Viewers, beware. The Two Towers, the dazzling second installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, picks up exactly where the first one left off. No Star Wars--style scroll to bring you up to speed, no quick compilation of scenes from the first film, no opening Cate Blanchett narration--nothing. It begins in medias res, as though you had just stepped out for a few seconds to get more popcorn. If you didn't see last year's The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson, the trilogy's wizardly director, isn't about to cut you any slack.
"I know that New Line [the studio releasing the films] would have preferred us to have a little catch-up," says the director, sitting in an office in Wellington, New Zealand, speaking in a cheerful Kiwi accent and peering from behind a mop of curls and plate-size wire-rim glasses. "But I think that's a very TV kind of device. I figured the amount of people going to see Two Towers without seeing Fellowship would be fairly minute. If you can't at least spend $3 or $4 to rent it before you see Two Towers, there's no point in going."
You don't often hear directors telling you to stay away from their pictures. But Jackson is the definition of a purist. For him, The Two Towers is not a sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring; it's simply the three-hour second act of an epic nine-hour trilogy called Lord of the Rings. The complete dvd should be available in, oh, 2004.
At first, the co-chairmen of New Line, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, weren't at all happy about the lack of any kind of prologue, but they ultimately relented. It was another of their epic gambles. "We ended up agreeing with him," says Shaye, "because it wasn't the same old cliche, 'When last we saw the Lone Ranger...'"
When last we saw Jackson, one year ago, he was one very jittery Kiwi. His Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered perhaps the riskiest endeavor in motion-picture history. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien's mythical sword-and-sorcery three-part novel, the movies were all filmed at once during a mammoth 15-month shoot. Jackson, a relatively unknown director who seldom stepped foot outside New Zealand and who was best known for quirky, low-budget films, was given a $270 million budget. The cost ultimately climbed to $310 million. If the first movie had tanked, then New Line (which, like TIME, is owned by AOL Time Warner) would have had two more bombs in the can, already ticking.
"The pressures on us before the first film came out were, obviously, fairly extreme," says Jackson, 41. "We never talked about that much. Nonetheless, it was there with you every single day."
The gamble paid off. Fellowship turned out to be the second highest grossing film of 2001, just behind Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and established Jackson as the Kiwi George Lucas. The movie went on to gross $860 million worldwide and was honored with 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.