Last year's The Fellowship Of The Ring, director Peter Jackson's first entry in his three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, provided little cause for complaint. At once thoroughly cinematic and faithful to the spirit (if not always the letter) of Tolkien's book, it presented Middle Earth as an immersive experience, a world in which every aspect is realized in minute detail. Fellowship made the impossible believable, and without draining the magical happenings, fantastical locations, and uncanny creatures of their wonder, it also never abandoned a sense of dramatic and thematic weight. As embodied by a well-chosen cast, Fellowship's characters had all the depth Tolkien gave them on the page (and sometimes more), and their quest to rid the world of a ring of absolutely corrupting power took on greater urgency as the film progressed toward a cliffhanger that set up its second part. To live up to expectations, The Two Towers only had to be as good as its predecessor–and, astoundingly, it's better. That's not simply a matter of exposition giving way to action, although the film has plenty, as soulful hobbits Elijah Wood and Sean Astin make their way toward Mordor, friends Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan find unlikely allies deep in a forest, and the dwarf/elf/human team of John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, and Viggo Mortensen attempts to defend a struggling kingdom from the forces of Christopher Lee. What makes Towers so staggering is the way it brings the full scope of Jackson's adaptation into focus. Without missing a beat in three hours, the film shifts from epic to lyrical and back. It portrays a harrowingly intense battle one moment, then pauses for a father's grief over his son's death the next. It shows in frightening detail the engines of war, then links those engines to the bloodshed they exact and the ecological destruction that made them possible. What Fellowship suggested, Towers elucidates. It's thrilling as swords clash and arrows fly, but it also never abandons the underlying sadness of Tolkien's world, in which each victory only forestalls the transition to a meaner age. (And, for all the attendant technophobia, it's another technical masterpiece. Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, may qualify as the first fully fleshed-out performance by a CGI effect.) Next year, The Return Of The King will bring the story to a close. Until then, it feels almost like a privilege to watch the unfolding of a tale from a fantastic imagined past rich with resonance for the human present.