Just got back from seeing Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Oh my lord.

At this point, if Peter Jackson doesn’t get some sort of special achievement Oscar after Return of the King is released, I’ll be quite surprised and dissapointed. Fellowship of the Ring was an excellent film, and a masterful job of adapting what was for years considered an “unfilmable” literary work to the screen — but the possibility was there that that could have been a fluke. Here, Jackson had the task of following up the blockbuster success of LotR:FotR with a “middle movie” that had neither a definite beginning nor end to its story. While because of that LotR:TTT admittedly cannot stand entirely on its own as a single entity (and I would hate to be someone in the unenviable position of attempting to watch LotR:TTT without having first watched LotR:FotR), as the second chapter in an epic saga, it is far and away an absolutely incredible achievement.

More thoughts follow — not entirely spoiler-free, though, click through at your own risk….

Opening with a quick flashback to Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria from midway through LotR:FotR, Jackson spares no time attempting to fill his audience in on the events of the first film, instead following Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the Balrog as they fall, battling each other into the depths of the earth. Soon we cut to Frodo (Elijah Wood) waking from his dream of Gandalf’s fate, and he and Sam (Sean Astin) continue on their journey towards Mordor. For the rest of the film, the three parts of the broken fellowship are followed on their respective journeys — Frodo and Sam towards Mordor; Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) first in the clutches of the Uruk-Hai and later finding the Ents of Fangor Forest; and the trio of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) first tracking Merry and Pippin, then joining forces with the men of Rohan to defend Helms Deep from the forces of Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) army. Even cutting from one storyline to the other, following each of the seperate storylines is well presented, and it’s surprisingly easy to track on what is happening without getting confused.

While the first film was very much primarily Frodo and Sam’s story, the bulk of LotR:TTT centers around Aragorn and his companions. Tracking the abducted Merry and Pippin up to Fangorn Forest, they soon meet with the resurrected Gandalf (now Gandalf the White), and join him in assisting the men of Rohan in defending themselves against the seemingly unsurmountable might of Saruman and his 10,000 strong army of Orcs. Dominating the final third of the film, the assault upon Helms Deep is truly one of the most stunning epic battles I’ve yet seen captured on screen. Wave upon wave of Orcs crash against the battlements, raising their ladders against the walls and constantly threatening to swarm over them. The shields covering a serpentine collum of attackers crossing a bridge ripple as if they were truly the scales of a snake slithering towards the gate of the keep, then part to reveal a massive battering ram as it slams into the doors. After a tremendous explosion shatters the outer wall of the fortifications, chunks of masonry the size of small cars fall from the sky, shaking the ground with their impact, crushing Orc and Human alike as they rain down. Absolutely mind blowing to watch.

Merry and Pippin get the shortest shrift in this film. After escaping their Uruk-Hai captors and encountering Treebeard, most of their scenes boil down to riding on Treebeard’s shoulders as he gathers the other Ents of the forest to discuss whether or not they should involve themselves in the coming war. While the Ents are incredible to watch and wonderfully realised, these scenes sometimes seem the most stilted in the movie. While Jackson couldn’t just let Merry and Pippin disappear for the majority of the film, they really don’t have much to do at this stage in the game. Even their role as the jesters of the first film has been given over to Gimli for this installment, and it often feels like we’re cutting over to them just to both remind us that they’re still around and to give is a momentary breather from the assaults taking place elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam continue on their trek towards Mordor to attempt to destroy the Ring, now accompanied by Gollum. Gollum is in many ways truly the outstanding star of LotR:TTT. While visually he is the single most amazingly believeable pure CGI to have been created — for the first time, it’s actually possible to forget that you’re watching an entirely digital creation, and merely accept him as another character in the film — it is the voice and physical acting of Andy Serkis (whose every movement and facial expression was captured and used in the animation of the creature) that truly brings Gollum to life. In what is already one of the most talked about sequences of the film, Gollum has a long debate with his kinder, more obsequeous alter-ego Sméagol that is alternately both disturbing and heart rending to watch as he battles with himself as to whether to kill the Hobbits in their sleep and steal his “Precious” back, or to accept Frodo’s kindness and help them in their quest. Truly believeable and incredible to watch, Gollum alone (in the guise of Andy Serkis and the animation team that brough him to life) deserves some sort of award.

Eventually drawing all three storylines to a surprisingly satisfying stopping point — though, admittedly, hardly a conclusion — we are left knowing that it is going to be a long, long wait through the next year until LotR:RotK is released.