'Two Towers' tosses us into dark, lively journey

Neither here nor there, neither beginning nor end — the middle spot in a trilogy is a problematic one.

But Peter Jackson, in the second installment of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, has confounded expectations and crafted a film that's both livelier and darker than the first one.

Freed from the burden of setting up a story, Jackson kicks off "The Two Towers" with no introduction or recap from "The Fellowship of the Ring" (those expecting an endless "Star Wars"-style crawl will be disappointed), tossing us into the story like — well, like a dwarf tossed into battle, emerging three hours later with our chain mail dented but our spirits high.

The film is a roundabout, unfinished journey, by necessity; but in between its beginning and not-quite-an-end, it's an often-breathtaking example of that movie rarity: big-budget spectacle not just for the sake of spectacle, but as art.

Jackson's careful adaptation of Tolkien's middle book from Middle-earth (though the ending's been tweaked a bit), in which the splintered forces of the Fellowship gather their strength for the War of the Ring in the dark kingdom of Mordor, should keep fans happy while building anticipation for next year's final installment. But even those new to Tolkien may be captivated. (Note to the uninitiated: a little reading goes a long way. Some book-to-movie adaptations are designed to stand alone; Jackson's trilogy, for better or worse, isn't one of them.)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"

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with Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto. Directed by Peter Jackson, from a screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. 179 minutes. Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and scary images. Advance screenings at midnight tonight; opens tomorrow.
Using every inch of his canvas, Jackson gives us the massive sweep of battle upon battle; of horseback travelers racing under an endless sky; of dreamlike bogs with grasses seemingly floating on the murky water. The blue-green hues that permeated "Fellowship of the Ring" have become an elegant trademark, and (except for the mountainscape at the start of the film, which resembles the Paramount logo), "The Two Towers" is gorgeous to behold.

And while nobody could call its CGI-generated villain Gollum gorgeous (he looks vaguely like a naked, balding version of the diabolical doll Chucky), he comes close to stealing the movie. Cooing "my precious" to the ring, in a voice seemingly issuing from a near-strangled throat, he's a marvelously fluid, lifelike creature — and his tormented conversations with his doppelganger self are chilling. (Andy Serkis, who voices Gollum, deserves much credit — and an endless supply of soothing lozenges.)

Also splendid are the Ents, the massive tree-herds of Middle-earth, with their layered, craggy bark faces, mossy beards and eyes like drops of sap. Scooping up the hobbits in their branches and striding majestically forward, they're massive, stolid guardians. "We never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say," says one, slowly. (You can imagine Jackson, master of the three-hour movie, taking particular pleasure in that line.)

Among the humans, Viggo Mortensen as the warrior Aragorn steps to the forefront, a brooding matinee idol with flowing hair and steadfast gaze. Ian McKellen as the resurrected wizard Gandalf brings some welcome humor to the screen (watch his deadpan little wink on the line "You would not part an old man from his walking stick?"). A reed-slim Miranda Otto elegantly swoops her sword as Eowyn, Lady of Rohan — in Tolkien's mostly male enclave, she's a welcome sight. (Best not to dwell on the film's obligatory but lifeless stab at romance — Liv Tyler's magic elf kiss to Aragorn looks like a throwaway Hallmark card.)

And Elijah Wood and Sean Astin again bring sincerity and sweetness to Frodo and Sam. Near the end, they talk about stories, beautifully setting up both anticipation and dread for what comes next. Some tales, we learn, are "full of darkness and danger, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.