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The second part of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was always going to be the most difficult. Despite not having to reintroduce characters, establish old locations and reiterate the story there were inevitably constant troubles trying to adapt part two of J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel into a feature film. After the magnificent effort that was the first film one would be forgiven for merely showing blind faith in director Peter Jackson and his team (of literally hundreds of people) for the second installment. It mattered little, however, because The Two Towers was destined for greatness from the moment New Line put pen to paper. The film is nothing if not an appetiser for the final chapters of The Return Of The King. Sit back and enjoy…

Two Towers, The: Collector's Extended Edition
Well, if you’ve got no idea about the story then you’ve been hiding somewhere other than Earth for the best part of five years. Frodo still carries that darned ring, his mate Gandalf has just fallen into a great, big hole trying fight an ugly monster and he’s left with best buddy Sam after the rest of the Fellowship is split up into three small groups. Merry and Pippin are whisked away by a nasty bunch of Orcs, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn go off to find them and fight some battles along the way and Frodo and Sam trudge off to Mount Doom once again, with borderline schizophrenic Gollum as tour guide. How’s that for the second film in a nutshell?

During the movie some great moments occur, really building up momentum as we head towards the finale due out in December. We meet the Riders of Rohan, a group of men on horseback who typify nobility, strength and courage. Lead by King Theoden (Bernard Hill), the Rohan members become a key element of the battles that are to take place later in the story. Through this meeting we are also introduced to Eomer (Karl Urban) and Eowyn (Australia’s own Miranda Otto), who are also pivotal to some of the detailed story elements in this film.

The battle scenes are worth every painstaking minute they took to film over months of shooting and dressing up hundreds of extras as ugly Uruk-Hai or noble fellowship followers. We see the huge battle of Helm’s Deep, which may well go down in history as one of the greatest fight scenes in history. That is, until the battles of The Return Of The King inevitably dethrone them rather quickly. There’s also Isengard and its rather watery demise, the introduction of Fangorn forest, home of the Ents and of course Treebeard, the nicest Ent of them all. Merry and Pippin’s small adventure may seem a little trifle when compared to the rest of the Fellowship but it’s a good balance so we can at least catch our breath a little in between the angst of Frodo and the impending doom of Aragorn and his buddies. Oh, and let’s not forget the return of a familiar face at the perfect moment, this time dressed in white and ready to wreak some havoc on that pesky Sauron.

As you’ll be well aware, the extended edition of the film is a chance for Peter Jackson to really flesh out the story and give us much more detail than is already the case. Some may say there’s already enough detail and length in the running time without having to add another 40-odd minutes to the duration, but if you can sit through it all there’s no doubt this is the more complete story and improves things out of sight merely by giving us more information.

Examples of some of the additional and extended scenes include the complete back story of King Theoden’s reign, more detail surrounding Aragorn, Boromir, Faramir (played by Australia’s David Wenham to a tea) and plenty more scenes with Eowyn which really gives her character some much needed detail which was missing in the theatrical cut. Then there are the lighter additions such as Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Ent draft, the story behind Sam’s elven rope and the conclusion of Legolas and Gimli’s body count battle which was only touched on briefly in the shorter version. All of this is great stuff and devout fans of the films and novels will enjoy this added freedom with which to move on this version. It is unsure whether Peter Jackson sees the extended cuts as his preferred version or merely a more detailed, complete film which would never have gained approval in cinemas largely due to its extremely long running time. Nevertheless, the extended edition is the only way to go if you want to experience the full effect and detail of such an epic tale.

The world created by Tolkien has been successfully translated into one of the most breathtaking visual pieces in history, thanks largely to the versatility and diversity of the New Zealand landscape and the dedication of the crew in giving us a believable fantasy world. Check out some of the magnificent sets such as the Helm’s Deep castle or Fangorn Forest and you’ll know what I mean.

It has been mentioned that The Two Towers is highly successful as a second installment in an already conceived trilogy. The extended edition just raises the bar that much higher you’d by silly not to be very excited about the final film’s release. Bring on The Return Of The King. And bring a cushion, too, as I hear it’s over 200 minutes long.

