'The Two Towers': The Movie You're Not Gonna Miss, By Kurt Loder

NEW YORK — Some 1,200 dazed and excitedly chattering people emerged from the opulent Ziegfeld Theatre late Thursday night, looking as though they'd just wandered out of a world more wondrous by far than the urban snowscape that awaited them.

Which they had. It was the world premiere of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," the second installment of director Peter Jackson's monumental visualization of the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy classic. Most of the cast was on hand, sprinting down the plushly carpeted aisles for a pre-show group intro: bubbly Elijah Wood, minus his abundant Frodo curls (he'd recently shaved his head, for the hell of it); serenely beautiful Liv Tyler, who plays the Elf princess Arwen; Orlando Bloom, an object of heated enthusiasm among female "Rings" fans, now looking very little like Legolas, the sleek, blond Elf archer he plays in the film; Hugo Weaving (known to Keanu Reeves, in an alternate cinematic universe, as Agent Smith), returning as the Elf ruler Elrond; and cult icon Brad Dourif, who adds to a resume already plump with twisted characters ("Blue Velvet," "Dune") his quasi-Shakespearean portrayal of the oily and odious Wormtongue.

Following the screening ("The Two Towers" runs a dull-moment-free two hours and 50 minutes, five minutes longer than the inaugural epic in the series, last year's "The Fellowship of the Ring"), both cast and audience were transported by bus and limo to the New York Public Library, whose august marble halls had been elaborately tricked out with towering Gandalf statues, grisly Orc busts and the sort of over-the-top food-and-drink spread that's only possible when all considerations of economy and over-expenditure have been dismissed out of hand.

Here the buzz continued to build. Indeed, if most directors pray for even the tiniest bit of pre-release sizzle to attach to their latest works, "The Two Towers" is already awash in it. The film has been generously previewed for the press — a sure sign that all involved know they're backing a big winner — and the response has been rapturous. It's hard to imagine what other response would be possible.

It would be fatuous to call "The Two Towers" the best movie of the year. After all, in a year that saw the release of such singular films as "Minority Report," "Auto Focus" and the sublime Japanese anime feature "Spirited Away," what could such glib hyperbole really signify? However, it does seem safe to say that this is the best movie of its kind — and maybe one or two other kinds — ever.

"The Fellowship of the Ring," an amazement in itself, was nominated for 13 Academy Awards. (It won four.) But "The Two Towers" surpasses that previous epic in spectacle, passion and sheer technological astonishment. It sets new filmmaking standards that will be difficult to meet, let alone surpass. To say that it makes George Lucas' latter-day "Star Wars" films look like mere hand-puppetry would be an exaggeration; but it does suggest the scope of Jackson's achievement. "Towers" is a great adventure, a grand romance and an action movie of unrelenting kinetic invention. (Click here for photos from the film.)

Apart from a cast whose members might have been destined from birth to play these roles, the movie also introduces the first computer-generated character ever to deliver a fully realized performance, rich in tics and twitches and startling emotion. (Using breakthrough motion-capture techniques, this character, Gollum — the cringing, pathetic victim of the woeful powers of the One Ring — was intricately modeled on the every leap and grimace of the actor Andy Serkis, performing on the sets in real time.)

This new generation of computer technology, deployed with consummate artistry, is at the heart of the film's extraordinary visceral impact. Never before have live action, scale-modeling and digital animation been so seamlessly interwoven: the "Two Towers" battle scenes clamor with an almost documentary realism.

In the astonishing 20-minute sequence in which an army of 10,000 hideous Uruk-hai warriors storm the bastion of Helm's Deep, each figure, seen from above, appears to move in its own distinct ambit. This effect was accomplished through the use of something called MASSIVE, a proprietary software program developed by the New Zealand effects company WETA Digital. As explained in the movie's copious production notes, MASSIVE is a venture into the area of artificial-intelligence technology, allowing the creation of vast numbers of digitized characters — or "agents" — each of which is able to draw randomly from a set of programmed responses in any given situation. In short, they can effectively make their own decisions. Stephen Regelous, who wrote the MASSIVE software, says, "For these agents to respond naturally to their environment, it's important that they have senses the same as we have. They have vision, sound, a sense of touch through collisions. They can see their environment."

"The Two Towers" is also rich in fine-art allusions. The Elves' domain of Rivendell echoes the luminous fantasy landscapes of Maxfield Parrish, and the Dead Marsh sequence, with its submerged corpses, seems like a direct reference to the famous Millais painting "Ophelia."

But enough. Any attempt to convey in words the electrifying sweep and transporting emotional resonance of "The Two Towers" can only seem like critical overkill — an orgy of hapless exaggeration — to those who haven't seen it yet. A tsunami of groping superlatives will no doubt herald the movie's release on December 18, and you, too, will surely join in. Don't fight it. You can't.

Kurt Loder