Unless you're a "Lord of the Rings" superfan, you'd better brush up on "Fellowship of the Ring" before seeing the sequel "The Two Towers," because director Peter Jackson just jumps right in to the middle of the story without much in the way of introductions or explanations.
He assumes you know who Hobbits Merry and Pippin are and why they've been abducted by the Uruk-Hai, the beastly minions of unseen supernatural villain Sauron (you know all about them, right?). He assumes you recall where "Fellowship" left off with human warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and why they're trying to rescue Merry and Pippin.
He also assumes you know that hero Hobbits Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Austin) are still trying to reach the kingdom of Mordor, where they are to cast the dangerously omnipotent Ring into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom, thus keeping it out of the hands Sauron, who would use its dark psychic powers to lay waste to the world.
That last assumption is a pretty safe bet, since "Fellowship of the Ring" left its audience dangling with a memorably frustrating tease of a non-ending as these two stood on a precipice overlooking Mordor. But if you don't know the minutiae of the "Rings" story so far, you don't stand a chance of keeping up with the trilogy's second three-hour installment -- which is a significant failure on the part of writer-director Peter Jackson.
But if you watch "The Two Towers" from the bigger-picture point-of-view -- imagining how it will play as a middle chapter once all three films are collected in a DVD box set -- it is one spectacular (if incomplete) epic, replete with dangerous adventure, concealed duplicity, battles of incredible scale and scope, and groundbreaking special effects.
In fact, the film's most captivating presence is a seamlessly integrated, 99-percent life-like CGI creation named Gollum. A haggard, hollow eyed, feral demon-imp who was once driven mad under the spell of the Ring, he was seen briefly in "Fellowship," hunched over in a cave, hissing "My preciousssss!" after losing the Ring. But here he is a fully realized character who is fighting a schizophrenic battle against his own Ring-coveting dark side while he guides Frodo and Sam through the hellspawn of Mordor.
With his slithery movements and timid, raspy voice created on location by actor Andy Serkis -- who was then replaced in post-production by the pasty, scrawny, unearthly creature we see in the film -- Gollum's physical interactions with the actors, his whispy few tendrils of hair, and his skin that flexes and wrinkles as he snakes over rocks on all fours are absolutely unprecedented in their astonishing realism.
The film's other incredible wow is the Battle of Helms Deep, a mammoth showdown between the last free human kingdom of Middle Earth and an invading army of Sauron's demonic Orcs. Thousands upon thousands of armored beasts rain down on the walls of the humans' cliff-built fortress in a combat scene so vast that at times it gets away from Jackson, who also has to keep track of Aragorn, Legolas and cantankerous Dwarf warrior Gimli (Jon Rhys-Davies) within the fray.
Being as sweeping as it is, "The Two Towers" inevitably has other minor structural problems as well. Seemingly important characters disappear for long periods (where's the human king's beautiful, sword-slinging daughter during the Helms Deep fight?). Screen time spent in the idyllic Elf enclave of Rivendell exists only to relay that the elves are leaving, without adequately explaining why. And once they escape the Uruk-Hai, Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) spend literally the entire movie riding on the shoulders of a walking, talking tree in front of the movie's only bad special effect -- an unconvincing green-screened forest backdrop.
But even with its sometimes considerable flaws and its sometimes hard-to-follow plot, this film is every bit as transporting, tremendous and mythologically enchanted as its predecessor -- which comes as no surprise since all three films (including next December's finale "Return of the King") were shot simultaneously as one enormous undertaking begun in 1999.
The settings of Middle Earth that Jackson creates from New Zealand locations are just as breathtaking (even if he is too enamored of aerial shots that show characters running along magnificent mountaintops). The effects used to make the diminutive Hobbits and dwarves look smaller than their human and Elfin counterparts are so seamless you forget about them until, say, a Hobbit runs underneath a horse. The performances are uniformly strong, especially Wood's portrayal of ingenuous Frodo as he begins to succumb to the Ring's destructive influence. The dialogue is eloquent and antediluvian without seeming false or stuffy.
Ultimately, however, the fact that "The Two Towers" has no beginning and another largely unresolved end (although it presents a more complete story arch than "Fellowship" did) means it simply cannot and does not stand on its own.
When the trilogy is complete, the entire nine-hour package may be one of the most spectacularly realized motion pictures in history -- an epic visionary fantasy in complete, complimentary harmony because all three films were shot together as the single story. But until they're reunited in that single package, the first two open-ended chapters will continue to be hexed by the fact that they were released separately but treated as part of a larger whole.
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Peter Jackson
Also starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, Andy Serkis, Bernard Hill, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Karl Urban, Joel Tobeck, Sala Baker