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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I’ve heard scattered rumors about additional films in development, set in the realm of Middle Earth. Don’t believe a one of them. There are so many reasons why it will never come to pass within our lifetimes.

First of all, there’s the Tolkien estate. Reports have it that Professor Tolkien’s descendants feel increasingly uncomfortable with the film adaptations that cheapen his work. After seeing Colbert’s interview with Smaug a few days ago, it’s hard to argue the point. I love that segment, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t exactly a show of respect for the source text or the character’s integrity. Just saying.

Of course, the legal hassle is another problem. Remember, we had to endure years of confusing legal dickery (further confounded by a massive bankruptcy, I’ll grant) before a single Hobbit film could get off the ground. It’s an even bet that another legal clusterfuck would ensue if someone tried to make another Middle Earth movie. Obviously, no one wants that.

Then there’s Peter Jackson, who — for better or worse — crammed absolutely everything possible into his films (with the notable exception of Tom Bombadil, of course), past the point of sanity or good sense. He did an especially good job packing this latest trilogy, probably because he knew he’d never get a chance at filming another Middle Earth movie again. Hell, it was enough of a miracle that he got a project of this scale made once, never mind twice. Even more improbably, both trilogies turned out to be really successful.

The chance of that happening a third time? Even several decades from now? I don’t like to use the word “impossible,” especially with regards to what could be done in the future, but DAMN.

So here we are with the end of an era, as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies hits theaters. And God can’t tell you how much I hate reviewing movies like these. When a franchise reaches this point, it basically becomes critic-proof: anyone who wants to see it has already bought their ticket, and anyone who’s somehow stayed away from the series so far will know better than to jump in with the latest entry. Furthermore, the central pillars of a franchise tend to stay so constant that they get boring to write about over and over again. Sure, Martin Freeman is excellent and Sir Ian McKellan does a fantastic job, but what else is new?

This movie is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. After five of these movies (two in the current trilogy), you should already have a pretty solid idea of what you get here. Though for what it’s worth, I still have a few things to say about this entry.

To start with, just about all of this last episode concerns the Battle of the Five Armies, its beginnings, and — to a far, far lesser degree — its aftermath. Yes, Smaug gets to lay waste to Lake Town, but that whole deal gets resolved in the first fifteen minutes. The other two hours are all about the battle.

Now, I’ve heard it said (as I’m sure you also have) that “The Hobbit” is a simple kids’ story about a treasure hunt that didn’t need to be stretched out to two movies, never mind three. I’ve also heard the counterargument, stating that if that was true, then the story would more or less end with Bilbo and company reaching the cave, killing the dragon, and taking the treasure. But no, the book goes on to discuss the ramifications of that treasure hunt, eventually culminating in the Battle of the Five Armies. And come on. Any battle with a title like that deserves to be treated as an epic ordeal, with great care given to discuss who’s fighting and why.

There’s a good amount of logic in that counterargument and it would be perfectly tenable… if Peter Jackson hadn’t gone overboard like he always fucking does. I’m not even talking about the subplots put in to explain what Gandalf was doing off the page and how this all ties in with the next trilogy. I’m talking about the fight scenes with Smaug and Azog that stretched on for waaay longer than necessary. And now we have the overlong Battle of the Five Armies here. Between all three films, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a movie’s worth of padding that might have been cut.

But before I get to the Battle itself, let’s talk about the HFR. At least, I assume that my screening was shown at 48 FPS, because the visuals looked a lot like my HFR viewing of An Unexpected Journey. The visuals are razor sharp, which does wonders for the 3D effects and the wide panoramic shots. Unfortunately, it also means that the special effects have to be absolutely perfect, because there’s no way to hide the flaws when the visuals are this crystal clear. And I’m sad to say that there are many shots in this movie that don’t pass the test. Moreover, while HFR is wonderful for large and fast movements — which does wonders for showing action scenes with no motion blur — slow and small movements look artificially sped up to a comical degree. This is especially obvious in close-up shots, and it makes the visual effects look even hokier.

Naturally, all of these pros and cons are very prominent during the Battle, but there are other factors at play as well. To start with, it goes on FOREVER. Sure, it’s impressive enough to see the big showdown with a couple of orc bosses… for the first few minutes. But then the fights keep dragging on and the bastards just won’t fucking die and it gets very tiring. In fact, the strange compulsion to pad out the battle with escalating stunts (with uneven CGI, remember), gets utterly ridiculous at times. I remember a particular stunt involving Legolas on a collapsing bridge that was so over-the-top and so obviously CG’ed that I pretty much checked out entirely.

