The army of darkness sprawls into the horizon. Under the night rain, the soldiers stretch back like the world’s most evil marching band; the vastness of the force would be forbidding even if it weren’t made up of bloodthirsty, teeth-gnashing humanoids known as uruk-hai. Have no doubt: When Saruman (Christopher Lee), the elegant wizard of nastiness in Middle-earth, gets angry, the guy knows how to unleash the storm clouds of war. Standing atop his fortress, Theoden (Bernard Hill), the honorable but mild-spirited leader of the besieged Rohan kingdom, is as outnumbered as Henry V was at the Battle of Agincourt.
Within moments, the arrows fly, and so do the vicious forked catapults, and there is much more — a raging flood, a handful of men on horseback plowing through a mass of black-armored demons, who go flying off the sides of a castle bridge. The armies, glimpsed from the sky, aren’t just clashing; they’re roiling. To describe the battle of Helm’s Deep, the spectacular deathly cataclysm that’s the climactic sequence of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, as ”big” would be an understatement. It’s downright biblical (or, at the very least, virtually so), with a dimension of David-and-Goliath suspense. As Agincourt proved, the size of your army isn’t everything.
A year ago, when the first installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part, $300 million adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy was released, its elemental vision of good and evil locked in cosmic battle was said, by many, to echo moviegoers’ post-9/11 feelings about the state of our own world. That same dynamic may turn out to be even more true of the sequel. In ”The Two Towers,” the Fellowship has splintered, yet it isn’t just Frodo (Elijah Wood), the reluctant, marble-eyed hobbit whom fate has chosen to destroy the Ring, or the nobly handsome Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), or Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the acerbic wizard with the trilling diction, who need to gather their forces together. So must the disparate tribes, clans, and provinces of Middle-earth. Those hesitant to support the conflict have to be convinced; by the end, even a marvelously charming ancient talking tree joins the coalition. All this to defeat a thin-faced, gray-bearded megalomaniac in mystic robes who is intent on starting — and winning — the mother of all wars.
The defining element of ”The Two Towers,” however, isn’t just the cosmic Manichaean zip of its black-and-white universe, the potent aura of sweeping invisible doom. It’s that the heroes are so clear-souled and upright that they’re effectively purged of internal struggle; their battle is exclusively with forces outside of themselves. That was never the case in, say, ”Star Wars” — or, indeed, in any counterworld adventure movie that I can honestly say I’m stirred by. It’s true, of course, that Frodo is meant to be engaged in a love/hate battle with the Ring’s ambiguous powers. But the image of Elijah Wood’s cherub face squinting in torment once every hour or so as he fingers, or momentarily slips on, the Ring has a peculiar aura of abstraction as a dramatic device. As staged, it’s a token sliver of conflict — a signifier of valor in the making rather than the genuine article.
Packed with awesome mountains and glades, swooping God’s-eye camera movement, and enough chatty forest oddballs and light-show apparitions to send every other scene skittering off in a new direction, ”The Two Towers,” as a visual pageant of sorcery and action, all but surpasses ”The Fellowship of the Ring.” This one too, though, is mired in the wooden grandiosity of Tolkien’s ponderously literal-minded medieval imagination. There’s one character who breaks out of the box of chivalric stuffiness, and that’s Gollum, the desiccated elfin beastie in a loincloth who becomes the captive comrade of wandering hobbits Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin).
It’s not every day that a special effect turns in a splendid performance (E.T. comes to mind), but Gollum, voiced in a slithery hiss-whisper by Andy Serkis, whose movements also provided the basis for the CGI wizards, has a cackling, maniacal, yet weirdly forlorn charisma. So cadaverous that his bones press through his skin, with oversize eyes that pop out of a shrunken bald head, he’s like the Starchild from ”2001” grown up into a raspy crackhead. Gollum is a creature who gave in to the temptation of the Ring (he still calls it ”my precious”), and it ruined him. Frodo wants to trust him, but this divided soul keeps lapsing into good Gollum/bad Gollum dialogues with himself that make him sound like a Shakespeare villain gone psycho. He’s the one character in the picture whose course of action doesn’t feel as if it’s been plotted out on a flowchart.
”The Two Towers” conjures an illusion of the gravity that you want from an emotionally charged storybook epic. Really, though, what it comes down to is superbly staged battle scenes and moral alliances forged in earnest yet purged of the wit and dynamic, bristly ego that define true on-screen personality. Viggo Mortensen has a livelier aura of derring-do this time around, but his token flirtation with Liv Tyler only ends up calling attention to what a desexualized cosmos Tolkien created. The film keeps tantalizing us with the prospect of Mordor, the land of darkness that harbors the mountain of fire where Frodo must cast the Ring in order to destroy it. Will he find anything that truly shakes him up there? In ”The Two Towers,” evil is omnipresent yet finally too weightless to be memorable, and so, too, is a hobbit whose ruling quest is to destroy the one thing that tempts him most.