The Two Towers
I got to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers yesterday morning, almost exactly a year after I saw The Fellowship of the Ring. It was nearly as much fun as its predecessor - nearly, but not quite!
Why I think it wasn't quite as good isn't really very interesting. A big part of it is that I think the journey through Khazad-dum is the high point of Tolkein's novel, and that was covered in the first novel. Also, with this installment the story fragments into multiple threads, which I think makes it a looser story: Frodo's quest, Aragorn's adventures, and Merry and Pippen's explorations. While the individual threads are each quite satisfying, the whole ends up feeling fragmented at times. So it's really just a matter of taste (but, isn't everything?).
There's plenty to like, though. The portrayal of Gollum - another CGI creation - is excellent. Someone seems to have finally nailed creating an artificial individual with a full range of motion and - more importantly - facial expressions. And the conflicted and tortured nature of Gollum and his relationship to the Hobbits is very well carried out. The decision to make him look almost human - rather than clearly inhuman and a bit amphibian, as has been done before - is quite interesting and makes him a more sympathetic character. This is the focus of Frodo's story in Towers (the really good Frodo and Sam stuff comes in the third part), and it's well-done.
The Ents are the most ambitious fantastic creatures in Towers, and although they don't quite pull them off - you're a little too aware that they're not real - they're still pretty good. Their visual design is different and satisfying, and their Entish nature comes across well. Unfortunately, I suspect that some of the Ent story was the greatest casualty in editing the film down to 3 hours, and hopefully much of it will be restored in an extended version DVD at some point.
The centerpiece of the film are the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in the country of Rohan, which is under siege by Saruman's orcish army. Numerous battle scenes pepper this thread, culminating of course in an especially grand battle. These scenes often seem dominated by Orlando Bloom as Legolas, whose stage presence often takes attention away from Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn or John Rhys-Davies' Gimli. Neither is bad - Mortensen seems more at ease in the role here than he did in Fellowship, though he seems more comfortable playing a rogue than a king - Bloom just has that certain something, even when he's not speaking.
The battles are complex and tense, although the explicit bloodletting is kept to a minimum. Despite a few problems with the battle tactics we see (why does everyone wait until they "see the whites of their eyes" before attacking?), they're still thoroughly engaging and rewarding.
As for the story as a whole, I think they included all the scenes I remember from the book (though it's been over 7 years since I read it last), and it certainly works well as a film. I'm no purist; if I want the story as Tolkein wrote it, I'll read the book again. This is an adaptation, and I judge it as such. And quite a bit of fun it was, too.
By the way, Tuesday night I joined John and Anders to watch the extended DVD of Fellowship. The extra footage is definitely worth the price, particularly the doubled length of the Lothlorien sequence. I'll have to get a copy.
Also, John and I have been debating what the "two towers" in the second part are. I've always felt that they're the towers of Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul, while John thinks it refers to Saruman's tower in Isengard and either Minas Morgul or Barad Dur. The few people I've asked about this are split on the matter. The film takes John's position, but I think the book differs.
It hardly matters, though; the titles of the books are artificial, since the original publisher got cold feet about publishing a 1200+-page novel by a man previous known mainly for his successful children's book, The Hobbit. I rarely think of The Lord of the Rings as three books, it's really a single novel.
In other movie news, last weekend Subrata, Susan and I went to see Star Trek: Nemesis, my full review of which (which contains spoilers) you can read by following the link.
In a word, though, it was "average". A lot of it didn't make sense, but some of it was fun. Not quite as good as Generations, but better than the overrated First Contact.
Lastly, I think I'm about ready to give up on a couple of TV shows I've been watching.
One is the already-cancelled Birds of Prey, a weak riff on the Batman mythos, and which bears little resemblance to the comic book. It's trying to capitalize off the success of Smallville, but whereas Smallville is largely a touching story about a boy coming of age and finding out he can lift tractors, Birds of Prey is about... well, not very much, really. Three heroes fight crime in the city of "New Gotham", and also deal with their own personal demons - such as they are.
Every episode is a rather cloying morality play. The characters are one-dimensional at best, and there's a lot of mystery surrounding them which is usually punctured by their making fun of their mystery. They don't take themselves very seriously, which makes the dark trappings of the show seem rather ridiculous. And the scripts strive for off-the-cuff humor but just seem forced. Nothing in this show really works; it just feels contrived.
The other series I'm about to bail on is Firefly, about which I have a little more to say.
I've never been a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, not because I dislike it, but because I've never seen it, and decided I didn't feel up to getting hooked on another show with many seasons of backstory to watch. So I'm not really familiar with creator Joss Whedon or his writing style. But I figured I'd give Firefly a try when it came on the air, since many people had rave things to say about him.
Firefly is about the crew of the trading spaceship Serenity, which travels the lanes of the edge of settled humanspace, often carrying illicit cargo. The crew are mainly a group of ne'er-do-wells, with a couple of fugitives and a preacher with a mysterious past thrown in for good measure. The episodes mainly concern the crew dealing with obstacles that arise while on a mission, and coping with their interpersonal relationships.
Firefly made it hard for me to like it right off, when it turned out to be a science fiction series with very, very strong overtones of being a western. The clothes have a western feel, the planets they visit look like they're from the wild west, and the characters' speech patterns feel like they're from a western. I just didn't buy this incongruity, and it quickly grated on me every time someone trotted out some quaint speech pattern.
Ultimately, though, I think the series has deeper problems. In particular, it's dull.
It seems like not a whole lot happens in the stories. Most of them involve illicit transactions which get disrupted somehow, resulting in the crew being divided - either physically, or by carping at each other. This might be okay except that I mostly find the characters unlikeable. Particularly the captain, who is by turns self-centered, insensitive, hot-headed, dishonorable, and untrustworthy. And actually "insensitive" would characterize most of the crew fairly well. The doctor so far is the only character I've come to care about, since he's the only one who doesn't seem like either a nutjob or a rat-bastard.
After the six or so episodes I've seen (have I mentioned I'm a couple of months behind on my TV?) the stories feel pretty generic. There's not much sense of wonder (a key element of science fiction), and there doesn't seem to be any running plot thread. The scripts have their witty moments, although they're not anywhere near as funny as, say, The West Wing.
It seems like there's the germ of a good series in there, but that the characters need to be enlivened and made more interesting. They need to have goals rather than just hanging in there (which seems to be all that any of them are doing), and the stories need to become meaningful in a larger sense, rather than just playing around with the character interplay.
I'm not really sure what Whedan was going for here, but whatever it was, it ain't working for me.