Naturally, there are questions in the second act that will have to be answered in the third act. I guess it depends on what you go to a movie for. I figure there was at least $11 worth of entertainment in Empire. So, if you paid four bucks and didn't get an ending, you're still seven bucks ahead of the game.
That's Harrison Ford, speaking way back in 1982 during filming of Return of the Jedi. Naturally, I'm bringing this up because I saw Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers two nights ago.
Much has been made of the "Middle Installment" problem where trilogies are concerned: the fact that the middle segment of the story poses special difficulties, specifically that it can have neither a proper beginning nor a proper ending, and thus makes an unsatisfying stand-alone experience. The problem I have with this "problem" is that in the best trilogies I have encountered -- Star Wars, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever -- the "problem" doesn't occur; and if the problem does occur, as it does in the LOTR novels by Tolkien, to note the existence of the problem is to confuse the nature of the work in the first place. The Lord of the Rings, in book form, is not a "trilogy" at all, in the sense of being a story told in three distinct segments. It is a singular story, divided into three parts more for convenience than for narrative reasons.
So, does the "trilogy problem" exist in the film version of The Two Towers? Many critics have complained that it has, but I have to report that as far as I am concerned, it does not. Certainly, the story is left wide open with many things unresolved; but there are still arcs within the film that are completed to some level of satisfaction: the fate of the people of Rohan in their war against Isengard, the fates of Merry and Pippin, the fall of Frodo and Sam into the hands of Faramir. Reading a lot of the reviews, I was left with the distinct impression that The Two Towers simply began, and equally simply it reached a cliffhanger and allowed the credits to roll, but that wasn't the case. Of course, maybe it's that I know the books well and thus I know what is to come, and thus I am not particularly vexed by the cliffhangers. I walked out of the theater perfectly satisfied that I had seen a good film, partly in and of itself but also partly because of the deepening and extension of the story which began a year ago. (It should be noted that this is part-and-parcel of trilogies that tell a single, larger story, as opposed to trilogies like the Indiana Jones movies which are only trilogies in the sense of there being three of them.)
Some other observations on the film follow.
:: My biggest complaint about Fellowship of the Ring was addressed in The Two Towers: the sense of journey and of location. All the traveling that went on in FOTR was not grounded very well, because the film didn't convey a sense of Middle Earth's geography. One of the pleasures of reading the books is constantly referring to the maps to track the progress of the characters; I have even found that the novel FOTR takes on a sense of impending doom as the Company gets ever closer to Mordor. But, in TTT, there were several shots of maps. There weren't quite enough, but it was still nice to see.
:: Gollum was amazing, the best CGI character I've ever seen. (Full disclosure: I am one of nine persons in the Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy who felt that Jar Jar Binks was actually a good character.) It wasn't just that his movements and interactions with Frodo and Sam were lifelike; it was that his CGI features actually conveyed emotion. I could sense the conflict racking this character, the tiny flicker of good within him that is nevertheless completely dominated by the part of him twisted by the Ring. It was absolutely crucial that the film nail this, because we have to know what awaits Frodo if he fails in his mission. And nail it they did. (Andy Serkis's voice work as Gollum was superb, but since his body-movements formed much of the basis for the animations of Gollum, I think he should be Oscar-eligible. Of course, he won't be, because the Academy is a collection of stodgy farts who would rather reward a dull, paint-by-numbers effort like A Beautiful Mind than recognize a film that is likely to stand as a milestone in cinematic history like FOTR....)
:: I envisioned Edoras being a bit bigger.
:: Some people have complained about the degree to which Gimli provided comic relief in the film, but it didn't bother me much.
:: I liked actually seeing Merry and Pippin going to war with the Ents, and Pippin's clever (!) bit of inducement. In the book, we saw very little of this; instead, Theoden and friends arrive at Isengard to find the whole place overrun and Merry and Pippin lounging on the front step, smoking and whiling away the time. This worked better.
:: Sorry, Sean: now that I've seen TTT, I am firmly in Liv Tyler's camp. Not only do I like her as Arwen, I endorse her. So there. Release the hounds!
:: The film could have been helped in the transitions department. The cuts from one storyline to another were a bit jarring at times -- particularly one transition from Merry and Pippin to Frodo and Sam. This is one reason why, in the Star Wars movies, George Lucas uses wipes in his transitions.
:: At times I felt as if the film assumes that one has seen the Extended Version of FOTR. I'm pretty sure the camoflage aspects of the Elven cloaks were not established in the theatrical version of the earlier film; ditto the leaf brooches that the members of the Fellowship wore. And how did Frodo know Gollum's original name? Was that also covered in the Extended Version of the first film?
:: If these movies don't bring back long hair and beards in men's fashions, I don't know what will. I'm halfway there, though! (I have the long hair. I used to have a beard, but not currently.)
:: Another complaint of mine about FOTR -- the fact that the earlier film didn't really establish, for me, Tolkien's idea of the Ending of the Third Age -- was also dealt with beautifully. I found the entire "Status of the Elves" passage in the middle of the film utterly mesmerizing.
:: I loved the way Jackson set up the Battle of Helm's Deep, so that it was able to just keep getting worse and worse and worse, although toward the end of it I was thinking like the poor fellow in Monty Python's Life of Brian who has been condemned to death for saying "Jehovah", and is warned before his stoning not to make things worse for himself: "Worse? How could it get any bloody worse? Jehovah! Jehovahjehovahjehovah!!!" In short, Jackson really pushed my suspension of disbelief to the absolute edge here. First, they retreat to the wall, then they retreat to the keep, then they retreat inside the keep, then they retreat inside the King's hall, and so on. I was this close to uttering the Magical Words of Disbelief Death ("Aww, come on!") when Gandalf showed up with Eomer. Of course, at that moment I nearly cheered, and I might have if I'd been seeing this film on opening day in a packed theater. (Resolution: See The Return of the King on opening night.)
:: Howard Shore's score is wonderful. I'll probably generate a longer commentary than that sometime, but for now I'll note that I loved the way he turned his ethereal, Middle-Eastern flavored theme for Lothlorien into a battle march for the Elves. The sound mix, though, didn't help matters as the music was often too loud and overwhelmed some of the dialogue.
I guess that's it for now. I found The Two Towers remarkable. Bring on December!