There's a truism in Hollywood that says the second film in a series is usually the best. For Star Wars, yes. For Indiana Jones, not so much. For The Lord of the Rings ... well, we won't really know until The Return of the King hits the screen. But with The Two Towers, Peter Jackson more than meets the high expectations he set with Fellowship -- no small feat since this is really the "bridge" part of the story, with little narrative resolution.
Frodo and Sam are having a rough time of it, lost in the wastes surrounding Mordor and still being followed by the treacherous Gollum, whose much-anticipated appearance does not disappoint. His CG self is heart-breakingly pitiable and positively terrifying all at once, especially as he wavers between his Gollum-self and his Sméagol-self.
Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are tracking Merry and Pippin, captives of the Uruk-Hai until a desperate escape attempt leads them to Treebeard, the oldest of the magnificent Ents. These anthropomorphized trees -- peaceable shepherds of the forest -- must determine their role in the battle for Middle-Earth and their ultimate choice prompts some very impressive scenes, indeed.
Meanwhile, Saruman's forces are waging war on the race of Men. They begin with the kingdom of Rohan, whose strength is waning with that of their ruler. King Theoden has fallen under the evil influence of Saruman's spy, Grima Wormtongue, played to oily perfection by Brad Dourif, whose scenes with the lovely, stricken Eowyn make the blood run cold.
The people of Rohan, joined by the brave but weary Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, hunker down to defend the stronghold at Helm's Deep, where the desperation, fear and tension are palpable. The battle scenes with the vast army of Orcs is a marvel of modern filmmaking: thousands upon thousands of warriors join the melee, arrows whistling and swords clashing -- the scale is nothing short of magnificent.
The film closes with the necessary narrative setups, leaving you to wonder again how you can possibly be expected to wait for the next chapter. (That sound in the background is the dump truck full of awards backing up to Peter Jackson's door.)