Anticipation can be a dangerous thing. It can play tricks with your mind, turning a few trailer-bled images and enthusiastic cast and crew quotes into an "unmissable epic masterpiece of epic proportions". Or whatever. For The Two Towers there's been 12 long months of such expectation, and they came after we'd already been blown away by the first part of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptation, The Fellowship Of The Ring.
So it was with great caution that Total Film approached Part Two. We identified the niggles (a few unnecessary, soft-focus elf episodes, some too-gently-inclined character arcs) and viewed the `revolutionary' CG developments in the harshest light possible. But did that stop us from becoming swept up in the grandeur of Jackson's vision and the high drama of Tolkien's tale? The answer is a resounding, joyous NO.
The Two Towers pitches Middle-earth into all-out war as Aragorn and the reborn Gandalf The White help defend the kingdom of Rohan against Saruman's orc army. Frodo and Sam continue towards Mordor to destroy the One Ring, joined by creepy former Ringbearer Gollum, while Merry and Pippin flee their Uruk-hai captors to encounter the arboreous Treebeard.
With the Fellowship split and the quest narrative of the first movie largely abandoned, Towers is a far more adult affair than its predecessor (so beware if you want to take any kiddies). But the cast more than meet the challenge. Viggo Mortensen deftly handles Aragorn's transition to central hero, exuding all the charisma you'd expect of a Leader Of Men. Elijah Wood, meanwhile, has a tougher job because Frodo's struggle is internal. He succeeds, effectively portraying someone whose sanity is being whittled away. However, the most impressive performance has to be from Gollum - and we're not just talking Andy Serkis' superbly strangulated vocalisation.
Yes, Gollum's CG origins are obvious - there's no getting away from the unnaturally pristine pixels. But the character design and motion-capture-aided animation are groundbreaking, with every tic and facial expression never less than disbelief-suspendingly perfect. In particular, the scene in which the wretch's venomous `Gollum' and pitiful `Sméagol' personalities wrestle for supremacy stands out as the film's finest.
Then there's the much-vaunted Helm's Deep episode, the climactic battle scene in which a few hundred men make their last stand against 10,000 Uruk-hai. Taking his lead from the likes of Zulu, Braveheart and Henry V, Jackson delivers one of cinema's most thrilling war sequences, keeping the audience on a sword's edge throughout, while making well-judged cutaways to the other storylines. It may take a while to get to this immense clash but, boy, is it worth the wait. Much like the movie itself, really.