What makes the padding even worse is that it ends with the arrival of the giant eagles. Because of course it does. This begs the question of why Jackson and company bothered to drag the fight out for so many unnecessary minutes when they could have brought the ridiculously overpowered eagles in at any time and gotten it over with much faster. Though come to think of it, that question could be levelled against some battles throughout Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. For example, Helm’s Deep could have been shaved by at least a few minutes if Eomer and his reinforcements didn’t take so long to arrive. Likewise, if Aragorn and his Army of the Dead were going to wipe out the forces at Gondor with basically no opposition, they might have come in sooner and spared us a bit of screentime. I fail to see the point in belaboring a battle for upwards of half an hour when some external force is going to swoop in out of nowhere at some arbitrary point in time and end the whole thing in five seconds. That’s all I’m trying to say.

Speaking of which, the Battle of Five Armies pales even further in comparison to the battle at the gates of Mordor at the end of Return of the King. Consider: In the Battle of Five Armies, the dwarves are fighting to keep hold of their homeland and their gold; the elves are fighting for jewels in the hold of Erebor; the humans are fighting because their home has just been destroyed and they have nothing left to lose; the orcs are fighting because the Lonely Mountain is a key strategic position to hold as Sauron plans his return; and the eagles fight because they’re a blatant deus ex machina.

Now compare that to the Battle of Mordor, in which the army of Gondor was fighting to buy Frodo a chance. They weren’t fighting to win; in fact, they went in knowing that the likelihood of surviving was very slim. Yet they fought anyway to provide Frodo with a diversion, acting on blind and absolute faith that he was there in Mordor and still capable of finishing the job. It’s so much more simple and pure and noble than anything seen in the Battle of Five Armies. Moreover, no matter how much this movie may ask us to care about all the dead dwarves and elves, there’s absolutely nothing in this movie (hell, not even in this entire trilogy) to match the sheer emotional weight of that moment when Samwise carries Frodo on his back to Mount Doom. And in that first moment when Frodo’s task has been completed and he’s laying back to daydream of the Shire, there’s a catharsis that’s sorely missing from the end of the Battle here. Considering that this is supposed to be the end of an epic trilogy, that’s a huge problem.

I think that Samwise Gamgee best summed up the Lord of the Rings trilogy when he said “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.” The entire trilogy, particularly its last act, did a superb job of illustrating that noble idea. The Hobbit, not so much.

No, this trilogy’s thesis statement is closer to another quotation: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Unfortunately, that sentiment doesn’t come through as clearly when it’s been truncated in the script and barely audible in the dialogue. And it REALLY doesn’t help when Thorin’s corruption by greed is explained away by “cavern sickness” and the gold being cursed by Smaug’s greed and other such contrived, unnecessary bullshit. Then Thorin starts hallucinating and he suddenly goes back to his old self with no repercussions or forewarning, right when the plot needs him to. This is not good storytelling and it’s not a good way to convey the intended theme.

Speaking of the characters, I was pleasantly surprised to see that franchise mainstays Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving finally get a chance to kick some ass in this movie. It’s really satisfying to watch. Unfortunately, Cate Blanchett only gets to show us a little more of the crazy we saw from her in Rivendell back in Fellowship. I don’t think the franchise needed more of that, quite frankly.

As for the relatively new characters, I’m glad to say that Lee Pace is still sufficiently imposing/douchey as Thranduil, and Luke Evans is charismatic enough to sell Bard as a natural leader. However, the Tauriel/Kili love subplot still leaves me cold. I appreciate the inclusion of a female character, especially a new one who can shake things up and take the story in unexpected directions, but Tauriel is still so terribly bland. As for Kili, any character development at all is still better than none, especially when we’ve got a dozen dwarves running around. Even so, the romance between these two characters was awfully contrived, especially since Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner have close to zero chemistry. Aside from the ending — which, for better or worse, I must admit that I didn’t see coming — the whole arc was pathetically predictable and a chore to watch.

Oh, and the comic relief is Alfrid (Ryan Gage), a greedy little toady who’s only out for himself and flees at the first sign of danger. Joy.

The Hobbit was always going to be the weaker half of this saga, and The Battle of the Five Armies is certainly the weaker conclusion. The whole movie seems so focused on cramming in exposition and pumping up the action scenes that Jackson and company seem to have lost sight of why they were doing this in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, the spectacle is still very impressive (even with the HFR to magnify the flaws), but it’s nothing more than hollow artifice without the heart that made the first trilogy so great.

But of course, my opinion means absolutely nothing in this case. Fans of the saga so far will all flock to see this movie no matter what I say, and good for them. It’s a perfectly enjoyable movie by blockbuster standards, and it’s always a pleasure returning to Middle Earth. Though personally, I think I’d rather stick with my Lord of the Rings DVDs than revisit this prequel trilogy. Still, if this is the only adaptation of “The Hobbit” that we’ll ever live to see, I’m okay with that.

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