Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Alternate Title:  Battle Fatigue

One sentence synopsis:    Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield must hold Erebor against a series of armies seeking the fabled riches of the Lonely Mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  And so passes The Hobbit, son of Lord of the Rings, King of all Fantasy.

Among those I know, I have been one of the more constant evangelists in favor of the Hobbit series since its inception two years ago. No, I don't think it's the equal of the original films (at least the first one wasn't), but I do think that, given the constraints they were under and the mandate from god-knows-who to make a trilogy out of the book, that they have, overall, done a decent-to-excellent job, depending on the moment and the subject in question. And following the cliffhanger (sort of) ending of the second movie, I was stoked to see what Peter Jackson and his band of wizards might do given the last bit of the Hobbit, and all the appendices in the legendarium to rely upon for material.

So let's start by focusing on what they did right.

The advantage that Peter Jackson has had throughout this process, one that Tolkien himself did not, has always been that Jackson is making his films in full knowledge of what the Lord of the Rings was and would become. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit in 1937, seventeen years before the publication of the Lord of the Rings, and it despite retroactive alterations in the later editions of the work, it remains a much earlier viewpoint on a considerably less-mature world that would evolve along with its author in the decades to come. Jackson, on the other hand, has not only the Lord of the Rings books, but his actual films to fall back on and reference, allowing him to flesh the admittedly light narrative of the Hobbit out with material relating to the earlier films. So it is that in this movie, at long last, we get to see something I have desired to see ever since the original Trilogy, namely more of the major powers of the Free Peoples, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman the White, laying down their indescribable power in illustration of just why it is everyone is so deferential to them at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. The sequences I am speaking of are not long, nor particularly relevant to the plot, but they are pure, unmitigated awesome, as we get to see Saruman, not yet fallen, dispense with the enemies of the Free Peoples with all the fire that he could bring forth, as well as just why it was that Sauron always counted Galadriel, last of the Noldorin Lords, and eldest living thing on Middle Earth (presumed) as among his most dangerous foes.

But enough of my nerdgasms, what of the movie itself? As before, the actors remain excellent. Martin Freeman has always been my favorite of the bunch, if only because of the level-headedness he brings to Bilbo, so unlike the Hobbits of the previous series, the only sane person in the room, much of the time, and a good rationale for why Gandalf thought so highly of him. Richard Armitage's Thorin is given a tougher role this time, as the Dragon's hoard drives him to distraction and the brink of madness, but Armitage has always played the role with a certain noble gravitas to him that easily survives the transition. I remain a fan of Lee Pace, now better known as Rowan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy, whose Party King Thranduil of the elves is a deliciously campy lunatic. Pace seems to be desperately trying to do a Tim Curry impression, but there's a case to be made for that sort of thing in Tolkien's world, which is after all a world of broad archetypes. Ian McKellan is as grumpy as ever as Gandalf the Grey (whom I always preferred to the White version), and Evangeline Lily, whose character of Tauriel was made up out of whole cloth to try and balance out just slightly the massive sausage fest that Tolkien's works always were, still does a fine job with a character inserted by authorial fiat into events that originally did not involve her. With a cast this large, there's not much room for new additions to this, the third movie, but I did enjoy seeing Billy Connoly show up as Dain Ironfoot, when it came time for the titular battle to commence.

But what's most important about the third Hobbit is not new, but old and familiar. The film has all of the spectacle of wide-scale violence and close-scale choreography, of an ancient landscape inhabited by strange creatures whose existence needs no justification, of a heroic fantasy, in short, derived from the world of the poetic Eddas and Beowulf. It has always been one of my favorite worlds to explore cinematically, be it because of New Zealand's priceless scenery, or Jackson's priceless cinematography and design work. Whatever the flaws the movie has, there is nothing ever wrong with simply inhabiting Tolkien's world for a few more hours, and nothing, seemingly can change that.

Things Havoc disliked:  But oh, do they try.

I want to be clear. I didn't hate the third Hobbit film, as even a mediocre Peter Jackson-Middle Earth film is still quite a thing, but I must confess to a staggering disappointment, not merely with the third movie but, retroactively, with the second. I was one of those who defended the ending of the second movie, which came out of the blue and with quite a shock to everyone who had assumed the films would be ending in a different place entirely. My rationale was that by ending the movie with Smaug still alive (it's been a year, people. Spoiler protections have a statute of limitations), they had the opportunity to change things in an interesting way. Who was to say they had to kill Smaug in the first five minutes of the third film. After all, doing that would have ruined the pace of the next movie. Maybe Jackson had an innovative plan in mind.

