Holiday Movie Preview: The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

STARRING: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis (voice of Gollum) DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson

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Now where were we? Oh--right here! Like a parent reading his kids their favorite story, Peter Jackson begins the second enthrallment in his version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy just about where The Fellowship of the Ring left off. It's a literal cliff-hanger: the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) clinging to a precipice and falling--to his doom? And now, on with the story.

The Two Towers clarifies Jackson's vision that the end result will be not three films but a single majestic nine-hour artifact--one likely to become the supreme film adventure of our time. Towers, while not quite so varied as Fellowship in its moods and settings, has a grave gusto that energizes every moment.

A pall hangs over the realm of Rohan, where King Theoden (Bernard Hill) has been bewitched by the evil Saruman (Christopher Lee). Heroic Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bands with a revived Gandalf to defend Rohan against Saruman's soldier-clones. But the film's true battle is between Frodo the Hobbit (Elijah Wood) and the great Ring in his care. Frodo can feel its power to sap and seduce. He can see it too in Gollum, a creepy creature who has been corrupted by having once possessed the Ring. Gollum's cringing present could be the Hobbit's future.

Though the crepe of impending war hangs over Towers, the film is vivid with melodrama, conflicted love and potent new characters. Treebeard, a tall sylvan sage reluctantly drawn into the conflict, has the stately, smiling gravity of George Bernard Shaw. And the digitized Gollum is wonderfully complex, a damned creature slipping in and out of his own private hell. At first a whiny Jar Jar Binks as he might be played by Klaus Kinski, Gollum soon reveals a complex pathos and a facility of expression no human actor could match. He is another example of Jackson's pursuit of a tone both entertaining and serious. No smirking allowed.

Tolkien, who wrote much of the trilogy during World War II, denied that his tale was analogous to that great battle. Believe who will. But it is hard to miss connections with a new struggle. The Fellowship can be seen as Western democracies now besieged by the lunatic faction of Islamic fundamentalism. (Saruman, as played by the tall, lean, bearded Lee, looks eerily like Osama bin Laden.) The enemy's power seems overwhelming, untouchable; its ruthlessness makes strong nations shiver. "So much death," King Theoden says. "What can men do against such reckless hate?" Aragorn replies, "Ride out to meet them."

The Two Towers is a call not for pre-emptive action, but to find the will and cunning to defeat an insidious foe. It is also, mainly, a thrilling work of film craft. --R.C.