The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The new Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, is darker and more fight-filled than The Fellowship of the Ring, and more vauntingly scary, too. It doesn't even begin with a recap of what came before: If you're not already a Tolkien true believer, director Peter Jackson isn't about to extend a helping hand. Jackson is essentially a horror maestro -- he began his career in New Zealand making zombie movies like Dead Alive that were stupendously funny-icky -- and he goes even further into gore this time around. When one of the scary-faced Uruk-hai (or was it an orc?) growls that humans look tasty, you look at the trembling hobbit in his sight lines and think to yourself, Well, come to think of it, they do. Still, Jackson has a genuine epic gift: Few filmmakers have ever given gross-outs such resplendence.

There have been a number of drop-adds in the cast since The Fellowship of the Ring. Elijah Wood's Frodo doesn't have major screen time this go-round, but thankfully, there's more of Viggo Mortensen's staunch Aragorn and John Rhys-Davies's hairball-ish dwarf Gimli, who, in the film's astounding climactic battle scene at the Rohan fortress Helm's Deep, is successfully tossed into a frothing phalanx of those pesky Uruks. Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey has been resurrected as Gandalf the White, a distinct sartorial improvement. Liv Tyler's elf Arwen is briefly back for another soft-focus reckoning with Aragorn (gauzy lyricism is not Jackson's forte), and her Elvish, in addition to sounding once again like pidgin Finnish, now appears to carry traces of Yiddish and Apache, too.

I was glad to see Brad Dourif turn up as a sinister court adviser aptly named Wormtongue; not many actors can make their grinning skulls protrude so distinctively through their own thin flesh. There's also a marvelous new addition called Treebeard, a walking, talking tree, who is the oldest living entity in Middle-Earth. Best is the near-naked, strangly voiced Gollum, once a Ringbearer, who promises to guide Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) to the Black Gates of Mordor. An actor named Andy Serkis plays Gollum, whose movements have been translated digitally -- the result is easily the best digital creature ever put on film. This second installment in the trilogy ends with Gandalf intoning that the battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin. I'm pumped. — Peter Rainer

Oscar Buzz
Widely considered better than the first installment (which earned thirteen nominations and four wins), New Line's The Two Towers has mass appeal and gorgeous grand-scale filmmaking (fantasy landscapes, heroic battles, spectacular visual effects). The performances are stronger than the original's, especially those of Viggo Mortensen and the computer-enhanced Andy Serkis. Plus: Post-9/11, there's a resonance to the movie's mythic war between good and evil. — Anne Thompson

Spotlight: Ring of Fire

“We’re in a dark time right now,” says Viggo Mortensen, star of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the centerpiece in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien films. After eighteen months in New Zealand, the 44-year-old New Yorker seems wary about being home, and warier of war talk. “I may regret saying this, but what’s going on is more important than a film.” That Mortensen, an accomplished character actor and published poet and photographer, is the romantic lead in these blockbusters seems unlikely—his role will expand in Jackson’s third film, where he plays the title character in The Return of the King—but his intensity brings plenty to the film. “I wasn’t sure as an actor I could do this,” he says, although once in New Zealand, Mortensen read Tolkien’s canon, wore his costume off-set, and read up on Celtic myths. “I learned about the symbolic elements—the rituals and gestures that have a deeper meaning than what you see onscreen. I hate walking away from anything feeling like I didn’t do my best.

Opens December 18
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