Two Towers, The: Collector's Extended Edition
Um, right. This film is so near darn perfect it’s hard to find faults in anything. The 2.35:1 transfer is simply impeccable, from the magnificent colours to the sharpest visuals we’ve seen in a long time. The print is exceptionally clean, you won’t find any hints of aliasing (which is a great effort considering there’s tricky stuff like armour all over the place) and the blacks are as deep as you’ll find anywhere.

It is worth noting that unfortunately the Region 4 release gets those pesky player generated subtitles rather than the burnt-in version afforded to the Region 1 release. For some this has been enough to import the US release but for others it may well have merely been a small bonus had the Region 4 version been given burnt-in subtitles for those Elvish moments. An annoyance nonetheless that makes one wonder why the original titles seen on the theatrical print weren’t included in the Australian version.

The only other gripe one could make is that the visuals are too good and show up some of the more obvious digital effects. With a world like Middle Earth there has to be a great emphasis on creating things digitally, mainly because there’s only so much an art department can do before thing become incredibly difficult. With the sharpness and detail so impeccable you can pick out some rare moments where the effects become quite noticeable. I’m talking mainly about Merry and Pippin riding Treebeard (which, to be honest, was also visible in the theatrical version in cinemas) and other smaller shots here and there. It’s really not that big a problem but when you’ve got such a great looking transfer one feels guilt not finding at least something wrong with it.

The fact that the film is spread over two discs helps a lot as the room can be used to shore up the visuals whilst still leaving space for the multiple soundtracks on the disc. You won’t get any better than this.

Two Towers, The: Collector's Extended Edition
Thankfully the 2-disc spread for the film means we get some DTS and Dolby Digital greatness for the soundtrack. The DTS 6.1 mix came under more than a little scrutiny when the extended edition of the first film was released but thankfully there’s nothing abnormal to report with this one. Put simply, this is without doubt one of the best soundtracks on DVD for clarity, range, surround use, depth and creativity. Everything is pumped out of the speakers perfectly, with dialogue never unclear or muffled. The effects don’t override some of the spoken words unlike other mixes and the musical score never gets in the way of either the effects or the words of the characters. And thankfully there’s no reaching for the remote to turn things up during the less intense moments of the film because everything is balanced perfectly throughout.

Surround use in the film is great, with most scenes using the rears to great effect, whether it be with atmospheric sounds such as the whispering trees in Fangorn Forest, pure effects like the clashing of metal during the battles sequences or merely the re-direction of dialogue throughout the film. The most notable thing is that it is incredibly realistic and doesn’t just resort to putting sounds everywhere to create an immersive environment. The subwoofer moves up from mere support act to key player in this film, which is great for some of the more heavy moments in the film. The Battle of Isengard is a highlight merely because the subwoofer decides to really kick in and provide a welcome boost. Again, if your equipment can’t cope then now’s the time to spend some cash so you can hear the full effect of the DTS 6.1 mix.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track by comparison is almost equally as good. Surround use is impeccable but probably just not as defined as the DTS mix, while the subwoofer is used more sparingly but still gets a heck of a workout. You would have to favour the DTS mix if your equipment can handle it simply because it packs a bit more of a punch and will drag you even further into the story.

The audio section would not be complete without words on Howard Shore’s magnificent score. Again, he runs the underlying theme through all the variations and gives every scene a musical presence that brings out the desired emotion in a very subtle fashion. It never gets intrusive or resorts to big bangs and crashes to try and tell us what we should be feeling at any given moment, while the vocal elements of the story provide a poignant touch to the largely orchestral score.

Two Towers, The: Collector's Extended Edition
There were some concerns when the extended edition of The Fellowship Of The Ring was released that the documentaries provided were the best around and would merely be re-told once again in the second and third installments. When you pop disc three into the player it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the cast. What has happened, in fact, is that the interviews have covered basically all three films and the documentaries merely split up into three parts, with the most relevant bits going to each film. It’s a great move and one that makes the whole package look extremely polished as you’re not shifting through a number of backdrops and interview styles throughout the extras section.

The four commentary tracks are the first cabs off the rank, and they feature the welcome inclusion of subtitles detailing who is talking at a particular moment which is useful when you’ve got large groups such as these. Strange though, that they are only available if you choose the commentaries from the extras section rather than use your remote to switch between audio mixes.

