Let me admit first off that I have never read the series, although I've been told by some that if I'm breathing and I have eyes, not reading all of Tolkien from beginning to end is an utter travesty. I first heard this when I was about 10 from my older brother. I know that I made a valiant effort with one of the books, but I think all the stuff about ugly gnomes with hairy feet and the creepy Gollum just kind of lost out to "The Secret Garden" or "A Little Princess" or whatever fairytale-ish story I was reading at the time.
Not that I don't love fantasy, 'cause I do. I am a bit of a geek when it comes to that, I admit. Nowadays I read it rarely if ever, but growing up, my reading list had a healthy dose of Piers Anthony, Madeleine L'Engle, Joan D. Vinge, Anne McCaffrey and others. I think partly what drew me to those types of books, along with "Little Women", the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and other classic tales of women surviving through adversity, was that sci fi and fantasy were the only other places I could find strong women characters. Albeit usually in sci fi or fantasy written by women. But there was enough of it.
And it was a far sight better than all those "scary" teen killer tales (Christopher Pike, etc.) where the girl was always cowering behind her boyfriend. Or being murdered by him. Way better than the Judy Blume books - I always disliked those books, all the girls had serious self-esteem issues and talked about their periods the whole time. I couldn't give a shit about any of that. I wanted to hear about women who flew fighter ships and were warriors on dragons, who kicked the shit out of bad people and were total babes to boot. So yeah, I dunno, somehow Lord of The Rings always seemed like a boys club.
That said, I have to take the movie versions at face value. I don't know how they compare to the original storyline, although I've heard they stay remarkably close. So you won't find me griping about inconsistency. Although I do know that the character Arwen (Liv Tyler) does not appear in the novel "The Two Towers", and she does in the movie. Peter Jackson and co. decided to extend the plotline of Arwen's and Aragorn's (Viggo Mortensen) romance into the second film. Which, when I first heard this, kind of annoyed me. What, just cause she's Liv Tyler they're going to make up scenes for her? Like they don't have enough material to work with?
But it actually works out nicely. It helps especially for the fact that besides her and Eowyn, a human princess, there are no other women characters in the movie (save for the frightened masses clutching children in the background). It also fleshes out the excruciating choice Arwen has to make to leave with her people and sacrifice any hope of reuniting with Aragorn. Her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) puts it pretty succinctly - Arwen is immortal, and Aragorn is not. Even if Aragorn survives his journey and they got back together, eventually he'd die and she'd be left alone, in mourning, and without her people. Not a pretty thought. Arwen makes the choice to go in the end, and you definitely feel for the girl.
I won't really delve into the plot, it's too complex for a movie review, and much better seen than told. There are a quite lot of characters in this movie, to put it mildly. However, it's surprisingly not that hard to keep up with. The script is unwaveringly clever and always drops a little explanation, introduction, or a bit of backstory when you need it.
The Two Towers follows three major storylines after the Fellowship is fractured at the end of the first movie. (Oh, and if you haven't seen the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, see it before you watch this one.) The major characters are split into groups of travelers, whose progression the movie follows by flipping back and forth between each group:
Two of the hobbits, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), travel with Gollum (Andy Serkis).
Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who's human, the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) travel together.
The two other hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) travel alone together until they meet up with Treebeard, a self-aware, talking ancient tree.
There are also pretty heavy sidetrips into the lives of King Theoden (Bernard Hill), who has been enchanted by the evil Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), Theoden's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), and her brother Eomer (Karl Urban).
The two Wizards Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen) and nasty bad guy Saruman are interwoven throughout each storyline.
One of the things I dislike about movies that follow several different story lines is that they often choose to segue from one to the other by leaving you with a cliffhanger. The Two Towers is much more tastefully done. The segues are really elegant and don't leave you frustrated and worried about the other people until you feel all kind of wrapped up and anxious the whole time, like other movies tend to do. Jackson pulls it off so seamlessly you almost don't notice it, which is fantastic.
And speaking of fantastic... the special effects are utterly brilliant. Hands down the best special effects I have ever seen. By far. Makes the recent Star Wars movies look like Atari. Every sequence is so intricately detailed and magnificent to look at. Two things I like better about Lord of the Rings effects as opposed to Star Wars effects:
1) Star Wars can be really tacky. Some of it looks beautiful but most of it is pretty tacky. Remember that god-awful scene between Amidala and Anakin from the last movie where they're rolling around in a field and there's a giant waterfall in the background? Case closed. Even the opulent palaces and cities of Star Wars tend to be gaudy.
In Rings, everything is art. The woven forest-themed Rivendell, home of the Elves, the warm and homey hobbit Shire, the metallic black and silver gothic Orthanc tower and barren landscape of Isengard. Every world has its own complete style and mood, each is breathtaking in a different way.
2) The other thing I like better about Rings effects over Star Wars is the self-control. In Star Wars, a lot of the fancier graphics are lingered on or gratuitous. It's as if they want you to think - wow, look at all the money they spent making that! In Rings, although you know they spent a shitload of money creating this stuff, somehow you think not so much about the money but about the serious amount of artistry and imagination that went into this.
They also keep tight reigns on the overblown effects - you always feel humanly connected, you don't feel lost in a video game. For all the flash and magnificence, they don't show off and wear the viewer's patience by dwelling or over-enunciating. There's not much gratuitous "look at this cool shit we figured out how to do!" Jackson only shows what you need, never more or less. All of the scenes, whether it's an intimate one between several actors or gigantic battle scenes with thousands of players, have a reason and a motion within the larger story, and you know where you stand as a viewer. You're always grounded as to what's happening and why. Which is really a complex job to pull off with this kind of story and cast size.
For a movie that clocks in at 3 hours (179 minutes), it never gets tedious. The actors have room to breathe and each are able to develop their character's nuances and niche. There are many phenomenal performances in this movie. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies and Ian McKellen all give standout performances.
I think I might venture to say that this is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Go see it.