The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Platinum Series Special Extended DVD Edition

Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Sean Bean. Directed by Peter Jackson. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). 4 discs. Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround, DTS ES 6.1 Surround, Stereo Surround (English). 223 minutes. 2002. New Line Home Entertainment N6504. PG-13. $39.99.

Picture ****
Sound ****
Film ***1/2

As you read this, The Return of the King, the third and final installment of the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, has already opened in theaters. We'll all know by then if director Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's classic fantasy epic of Middle Earth has a finale worthy of the exceptional first two films. Considering that the three were all produced together, and that the post-production creative team remained largely intact throughout, it's hard to imagine any other result.

In this, the middle episode of the saga, the Fellowship of the first film has split into three bands. Hobbits Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee continue their journey to Mount Doom, where Frodo intends to destroy the Ring, an evil device that can give its bearer supreme power. Along the way, Frodo must elude others who would steal the Ring, navigate punishing obstacles while led by an untrustworthy guide, and fight the Ring's growing power over him. Meanwhile, two other hobbits, Merry and Pippin, have been captured by the minions of the evil wizard, Saruman. And the rest of the Fellowship—the human Aragorn, the elf Legolas, and the dwarf Gimli—fight to defend one of the last remaining human bastions in Middle Earth, a fight that climaxes in a huge battle that is apparently only a foretaste of the conflicts to come in the final film.

For this Special Extended Edition, more than 43 minutes have been added to the theatrical version (the latter reviewed in SGHT in November 2003). I loved the extended cut of the first film, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; it added to the already formidable depth and drama of that work. I'm not so certain about the additions made to this episode, which is now 3 hours, 43 minutes long. Some of the new scenes work, particularly the added background on Gondor and the relationship of Boromir to his brother, Faramir. But many of the changes feel like padding that slows the pace, including expansions of both the Ent scenes and the battle for Helm's Deep. Most troubling is new material near the end, following the battle, that not only slows things down but, worse, adds lame humor just when the mood is building to the original cut's strong, emotional finish. More is not always better.

There's another reason that it's a shame that I largely prefer the original cut: as expected (based on our experience with The Fellowship of the Ring), the video on this extended release of The Two Towers, spread out over two DVDs (allowing for a higher bit rate), is noticeably better than on the standard version, released last summer. The latter was a little soft, but here the images are crisply detailed, with only the slightest hint of edge enhancement in a few scenes. I hope that when they eventually release the Ultimate Gold-Pressed Latinum Ring, a 15-disc, HD-DVD boxed set of the complete saga (no, it hasn't been announced yet, but is anyone willing to bet against it?), that they give us seamless branching, as was done with the Alien Quadrilogy set, also reviewed in this issue. Then we can choose to view either the theatrical versions or the extended cuts of each film—and perhaps even custom-build our own extended cuts by selecting which added scenes we want to include and which we want left out!

The sound is as exceptional as it was in the original DVD release, with powerful though well-controlled bass, active surrounds, and a fine balance of dialog, effects, and music. My only quibble is that when things get really loud, the top end of the Dolby Digital track can sound a little bright (some sort of cinema equalization helps here). I listened to the DD track in 5.1-channel mode (EX is also available, for 6.1- or 7.1-channel replay). There's also a DTS ES 6.1 soundtrack, which is a little less bright and better balanced overall.

I don't believe anyone will buy this set solely for the extra features, but if they do, they won't be disappointed—with one exception. There are four full-length commentary tracks on the film discs, and the same sort of extensive extras that made the four-disc The Fellowship of the Ring set a must-have. Thirteen documentaries describe the making of the film in as much detail as anyone could hope for. There are also image galleries with commentaries (a total of 1800 images on the two discs), DVD-ROM features, and much more. None of the extras here are duplicated in the special-features section of the two-disc theatrical version, which leads to one significant omission: the shorter set includes trailers (including a preview of the final film), the longer set none. Forcing the buyer to buy both editions to get the trailers—which are popular with collectors—and the extended cut's additional extras may be smart marketing, but it's bad public relations.

While I have reservations about the effectiveness of some of the added scenes, I have none at all about The Two Towers itself, the technical quality of the video and sound on these DVDs, or the quality of the special features. This exceptional release does justice to the film I consider to be the best of 2002.