The first commentary involves Peter Jackson, writer/producer Fran Walsh and writer Phillipa Boyens. Jackson is obviously the key here and is completely comfortable talking about whatever comes to mind. Whatever isn’t in the featurettes is basically in these commentary tracks so this is a great place to start. Fans will revel in even more detail about the filming of The Two Towers.

The second track features a whole bunch of members from the design team, including Weta head Richard Taylor and conceptual designers Alan Lee and John Howe. Again, these guys are very comfortable but I can’t get past Richard Taylor’s grating voice. The information is great, so you’ll be torn between skipping Taylor’s bits or trying to suffer through them. The level of detail here is obviously more pertaining to the visual effects and look of the film, so designers will be happy in this one.

The third commentary is with the production and post-production team, with the producers, editors and composer Howard Shore lending a few words to the track where required. This one is a little slower but gives a different perspective that you might not get with the majority of the featurettes. The interviews with the players in this commentary are much more brief so it’s a great chance for them to put their words forward about the film. An enjoyable track for sure.

The final commentary is with members of the cast. Most of the principal cast is present, though these were recorded in various segments in smaller groups or individually. The relevant parts are commentated by the appropriate actor and the way it is cut is relatively seamless. As with most cast commentaries it quickly generates into a bit of a giggle session but for something more lighthearted this is the only way to go. Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd provide much of the laughs so they get plenty of airplay, while the others chime in when they appear on screen. It’s a good track to really get more out of the actors themselves as opposed to just seeing them in character.

Disc Three
The featurettes on disc three are many and varied and take up a considerable chunk of time. Thankfully they are well worth a look so you won’t have to worry about fluff getting in the way of some good information. Disc three is preceded by an introduction from Director Peter Jackson, who gives us a few tips as to how to navigate the extra features depending on our mood.

The first piece is entitled J.R.R.Tolkien: Origins of Middle Earth. While not specifically to do with the second film this 30-minute piece is great to hear more about the author and what his motivations were when writing the novels. Some great information is given to the viewer by all sorts of experts, such as how he used to hang out with C.S.Lewis and the fact that modern day publishers would frown upon his rather different writing style.

Next up is From Book To Script, a look at the challenges of adapting the second book into a feature film. It is mentioned that this was the hardest of the three to translate so this 20-minute piece becomes very interesting to see what creative license they took to ensure the film version actually made sense. Purists might want to see how writer Phillipa Boyens justifies the changes they made for the movie version, the most notable of which was the use of Arwen in the second film.

The Designing Middle Earth featurette could be seen as a set constructors wet dream in that so much information is given as to how the sets were created, assembled, dressed and transformed for all the major locations in the second film. We get to see some location scouting footage and the construction of various studio sets such as the forest and Helm’s deep which look truly amazing once complete. Running for over 40 minutes you just can’t go past the level of detail in this piece.

Still on the design elements, the Weta Workshop featurette looks at the more artificial creations other than the sets for the film. If you couldn’t stand Weta Head Richard Taylor’s voice in the first extended edition then you’re gonna hate this one because he’s all over it. Nevertheless, Taylor and his buddies give us a great sense of just how massive their task really was in creating prosthetics, masks, helmets, armour and the like for the whole film. Despite Taylor talking like everything’s the biggest statement he’s ever made this is a great piece, which runs for around 45 minutes.

The final piece in the design section are the Design Galleries, which will appeal to those who love to sketch things themselves as well as general fans of the design process. We are privileged to have some pictures accompanied by a commentary track from Alan Lee and other designers, who go through various details on the sketches. This is an incredibly detailed section covering the people of Middle Earth and the realms of Middle Earth over tens of pages. Well worth a look.

Some of the more entertaining parts of the extra features come in the section on the one and only Gollum. The first piece, entitled The Taming Of Sméagol, goes into great detail about the evolution of Gollum as a character. We learn how Andy Serkis was originally hired just for his voice but won over those in charge with his physical dedication and facial expression which became vital to the animation process. The most interesting aspect of the 39-minute featurette is the issue regarding how Gollum was transferred from Andy Serkis’ performance into the digital Gollum we see on screen. While the interviews remain rather courteous and don’t really bad mouth any of the cast or crew, it became apparent that there were more than a few arguments over the method of creating Gollum, with the motion capture team locking horns with the digital animators on more than one occasion. Great stuff.

