Co-writer and director Peter Jackson continues his Oscar-winning, box-office blockbuster adaptation of the classic fantasy novel from author J.R.R. Tolkien with a second installment that plunges the fictional setting of Middle-earth into a vicious war. Welcome additions to the action in the sophomore adventure include the CG-created Gollum, moving front and center as a major character who is simply amazing in his ability to entertain and move the viewer emotionally. The most pathetic creature in the trilogy, he's a schizophrenic nightmare but heartbreakingly human and poignantly, dazzlingly realized by a combination of actor Andy Serkis's physical skill and Jackson's special effects experts. Gollum puts the similar Jar Jar Binks character of the second Star Wars trilogy to shame. Also thrilling are a climactic battle between Ents (living "trees") and the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) that brings to mind any number of breathtaking sequences from The Wizard of Oz (1939), and the final clash between humans and invading enemy forces at Helm's Deep, a lengthy but thrilling clash of bows and shields that recalls the superb fight sequences from Braveheart (1995). Less persuasive are some storytelling elements that fall victim to the filmmakers' effort to condense the story into a three-hour running time: several gaps in the action occur and a few developments are left unexplained or vague, such as how the forces of Éomer (Karl Urban) grow from a few dozen to thousands, how the defenders of the realm of Gondor manage to defeat their attackers, why the Ringwraiths have suddenly switched mounts from horses to dragons (why did they use horses at all in the first film?) -- and why Tolkien felt the need to give every location, character, and object in his work at least three utterly confusing names (those who haven't read the books may be left wondering what the difference is between Éomer and Faramir or Gimli and Grima). However, the simple fact that a novel as dense and detailed as this one hasn't been turned into a labored bore is a miracle; that Jackson has fashioned such a triumphant success is a real artistic achievement. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) may be imperfect in its occasionally frustrated effort to squeeze every significant plot element into the mix, but it's a visual marvel and a definite raising of the artistic bar for its entire genre. No filmmaker will ever be able to create a sci-fi or fantasy epic again without comparison against it.