage the environment that Saruman is vilified for not being a respectful steward of the land. The evil sorcerer gloats, "The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall."
Once again, the point is made that any attempt to use the ring (created as an instrument of evil) for positive ends is futile. Also, Theoden’s decrepit state illustrates the danger of allowing a deceiver to call the shots in one’s life. As Theoden is about to finish off the traitorous Wormtongue, Aragorn suggests that he show mercy, which he does. Friends remain dedicated to each other and focused on selfless goals. The relationship between Legolas and Gimli, which began with prejudice and distrust in the first film, has evolved into a tight friendship built on mutual respect and a common objective. When Sam (who is a type of loyal Aaron to Frodo’s Moses) falls down an embankment and into potential danger, Frodo leaps to his aid without regard for his own safety. The vow of love shared by Aragorn and Arwen faces challenges while they are apart, yet remains intact (she struggles over leaving her people and rejecting immortality for him; he must stay faithful without abandoning his calling or giving in to another woman’s interest in him). Subtle nods to nobility and chivalry are refreshing, such as when men refer to themselves by including the names of their fathers (a reminder that they are part of—and responsible to honor—a lineage) or seek to protect "women and children first."
British diplomat, orator and writer Edmond Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Personally impacted by the horrors of war, Tolkien firmly believed that and explores the issue here. Pippin wonders if they should just go back to the Shire, and Merry reminds him that, if evil prevails, there won’t be a Shire. Both the Elves and Ents are challenged to put aside their own agendas and complacency to join a fight that isn’t directly theirs—because it’s the right thing to do. Intense violence notwithstanding, war brings out bravery and comradeship as humans defend themselves against overwhelming odds. It looks grim, but Aragorn assures a young man fighting beside him, "There is always hope." Sam’s undying optimism is made clear in statements that are blatant (Frodo tells him, "Nothing ever dampens your spirits") and more subtle (gazing upon enormous Oliphaunts, Sam says, "No one at home will believe this!" implying that he believes they will survive their suicide mission). An overarching theme of this trilogy is best articulated by Sam when he tells Frodo, "In the end, it’s only a passing thing, this darkness. ... There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for." Indeed, it is.
spiritual content: Tolkien has insisted that his saga is not an allegory. The author’s Christian worldview, however, is clearly at work (families interested in specific parallels to Christianity should read the book Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware, available from Focus on the Family). Sorcery returns, but its use by Gandalf feels muted compared to the first film. After defeating the Balrog and returning as a rejuvenated figure adorned in white, Gandalf informs his friends, "I was sent back until my task is done," which implies an accountability to a higher power (the same intelligent force of good that "chose" Frodo to bear the ring). Gandalf casts an invasive presence out of King Theoden in what looks like an exorcism (this scene may offend purists since the novel never implies "possession," but simply that the king’s mind had been poisoned by deception). That moment, as well as Gollum’s internal struggle with his own "demons," are powerful illustrations of spiritual warfare. At the funeral of Theoden’s son, the grieving father is told that the boy’s spirit will follow those of his forefathers to a better place. The corrupt Saruman relies on mystical "seeing stones." The Elves are immortal, and prepare a mass exodus from Middle-earth to return to the "undying lands" of the Grey Havens. While traveling through the marshes, Frodo is entranced by a ghoulish power that seeks to take his life. In Fanghorn Forest, believing he has encountered Sarumon, Aragorn cries, "The white wizard will put a spell on us!"
sexual content: Aragorn and Arwen share a passionate kiss. Wormtongue makes a play for Eowyn, but is soundly rejected.
violent content: Gruesome Orcs and Uruk-hai warriors are decapitated, shot with arrows, run through with swords and spears, slashed with blades, cut down with axes, etc. So are some humans. While Tolkien’s novels are also quite violent, books are only as graphic as the reader’s imagination chooses to make them. From an artistic perspective, the filmmakers do a masterful job of assaulting the senses with gritty action. The effects are amazing, especially in bringing to the screen the climactic battle at Helm’s Deep. This dreary, nocturnal stand against evil involves an unrelenting barrage of medieval conflict and a sizable body count as a rag-tag Rohan army of 300 men and boys tries to hold back 10,000 armored beasts. A creature gets impaled with a shield, another shot in the throat with an arrow. Ents storm into battle, squashing, smashing and thrashing the Orcs at Isengard before a massive flood washes out the battlefield. An explosion sends bodies flying. Others are crushed by debris. Numerous soldiers fall to their deaths from a great wall. Even horses get bloodied. Wormtongue is thrown down a flight of stairs. Gollum snaps a dead rabbit’s spine before tearing at its flesh with his teeth. An army of archers and swordsmen ambush their prey. The bad guys ride huge, hyena-like beasts called Wargs, which snap at the legs of Rohan horses. The Uruk-hai leader cuts the head off of an ornery Orc and invites his team to feast on the corpse. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli stumble upon the monsters’ camp, which has been reduced to a pile of smoldering carcasses with the Uruk-hai’s head impaled on a spear. Gollum is put on a leash and treated harshly by Sam, who gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight with the gnashing creature. Gandalf is shown struggling with the Balrog as they plummet into a chasm. A machete-wielding Orc chases Merry and Pippin into Fanghorn Forest, then gets fatally squashed.
crude or profane language: None.
drug and alcohol content: As in The Fellowship of the Ring, characters smoke pipes.
other negative elements: Some scenes that aren’t violent are still creepy. In one of them, Sam, Frodo and Gollum trek through the marsh and find ghastly, bloated corpses lying just beneath the water’s surface.
conclusion: Academy voters should be relieved that they didn’t award The Fellowship of the Ring an Oscar for Best Picture last year. Had they done that, they’d feel morally obliged to repeat the gesture since The Two Towers is just as powerful (thanks to additional context and thematic evolution) and even more eye-popping than its predecessor. It’s an epic achievement.
Families who felt so-so about the violence of Fellowship should be aware that things get darker and more intense here. No more frolicking in the Shire. The scenic splendor of Rivendell gives way to slithering sidekicks and hordes of invading beasts. (Thank goodness for John Rhys-Davies, who provides much-needed comic relief as Gimli the Dwarf.) If things truly are darkest before dawn, director Peter Jackson has gone all out to set up an unbelievably bright "dawn" in act three, next year’s Return of the King. From a storytelling perspective, that makes sense. After all, The Empire Strikes Back was the most foreboding film in the original Star Wars trilogy. But the often dreary onslaught here may be more than some families want to endure (this is not a film for children).
As heavy as the violence is at times, that’s not what stuck with me weeks after viewing The Two Towers. I was most affected by the inner turmoil of Gollum, and the different ways Sam and Frodo responded to this tormented, obsessed creature who personifies enslavement by addiction. Granted, this is a three-hour action film first and foremost. But my memories of the brutality—no more explicit than in the first movie, yet more frequent���had faded. What stuck were poignant lines and unique situations that challenged me to think more deeply about human nature, morality, world events and biblical truth. With the proper parental input, mature teens may have a similar experience.