The Lord Of The Rings : The Two Towers

Well, its been a long wait in cinematic terms, but Peter Jackson has been kinder than the likes of George Lucas (we have to wait till 2005 for Star Wars : Episode 3) but not as kind as the Wachowski brothers (directors of The Matrix, who are being extremely generous in giving us not one but two Matrix films in 2003; The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions). Finally the second part of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is upon us.

For those not familiar with the first film (shame on you!), we rejoin the now scattered Fellowship as they go their separate ways. The two young Hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), having been carried away by the Uruk-hai at the end of the first film are still in captivity with their friends, the ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) in hot pursuit. Hobbits, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee (Sean Astin), also continue on the path to Mordor to destroy the Ring of Doom followed closely by the Rings' former keeper, the tormented creature Gollum (digitally created but also 'acted' by Andy Serkis).

Aragon, Legolas and Gimli, during their pursuit, run into the beginnings of a full-fledged war over Middle Earth. The malevolent wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), commander and creator of the Uruk-hai orcs, has finally revealed his full alliance with the dark lord Sauron, the once-omnipotent forger of the ring of power. Saruman has created a huge army of 10,000 strong Uruk-hai warriors, with the intent of taking the lands of Rohan. Théoden, King of Rohan (Bernard Hill) is determined to keep his people alive and orders a retreat into Helms Deep, an ancient fortress barricade that has served as a refuge for the people of his lands for hundreds of years.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam, lost in the lands around Mordor, manage to capture Gollum and force him to guide them to the gates of Barad-dúr, the very heart of Mount Doom itself. Gollum, poisoned by the Ring, is a twisted and pitiful creature who's split personalities constantly argue, forcing him to question whether to help the hobbits or to destroy them in hopes of regaining the Ring for himself again.

In the interim, Pippin and Merry manage to befriend Treebeard (CGI character voiced by John Rhys-Davies) leader of an ancient race of tree creatures called the Ents, who agrees to protect them in the forest.

However, things are not so bright at Helms Deep; 10,000 Uruk-hai warriors march, like a black snake across the landscape towards the cowering refugees of Rohan and their few hundred protectors holed up inside of Helms Deep. Hopelessly out numbered and out gunned, Aragon, Legolas and Gimli join with King Théoden to try and stand against the dark forces of Saruman, for if they fail, the time of man will truly be at an end.

Frodo, too, is in danger, as the Ring tightens a hold upon him, draining his energy and his will to complete his mission. He is, much like Gollum before him, beginning to obsess over the cursed bauble, constantly and unconsciously stroking it with his fingers, slowly succumbing to its lure. With only Sam to keep him focused, can the young Hobbit continue his quest? And can the men at Helms Deep face off against the might of the evil that marches against them?

The original film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was spectacular, but this takes everything one stage further. Directed by Peter Jackson, the cast have managed to keep up the energy of the first film (although seeing that all the three films in the trilogy were shot back-to-back, that's not surprising). Performances are great again, with Sir Ian McKellen (returning as Gandalf The White this time round) and Viggo Mortensen as Aragon being excellent as they were in the first film. This time they have a challenger for the top acting award - and despite excellent performances from everyone ranging from Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies (more of a comedic turn this time round) and the superb Elijah Wood to the new faces of Bernard Hill and Brad Dourif (as Wormtongue) the challenge comes from no other than Andy Serkis.

Serkis plays Gollum; the actor not only voiced the pitiful creature but also acted all the movements onset and was digitally replaced with the final Gollum creature using computer-generated imagery. So even though there isn't a single shot of Serkis himself, he has managed to bring to life, albeit with the help of Peter Jackson's own special effects company WETA, a character so lifelike that one cannot help but be impressed by it. This isn't some Jar Jar Binks goofy creation, this is a completely dramatic performance with emotions that are very visible. Peter Jackson knew from the very start that the success of the trilogy would weigh heavily with whether or not Gollum could be convincing, much like George Lucas knew that the success of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones would be measured by how believable the CGI Yoda (especially in the final reel) would be. He can rest assured that a character so central to the whole epic series is also so convincing that at time you forget that it doesn't really exist. Only in some of the medium shots, the facade slips a little, but in the close-ups he's totally mesmerising, complete with wrinkles, expressive eyes and blotched skin. With his devious, psychopathic personalities constantly arguing for and against murderous intent towards his companions and schizophrenic internal dialogues between his good and evil personalities, Gollum is a character that make you fear him one second and then feel nothing but pity for in the next. Sheer brilliance.

Also WETA workshop has breathed life into such amazing creations like Treebeard, a walking, talking tree - which sounds like its a recipe for disaster, but manages to convince nevertheless (although his companions didn't all the time - some looked like rejects from The Never Ending Story or Labyrinth at time). Added to this are Oliphaunts (huge four-tusked elephants used by Uruk-hai) to a boar-like creatures ridden by Orcs to dragons that put the beasts in The Reign of Fire to shame. Even the Balrog makes another amazing appearance during Gandalf's account of his fall in the Mines of Moria. Again, the CGI creations are seamlessly blended into the live action with complete authenticity; every part of the screen is filled, from sweeping landscapes to thousands of Orcs swarming the walls of Helms Deep.

Speaking of Helms Deep, it is one of the best full on battles seen, with thousands of characters onscreen at the same time - and bearing in mind that the battle last 45 minutes on film - the magnitude is spectacular, bloodthirsty and totally mesmerising. With great use of sound and zooming camera angles, Peter Jackson puts the audience right into the middle of the action and never lets up, with arrows, snarling monsters and huge weapons, the final results are very impressive.

There are some bad points; the main one being that the first two thirds are fairly slow and introduce a lot of new characters which might make it hard going for the younger audience. The pace is slow for two reasons; bringing the full impact of the battle at Helms Deep to a more suspenseful anticipation and secondly switching between the main parties (Frodo/Sam/Gollum to Merry/Pippin to Aragon/Legolas/Gimli and to Gandalf) can be a little disorientating. However, having said that, there are enough things going on during this time to keep things moving along and once submerged into the film its seems a lot shorter than the roughly three hours running time. Mind, even with the three hour running time there are some parts that seemed rushed, especially the battle at the base of Isengard, Saruman's tower, which seemed all to short, perhaps its being saved for the final film.

So, with the second film of Tolkiens Trilogy completed and only one more to go, Peter Jackson has raised the standards again. With The Return of the King due out in twelve months time, there is no rest for the director. Jackson has always maintained that it is not a trilogy but a nine hour film and he has invested so much of himself into the films. The visually breathtaking, exciting and dramatic turn of The Two Towers stands as a testament to him as a director and as a Tolkien fan. Now we just have to wait another twelve agonising months for The Return of the King.

Score 10/10 - even better than the first