... no. No I'm afraid he didn't. Ruining the pace of this movie is exactly what he does.

The problem isn't the dragon, though there's definitely that. The problem is that the third movie, as the title suggests, concerns itself almost solely with the battle in question, and one entire film about a massive battle is too much battling. Two years ago, I spoke in my first Hobbit review, of Battle Fatigue, of the boredom that comes over an audience when you do nothing but show them context-free violence between armies of CG characters, and this movie may become the new poster child of that concept, for that's all there is here. Not that it's all awful fighting, mind you. I quite liked certain elements, such as the Dwarven shieldwall formed by Dain's army, or watching Thranduil slice motherfuckers up with twinned elf-blades. But this much unceasing combat, presented without a break or even context, just gets old. We almost never stop to ascertain strategy or the overall flow of the battle, resulting in confusion when armies (there are five of them, remember) appear in places without having encountered the other, hostile armies in between. Forces do things for reasons I don't understand, coming to the defense of people they did not like moments ago for no remuneration, and the battle entirely lacks any sense of ebb and flow. Our heroes kill and kill and kill faceless waves of armored enemies until all of a sudden they do not need to kill any more. I have seen far more tense and meaningful battles in the Total War game series.

And even leaving the grand picture aside, the decisions of what to focus on in this movie baffle me. Was it really necessary to give Legolas yet another 20-minute epic battle sequence against a particularly nasty orc? Not only is Legolas effectively using cheat codes in these films, but we know he survives to see the Lord of the Rings movies, meaning all sense of tension is entirely absent from the fights he engages in. I defended Legolas' inclusion in the second film because the movie made him out to be an asshole and actually let him get the crap beat out of him a bit, two decisions I applauded. But here he's back to the same old invincible Aryan super-elf that everyone has complained about. Another massive swatch of screentime is lavished on Ryan Gage's Alfid, a comic relief bit character from the last film who this time takes on the role of a slightly-less-annoying Jar-Jar Binks. So much time is devoted to this character and his wacky, cowardly antics, that I assumed Jackson was setting the character up for some kind of redemption arc, or other matter of serious weight. Alas, no, the character exists only to occasionally intrude on everything with bad slapstick and the occasional admittedly funny line ("It takes a real man to wear a corset!") And in including all this, we miss an opportunity to do other things, like say, resolve key elements of the plot. Bilbo himself seems like he was shortchanged in this film, having less screentime than several other actors despite theoretically being the main character, and events such as his departing the company at the end of the quest seem glossed over and rushed. I realize that in sidelining Bilbo for the last act, the filmmakers are following the books' lead, but that's no excuse any more than departing from them would be a cause, in and of itself, for condemnation. Martin Freeman has always been the best thing out of these three movies, and I wanted to see more of him, regardless of whether or not it cut into Legolas' contractually-obligated "awesome time" or Jackson's conception of Wacky Hijinx.

Final thoughts:   I hoped for great things from the third Hobbit movie, but like the Hunger Games before it, great things were not in the cards. As I mentioned above, the film was not awful or anything, but it was strictly mediocre, albeit flashy and filled with spectacle. After six films however, it takes more than just waving orc banners in front of our faces to excite us with another jaunt in Middle Earth, particularly when all we're here to do is watch ranks of CG characters battle one another as in a video game. At least in those I have control of the action and can initiate my own will, not to mention keep track of what is actually going on.

I admit to being curious about the directors cuts of the three Hobbit films, as all three director's cuts of the Lord of the Rings movies improved on their respective theatrical cuts. With luck, I will discover that all of the meat and weight that I was missing in this movie sits within. But as it stands here, I cannot recommend this movie wholeheartedly, not even to those who, like me, enjoyed the first two outings. Maybe I've gotten older, maybe Jackson's lost his touch, or maybe there has simply been too much of this sort of thing over the last ten years. But impossible as I thought it once, I think, at long last, I have reached the point where, when it comes to this rendition of the Lord of the Rings and all its ancillary materials, I have finally seen enough.

Of course, if someone were to decide to make the Silmarillion....

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Storytime with the best actor in the world.

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