Time and repeat viewing will tell whether the second part of Peter Jackson's magnum opus is truly better than its illustrious predecessor.
It certainly surpasses "The Fellowship of the Ring" in terms of wit, action and narrative drive. What it lacks - at least until the climax - is the first film's wow-factor. We are now accustomed to the environs and inhabitants of Middle-earth.
Without an explanation for trilogy newcomers, the story picks up where "Fellowship" left off. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are journeying to Mordor to destroy the world-threatening One Ring. They are joined by the avaricious, reptilian Gollum (an astounding, computer-generated creation, brilliantly voiced by Andy Serkis).
Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are pursuing Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who have been kidnapped by orcs...
The following action is too densely-layered to explain here, which makes the achievement of Jackson and his co-writers all the more impressive. This is a compact, flab-free adaptation of JRR Tolkien's complex, lengthy book, and it suffers little from following three simultaneous adventures.
The special effects, too, impress. Gollum is the first believable CG character, while the battle of Helm's Deep is one of the finest, most expansive combat sequences ever filmed.
The cast do well not to be swamped by the spectacle. Mortensen again excels as the square-jawed hero, while Rhys-Davies' dwarf provides welcome comic relief.
Unfortunately, with his every attempt at sincerity, Wood's Frodo still looks as though he's going to make a pass at his fellow hobbit Sam. However, Astin rises above this to give a standout performance.
It's his moving delivery of the inspirational, climactic monologue that gives heart to the spectacle and elevates a film it's easy to admire into one it's possible to love.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" opens in UK cinemas on Wednesday 18th December, 2002.