LOS ANGELES, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- When I was 11, I received J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as a present and soon spent every possible hour reading it. My father eventually got tired of me evading all my chores, so, when I was halfway through the second book ("The Two Towers"), he hid it.
Months later, I found it, but by then my spell was gone. For whatever boyish reason, I never again opened the books up, and soon forgot everything. So I represent the extreme of one audience for the movie version -- I'm the perfect ignoramus who can't tell Saruman from Sauron.
When I heard that the film of "The Two Towers" is broken into three intercut storylines that follow the survivors of the fellowship, I expected to be befuddled by the intricate but awkward-sounding plot.
The handsome human, the elegant elf and the droll dwarf go help a human kingdom called Rohan fight an onslaught of super orcs sent by Saruman (or maybe Sauron).
Meanwhile, the hobbits Frodo and Sam are wandering through the wilderness with the Ring, where they are pestered by Gollum, a hairless little creep with a split personality.
Meanwhile, two other hobbits, Merry and the one who isn't Merry, spend most of the three-hour running time riding around in some kind of talking tree as it, uh, lumbers through the forest that Sauron (or maybe Saruman) is chopping down.
Perplexing as it sounds, it becomes transparent in the hands of director Peter Jackson, who has to be one of the greatest cinematic storytellers ever. Even I could follow the story. In fact, within the first four minutes, I was enthralled. Remarkably, this sequel seems more self-contained, more self-sufficient than the original movie. (Credit also should go to the little known film editor D. Michael Horton, who appears to have worked only in New Zealand.)
George Lucas should beg Jackson to save his Star Wars franchise by directing the Episode III installment for him.
As the kingly human Aragorn, the 40-year-old Viggo Mortensen confirms himself, after a long and perhaps frustrating apprenticeship, as a top-tier leading man.
The computer-generated Gollum raises a metaphysical question that the academy needs to answer before voting for Best Supporting Actor nominations begins. Andy Serkis, who provides Gollum's voice, also acted out the role for the digital animators. Since Gollum steals the show, should Serkis be eligible for an Oscar?
What about the other audience -- the cognoscenti who know Eomer from Eothain? Fortunately, I can give you an expert's opinion, because I went to the screening with Jerry Pournelle.
In some of his careers, Dr. Dr. Pournelle (as the Germans would call him) picked up two Ph.D.'s, served as the Air Force's private Dr. Strangelove forecasting nuclear war fighting capabilities, was deputy mayor of Los Angeles, helped write President Reagan's famous "Star Wars" speech, and carried out some undercover spook stuff I can't tell you about. Jerry is also a best-selling novelist of hard science-fiction ("The Mote in God's Eye") and fantasy ("The Burning City"), both with Larry Niven.
"The Two Towers" left Jerry awe-struck. As a fantasy plot craftsman and Tolkien-lover, he was impressed by how Jackson and Co. altered Tolkien's story just enough to make a tremendous movie out of it, yet no more. "I think they could not have done it any other way," he commented.
Further, he admired how the film caught two sides of Tolkien's world view: the cold grandeur of the Scandinavian and Finnish myths Tolkien studied vs. the merciful warmth of the Catholicism he professed. Nor does Jackson try to modernize the arch-hereditarian politics of the trilogy, where blood will always tell.
The main failing of both movies is that Jackson's interests are too techno-contemporary to do justice to Tolkien's very English Tory/hippie love of farms and forests. "After reading Tolkien, I knew I had to move to the country," said Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, whose "Ramble On," with its alternating folk melody verses and hammer of the gods heavy-metal choruses evokes both Tolkien's English and Nordic sides.
In contrast, while Jackson is superb with the video game violence of the battle of Helm's Deep, his plotline of the talking tree lamenting to the two minor hobbits the destruction of the woods is not up to rest of this movie, just as the pastoral opening in the Shire got "The Fellowship" off to a slow start.
Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images. Parents should take the PG-13 rating quite seriously. There is nothing vulgar in the movie, but I took the my 9-year-old to see the first film because he had just read Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and was well into "The Fellowship of the Ring." That film, however, terrified him, and he stopped reading the trilogy. Now, he's 10, but he doesn't want to see the new movie.