"Thrilling as fantasy and as a film"
Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. J.R.R. Tolkien (novel), Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, Jackson; feat. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monaghan, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom (PG-13)

But worried fans will be happy to see that in one area, the modifications aren't as extreme as the film's ad campaign promises. Aragorn, the human heir of kings who is pledged to Arwen (the Elvish heir of Aerosmith) does not quite get involved in a romantic triangle with another human. He may be visibly attracted to Éowyn, and may doubt his fate with Arwen, but the two humans are hardly running off behind the bushes to pledge their love.

Jackson is interested in romance here, but not the amorous kind. He punctuates this second chapter with slow-motion shots of galloping white horses, soldiers heading to battle, and (in one of the film's defining images) a haggard Aragorn silhouetted by the sun as he throws open mighty wooden doors. These stylistic flourishes are in contrast to Jackson's use of zoom lenses in the first film: There, he was kicking off the adventure with a sense of immediacy, throwing you into the action; here, he lingers on iconic images, encouraging us to get lost in them. It is one of the smart ways in which Jackson, who guaranteed a certain consistency by shooting all three films together, has differentiated this chapter from the last.

Another key difference, of course, is the presence of Gollum, the skeletal pest who follows the Ring wherever Frodo carries it. Jackson's digital effects team has taken CGI character animation a step forward: Though there are some shots in which he is less than believable, there are others in which Gollum looks absolutely perfect, like a real, flesh-and-blood-and-pitifully-large-eyed creature pulled from the bowels of the Misty Mountains. Late in the tale, as he argues with himself about how to handle the hobbits, Gollum gives the movie some of its most genuinely creepy moments.

Those anxious scenes, and the battles that are at the heart of the story, are balanced by more comic relief than the first film contained. Gimli may in fact be used as the butt of a joke one too many times, but this gives Jackson a chance to emphasize the dwarf's bond with Legolas, the impossibly cool elf. Pippin and Merry, busy fumbling out of the hands of orcs and into talking tree trunks, combine humor and danger in a more seamless way. (Speaking of talking trees, the one who gets the most screen time here is completely charming, a fairy-tale convention brought to life by a director who has always had an affinity for puppets and the like.)

Jackson's effectiveness on the battlefield is a given, after the spectacular action sequences in Fellowship; suffice to say that he does justice to the legendary Battle of Helms Deep. Equally impressive is the director's knack for small things, like the perfectly fluid edit of a scene in which Gandalf (You have seen the preview, right? He didn't quite die.) strikes a mighty blow against Saruman, who is doing battle from miles away. Jackson has brought a seriousness about moviemaking to this trilogy that's rarely seen in fantasy films, which usually are satisfied if they manage to tell an interesting story with some neato special effects.

In the end, The Two Towers is cinema's most expensive, most effective "coming attractions" trailer ever: The audience leaves with a palpable hunger for the story's conclusion. That chapter, The Return of the King, is the director's favorite — and in this case, it is not a complaint to say that Two Towers leaves you wanting much more.

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