The Andy Serkis Animation Reference is a small piece which shows Serkis acting out Gollum’s best scene in the film, where he argues with himself, side by side with the final product to see how the transformation ended up. It is well worth a look after short glimpses of it in the main featurette.

One of the more amusing pieces is Gollum’s Stand-In, where we see producer Rick Porras coaxed into wearing Serkis’ “gimp suit” for a day of second unit shooting while the real Gollum was out at a different location. The cast and crew poke fun at Porras non-stop, while the producer himself confirms his suspicions that he can’t act to save his life. This continues on from his humiliation during the early tests conducted for the first film, where his acting skills were seriously questioned once again.

Rounding out Gollum’s section is a series of Design Galleries, which go into great detail as to how the different sketches combined into the final product. Some sketches are accompanied by a short commentary by one of the designers, who take us through their motivations on different pictures. This is great for anyone interested in the paper design process of a character.

The final extras on disc three use interactive elements to show us around Middle Earth. The first is the Middle Earth Atlas, which takes us through the journeys of the four groups from the movie. At each stop a small clip from the film is played to give the map some context, and a line travels over the map as we go along. It’s great for those who don’t know about or want to understand some of the geography of Middle Earth in more detail.

And finally there’s the New Zealand as Middle Earth map which shows us all the New Zealand locations that were scouted and/or used in the making of the film. Again, each stop is greeted by some footage either of original location scouting, the construction process or from the finished film. New Zealanders will love it as will the tourism industry, who will no doubt reap the benefits of their country looking so fantastic in this feature.

Two Towers, The: Collector's Extended Edition
Disc Four
Elijah Wood provides the introduction here, though it’s not really needed if you’ve got the hang of the first extra disc. The fourth disc goes into more of the production side of the film, giving us a detailed look into the effects, music and overall composition of The Two Towers.

First up is the Filming The Two Towers section, which is broken up into three sub-categories. Warriors of the Third Age looks at the stunt men (and women) who really made the Battle of Helm’s Deep as great as it looked. Highlights include the Uruk-Hai stunt performers giving the Elvish stunt people an impromptu taunting from behind the camera while shooting and the humourous story about how Viggo Mortenson and the other stunt performers used to head butt each other every time they met, much to the dismay of one Orlando Bloom.

The Cameras In Middle Earth piece provides an insight into how the shooting changed from the first film to the second. With so many different units shooting at different locations with each group of actors the need arose for continuity and a chance for Peter Jackson to oversee proceeding from wherever he was located. The satellite system is briefly explained, as is second unit director Geoff Murphy’s funny orange armchair which went up in a ball of flame once his role was complete. This is a great piece that covers a variety of locations and units used to shoot the second film. Oh yeah, and it goes for over an hour so there’s plenty of detail to soak in.

The last piece from this section is a series of Production Photos. Like on the third disc, there’s an audio commentary for selected pictures, totaling sixty in all. These are great to look at for anyone interested in a little bit more pictorial detail rather than the wordy featurettes. Note that I had some difficulty viewing these galleries from a DVD-ROM drive so we’d be interested to hear if anyone else had any troubles in this section on their own discs. If so, drop us a line.

Next up is the Visual Effects section, a very detailed part of the extras which looks at things such as miniatures, digital creations and abandoned concepts. The Miniatures section is broken up into three pieces. Big-iatures looks at the large miniatures (if there is such a thing) created for some of the wide shots of locations like Helm’s Deep. I’m amazed firstly that people can create something that looks that good and secondly that you can’t tell they are miniatures when those shots are used in the film. I keep thinking of bad Australian comedies like Hey Dad which used funny little scale model houses to cut costs on establishing shots. Thankfully it’s not the case here.

The Flooding of Isengard Animatic gives us a look at a rough animatic created to show just how the sequence might look in the proper scale, created using miniatures and small props. You can view the comparison between the animatic and final version or just the animatic itself. Even though the animatic is extremely rough it would’ve provided a good guide as to how the shots may look in the final version. The comparison between the two is very interesting so this is well worth a look. There are also Galleries of all the miniatures used in the film to accompany the featurettes.

