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The first Star Wars trilogy had the greatest impact on the movies in a generation. Whether Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies will have the same impact remains to be seen, but The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers at least set a new standard by which big-budget adventures will be judged.

Three Different Directions

Aragorn leads the humans against Sauron's dark armiesAs with The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers follows Tolkein’s book very closely. The film begins with the central characters traveling in different directions. Frodo and Sam head toward Mordor. Merry and Pippin are abducted by orcs, while Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas track them down.

Frodo and Sam discover that the dark, twisted figure of Gollum has been following them. They eventually confront him and win him over to their side, although Sam maintains a healthy suspicion of the ring’s previous owner. Together, they head across rocky hills and boggy marshes to darkest Mordor, realm of the dark lord Sauron.

Meanwhile, the three trackers encounter the Riders of Rohan, allies who have been exiled by a usurper. Their exile troubles Aragorn, and as soon as they can save the hobbits, he means to return to Rohan to assess the political situation.

Grim Outlooks

The Two Towers is darker than The Fellowship of the Ring. In the first film, wearing the ring opened Frodo to physical danger. In the second, mere physical danger is the least of Frodo’s worries as the ring begins to corrupt his very soul.

His friends, too, have a grim outlook. Though Rohan is ultimately saved from the usurper, its people will soon be under attack by Sauron’s army. They retreat to Helm’s Deep, a cave fortress cut into a mountainside. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli do all they can to help defend the keep.

Only Merry and Pippin seem to be well off. They encounter the Ents, a tree-like people who refuse to become involved in the affairs of men. The hobbits’ only task is to awaken these sleeping giants, to encourage them to join the fight.

The threads of these stories never come together, but Jackson ties them together thematically to create a sense of direction, fate, and momentum that will carry audiences through to next December, when the final film is released. (This momentum replaces Tolkein’s own cliffhanger ending that left readers hopefully scrawling”Frodo Lives” graffiti.)

Preciousss Computersss

The visual effects, while not seamless, are artful and outstanding. Two achievements in particular stand out: the character of Gollum and a giant battle scene that concludes the film.

Dobbie the House Elf, the computer generated character in the second Harry Potter movie, was the most convincing purely-digital character created to date. Jackson’s Gollum now holds that distinction.

Necessarily unhuman, Gollum is a slinking biped, like a cross between a man and a frog. Andy Serkis lent his voice and mannerisms to the computer-generated creature that became Gollum. Like Dobbie, Gollum’s CG face overemotes, perhaps to compensate for not being human. Nevertheless, the balance is right and his performance fits in with Frodo and Sam.

At the end of the movie, there is an almost hour-long battle between Sauron’s dark armies and the defenders of Helm’s Deep. Ten thousand troops — orcs and evil men — lay siege to the rocky fortress under a pitch-black sky. Again, Jackson integrates live action performances with computer-generated creatures. Because of its visual scope, the sequence is unforgettably exciting.

First Impressions

Even though the visual effects are the most noticeable achievement, The Lord of the Rings’ greatest success is its serious tone of fantastic adventure.

The preview for the first film showed a band of heroes — elf, dwarf, hobbit and man — dourly trekking over a mountain pass. There were no recognizably talented faces and the landscape was touched up with bordering-on-cheesy special effects. It was possible, having seen only that glimpse, that the films would be too cheesy to take seriously.

Not only are they not embarrassing, but they are the grandest films to hit the screen in a decade or more. December 2003, here we come.