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Lord of the Rings:

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers asks a vital question: Who can stand against the power of Sauron and Saruman at the junction of the Two Towers? OK, maybe it’s not so vital—at least not to the confused moviegoer who, not having thought overoften of LOTR’s first installment over the past year (save for some sighs in the direction of Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen), is having such futuro-medieval fantasy-world pomp hurled at her in an apparently unending barrage. But even though director/ madman Peter Jackson plunges viewers into his diffuse narrative with only a quick last-season-on-LOTR flashback, the movie soon begins to pile itself together like that desktop diamond-shaped-magnets thingy pulling into a pyramid, and by the time all parties arrive more or less promptly for the battle of Helm’s Deep, the story makes miraculous, thrilling, Saturday-afternoon sense.

As you may recall, at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, our heroes, now down to seven, have been separated. Two Towers picks up Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his stalwart pal Sam (Sean Astin) as they trek through icy mountains toward Mount Doom, where they are to toss the filthy Ring of Power once and for all. Lostest these Hobbitses are, a fact sniffed out by the ring-coveting Gollum, the skittering, cavern-dwelling, language-mangling creature of slime and darkness whom Frodo and Sam conscript as an indentured guide.

Entirely envisioned via computer and sibilantly voiced by Andy Serkis, Gollum is also the most fully realized character in the film. Emaciated and pop-eyed, looking not unlike a very old Chinese man, he is at first a highly disconcerting presence—Jackson has a way of prompting you to ask if he’s kidding. But Gollum’s tangle of motives—his split personality, his hinted-at history as what Frodo calls “something like us,” his exaggerated obsequiousness indicating a dangerous contempt for his Hobbity captors—makes him complex and riveting. The human actors are a little at a loss interacting with him, but the CGI Gollum is fully engaged, particularly in the play of pain and regret that courses over his face when Frodo hits him with his original name, Smeagal. (Aha! you think, Gollum’s big secret is that he’s Jewish!)

Jackson feels little compunction about cutting away to other stories—after all, he’s got almost three hours to fill, and everything will all wash out in good time. The other two Hobbit allies, Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), are captured but escape into the forest, where they meet the Ents, ancient talking-tree shepherds also beautifully realized with digital technology. Meanwhile, Elfenkind archer Legolas (Bloom), dwarf axman Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and human warrior Aragorn (Mortensen) find perfidy afoot in the kingdom of Rohas, and before you can say “Alec Guinness,” the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is sprung back to life. The Magnificent Eight, though spread throughout Middle-earth, ride again. Elsewhere, the clone army—that is, the Uruk-hai, who probably should have been rinsed off soon after being hatched, in the last installment—march toward battle with our scrappy crew. At one point in the film they roll out a map, and it really is helpful.

Whether the movie is faithful to the book should be a moot point to all but robe-wearing, Elvish-speaking, Renaissance Faire-going geeks—it’s faithful to Jackson’s vision of this story and provides a more user-friendly good time than the ponderous, humorless boyzone of Tolkien’s novels. Jackson filmed all three installments of the trilogy at the same time, so the atmosphere and characters are consistent, even under the strain of increasingly turbulent events. Frodo’s lengthy exposure to the ring is becoming ever more perilous, and Wood’s marble eyes shoot fire when its power drives his character to bully and threaten poor, humble Sam. The quest matures Frodo at a preternatural pace: His passage through the Dead Marshes is a horrifying adventure (not for kiddies, the sight of these drowned souls), and he adapts to his knightly role with grace, waxing courtly of his trust in the untrustworthy Gollum. Particularly moving, though, is Aragorn’s gentle releasing of his Elven lover, Arwen (cow-faced Liv Tyler), as he prepares to accept his human limitations and the love of a nice mortal girl, the tough Rohan princess Eowyn (Miranda Otto). (As for Legolas, he’s so cute you could totally die.)

Jackson has always been an unusual director, his parallel passions for a great narrative and expressionist weirdness confusing audiences as long as he’s been making pictures. He always had his metier; he’s just found his subject. Any idiot with a light meter could have turned Tolkien’s drama into a pageant of magnificent costuming, shocking dentistry, and dust-kicking horses, but Jackson knows he’s not making Lawrence of Arabia here. His love for the unreal accepts Tolkien’s fantasy world so completely and compellingly that his images—the frostily desiccated Rohan king Theodan (Bernard Hill) letting slip power of his kingdom while under Saruman’s spell, the gorgeous Orientalism of the Mordor armies’ uniforms, the mossy greenery of the Ents’ forest set in majestic motion—cannot help but have the intended transportive effect.

If Tolkien’s special talent was assembling bits of historical realities in the service of the fabulous, Jackson’s is a rarer and more precious one: making fantasy so vivid and compelling that for a couple of hours, real life melts away into a memory. CP