Moving along, the next section is called Editorial: Refining the Story. We begin with Peter Jackson talking about how they used three different editors for the three films merely because there was no way they would’ve been able to keep up with the work at the rate they were shooting. He goes through the methods of editing, the motivations behind some of the more important decisions and a detailed look at the Helm’s Deep battle which was constantly re-cut to a suitable running time. It’s great to hear Jackson talk about these kinds of things, and there’s even a little bit about what we might see in the opening scenes of The Return Of The King. Great stuff.

The music and sound will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Howard Shore’s two soundtracks thus far. The Music For Middle Earth piece gives us a great insight into how one goes about recording a score for a feature film. Shore talks us through his motivations for the new themes of The Two Towers and how they relate to the different groups and their journeys in the film. Running for over 25 minutes, this piece is great for fans of the music. Howard Shore is a genius.

A piece entitled The Soundscapes Of Middle Earth deals with the complicated effects tracks and foley sounds used for the film. The highlight was Peter Jackson trying to coax a New Zealand cricket crowd into chanting Uruk-Hai words during a break in the cricket match. The ever-shoeless Jackson was able to get just enough for the huge crowd scenes from the film which the sound designers manipulated into what you hear in the final version. This piece is magnificent and makes one really understand how hard and creative the process of sound design really is.

The Sound Demonstration: Helm’s Deep piece uses individual tracks so one can see how the different sound elements go together. The final track is the complete mix so you can compare how things sound as you go along. Another great interactive piece we’ve got here to round out the sound section on disc four.

Still going strong, the last featurette on disc four is The Battle For Helm’s Deep Is Over, a piece which rounds out the whole package and gives the key players a chance to summarise how it was filming, editing, mixing and managing the second film in the trilogy, which was easily the most difficult. There are a heck of a lot of credits but the guts of the piece points to the inevitability that will be plenty of tears come the end of The Return Of The King.

Disc Five
For the special collector’s extended edition a fifth disc has been included much like the National Geographic disc in the first film’s release. This time it’s a 24-minute featurette (yep, it’s got it’s own whole disc) called Film Collectibles: Capturing Movie Memories. We get to see some of Peter Jackson’s film collection featuring high-quality statuettes from various movies over the years. Richard Taylor chimes in as well (which delighted me once again because of his bizarre voice) because his WETA team was responsible for sculpting the collectibles from the films. Sideshow Collectibles, a film collectibles team in the US, became involved with the WETA guys to partner them in producing the pieces for the movies.

It becomes apparent in this piece that the Smeagol statuette included in the collector’s box set is a single bookend which is complete when you buy the Gollum statuette from these creators. Inevitably it turns into a bit of a marketing exercise but you can’t go past the quality of these creations so it’s not like they’re flogging plastic Barbie dolls with Lord Of The Rings clothing to everyone with this featurette.

The only other material included in this set is the collectible booklet and the Gollum statuette, both of which we were unlucky to be afforded for review, but would undoubtedly make this one of the finest box sets on DVD and seriously challenge you to part with your hard-earned cash and own a set yourself.

The extras here are of the highest quality you really can’t miss any of them. Sometimes wading through extras on some discs is a chore but there wasn’t a moment of boredom with these despite there being hours of footage to go through. This is easily the best package ever assembled and eclipses the first set by some margin. Makes me wonder how the bar will be raised for the final collector’s edition due out next year.

Two Towers, The: Collector's Extended Edition
There’s very little to say except you must buy this set. For one, it’s one of the finest films to grace our screen of recent times, made only better by the 43-minutes of additional footage placed back in the film for added context. Secondly, the video and audio presentations are basically second to none, spread across two discs to give us one of the finest looking and sounding packages ever on DVD. And thirdly, the extras package is so comprehensive yet uniform in its presentation that you just can’t go past any of it. Again, if The Return Of The King is anything like this set I’ll be happy, but one would know full well that the chances are the final installment will surpass both the editions before it. Grab your seats for the final chapter then wait with patience for the last box set that should truly be the finest of anyone’s collection.

Peter Jackson mentions that his philosophy is “nothing’s ever perfect, you simply run out of time.” Well, Peter, this is damn near perfect so you can spend your time on catching up on some well-earned sleep.