THEY SAY FANTASY IS escapist. So why do the Lord of the Rings movies-made long before 9/11-keep reminding us of the war against terrorism? Last year, The Fellowship of the Ring depicted ordinary folks going about their everyday lives, when they suddenly were confronted with overwhelming evil, which, however reluctantly, they had to deal with. That was the year the terrorist struck.
This year's installment, as the nation prepares for war with Iraq, is The Two Towers, a tale of epic battles. More than that, it is about the nation of Rohan, a land that had lost its nerve. In denial about the evil that grows closer and closer to its borders, Rohan refuses to do anything about it until its people are, literally, backed into a corner fighting for their lives.
The title, of course, draws attention to the parallels with what happened when America's Two Towers collapsed. But the two towers of the movie have a very different meaning, one that breaks down the 9/11 parallelism but which makes the movie all the more culturally and morally relevant.
One of the towers belongs to the demonic Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, who, from his tower in Mordor, seeks to bring all of Middle Earth into slavery. The other tower-the one which this movie is most concerned with-is the tower of Saruman, the white wizard who used to be a good guy, but who chose to ally himself with Sauron as the wave of the future.
Saruman is a scientist, a biologist who talks with birds, who tears down the forests in favor of his factories. He is a genetic engineer who breeds mutant orcs, hideous man-eating monsters, from his artificial wombs. In the movie, he proclaims his dream of making the whole world a vast machine. His war is not just against Rohan but against the natural order itself.
Saruman's tower is planted in the middle of Middle Earth's civilizations. But that tower, for all of Saruman's own plans, is in service to Sauron's tower and becomes part of the Dark Lord's overarching plans. As critic Rod Dreher has pointed out, we must not interpret The Lord of the Rings just with us as the good guys defending Western civilization against hordes of barbarians, though there are indeed some applications. We must apply the spiritual struggles that the films symbolize to ourselves.
It is not just that Saruman stands for the genetic engineers, the cloners, the scientific reductionists, and the technocrats who are indeed making war against both nature and humanity. There is the evil within the human heart. And this struggle the movie portrays brilliantly.
Ironically, for an anti-Saruman movie, the best parts in The Two Towers are the products of technology. Computer-generated animation makes possible the portrayal of medieval-style battles as they really were: not so much individual sword fights but clashes between mass formations of thousands of warriors. But what steals the show is Gollum, a digitally created figure whose realism results from a marriage of human acting and computer technology. Gollum grapples in the mud with the human actors in a seamless blend of reality and animation. Actor Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, the first one given to a character who is entirely recreated by a computer. "It's like applying makeup after the fact, only the overlay isn't with latex before the performance. It's after the performance with computers," Mr. Serkis said.
What Gollum portrays is the inner struggle, one depicted in Tolkien's novels but emphasized dramatically in director Peter Jackson's movie. Simultaneously repulsive and pitiable, Gollum is always talking to himself-and arguing with himself-in a schizophrenic way. There is his former self, Smeagol, who was once something close to a good-natured Hobbit. Then there is the self that addiction to the Ring has turned into a treacherous monster.
Sometimes Smeagol is dominant-saving Frodo's life, guiding Frodo and Sam where they need to go. Sometimes the Ring-addict is dominant, plotting betrayals and murders.
It's even more disturbing to see Frodo become more and more like Gollum. Sauron's ring, which embodies the power of evil, weighs heavier and heavier, Frodo becomes more and more obsessed with it, and even as Frodo struggles to destroy it, it remains a temptation for everyone.
The theme of this movie is hope, that virtue called for when things are at their worst. The Two Towers has a gloomy tone. The companions who constituted the Fellowship of the Ring have split into three plot lines. Frodo and Sam are with Gollum, Merry and Pippin are with the Ents, and Aragorn-with Legolas and a comic-relief Gimli-are off to war. None expects success, but all, in the face of overwhelming odds, do their duty. As in the Germanic epics that Tolkien loved, the prospect of certain doom intensifies the heroism.
But the movie's most prominent Christian symbol is resurrection. Gandalf, the primary Christ-figure, who sacrificed his life for the others in the first movie, is raised from the dead. In his resurrection body he is more powerful than ever. King Theoden has been reduced by his false counselor Wormtongue into a senile, impotent, easily manipulated monarch. The new Gandalf the White casts out what is really the spirit of Saruman and brings the king to new life. As for Saruman's violations of life and nature, the forces of nature and life have their revenge.
All of which prepares the characters and their audience for next year's climactic assault on the next tower, that of Sauron himself. Next Christmas, when the final episode will be released, the title should also have a special resonance, both for the meaning of the season and for alluding to the ground of all hope: The Return of the King.