The climactic scene in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” takes place in one of those underground caverns with a lake and an ominous gondola as the means of transportation, popularized by “The Phantom of the Opera.” At first I thought – no gondola! But then, one appeared, dripping and hulking. In another movie I might have grinned, but you know what? By that point, I actually cared.

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Yes, this sixth chapter is a darker, more ominous Harry Potter film, with a conclusion that suggests more alarmingly the deep dangers Harry and his friends have gotten themselves into. There was always a disconnection between Harry’s charmed school days at Hogwarts and the menacing threat of Voldemort. Presumably it would take more than skills at Quidditch to defeat the dreaded Dark Lord.

In one of the opening sequences, we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) late at night in a cafe of the London Underground, devouring a copy of the Daily Prophet which raises the question: Is Harry Potter the Chosen One? By the film’s end, he acknowledges that he has, indeed, been chosen to face down Voldemort (whose name should precisely rhyme with the French word for “death,” mort; also, since the word vol means “thief” and “steal,” Lord Voldemort is most ominously named).

Harry is distracted from his paper, however, by an instant flirtation with the young waitress, a saucy cutie who informs him, although he asked only with his eyes, that she gets off work at 11. She indeed waits for him on the platform, but the Chosen One must respond to his higher calling from Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who either materializes, gets off a train, or has a pied-a-terre right there in the Underground. I for once will be extremely disappointed if that waitress (her name is Elarica Gallagher, I think) doesn’t show up again in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” whose two parts will have concluded the franchise in 2010 and 2011.

That will be none too soon if Harry doesn’t want to steal up on the “Twilight” saga, as he and his friends, especially poor Ron Weasley, have certainly entered adolescence. Even now he seems to be entertaining thoughts of snoggling with Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Yes, Harry, so lately a round-eyed little lad, will soon become one of Hogwarts’ Old Boys.

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Director David Yates suggests the transition in subtle ways, one of them by making Hogwarts itself seem darker, emptier and more ominous than ever before. Its cheery hallways are now replaced by grimmy Gothic passages, and later in the movie an unspeakable fate befalls the beloved Dining Hall at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), who appears to function principally as a destructive vixen, but without doubt has more ominous intentions.

The task for which Dumbledore summoned Harry at the outset was to pay a visit to the London home of Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who has been reclusive ever since his Hogwarts days, but is now urgently needed alongside his memories of the young student Tom Riddle, who grew up to become the guy whose name should rhyme with Death. Dumbledore hopes they can find out Voldemort’s secret vulnerability, and hence, they find themselves in the underground cavern. When this possible key is discovered, I promise you I’m not spoiling anything by observing that its basic message is “to be continued.”

There are really two story strands here. One has to do with the close working relationship of Dumbledore and Harry on the trail of Voldemort. The other involves everything else: romance and flirtation, Quidditch, a roll call of familiar characters (Hagrid, Snape, McGonagall, Wormtail, Lupin, Filch, Flitwick and Malfoy, whose name could be French for “bad faith”). With names like that, how do they get through Commencement without snickering?

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Some of these characters are reprised just as reminders. The giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), for example, turns up primarily to allow us to observe, look who’s turned up! Snape, as played by Alan Rickman, is given much more dialogue, primarily I suspect because he invests it with such macabre pauses. Radcliffe’s Potter is sturdy and boring, as always; it’s not easy being the hero with a supporting cast like this. Michael Gambon steals the spotlight as Dumbledore, who for a man his age definitely has something new up his sleeves, so to speak, new tricks.

I admired this Harry Potter movie. It opens and closes well, and has wondrous art design and cinematography as always, only more so. “I’m just starting to realize how beautiful this place is,” Harry sighs from a high turret. The middle passages spin their wheels somewhat, hurrying about to establish events and places not absolutely essential. But those sequences may be especially valued by devoted students of the Harry Potter franchise. They may also be the only ones who fully understand them; ordinary viewers may be excused for feeling baffled some of the time.

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