22 Dec 2014

[Review] - The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Courtesy of New Line Cinema
What a horrible way to leave Middle-Earth behind. Until now, I've held out a hope that, in ten years time, we might get a trilogy of Silmarillion films, to fill in more of the deep mythology of the universe. But if the diminishing returns so obviously apparent in this final chapter continue, it is my great hope that the Tolkien estate wrap their Gollum-like fingers around those adaptation rights and hold on to them for dear life. Certainly, they should make certain that Peter Jackson, who once was exactly the man for the job, gets no where near them. This film's twitter campaign has been focused on the hashtag "One Last Time." If this is the result, that's fine by me.

An Unexpected Journey is a deeply flawed, but enjoyable, film. Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and well constructed, if overly long and overly indulgent, film that hearkens to the original trilogy more than any other (though it does commit the unforgivable sin of having a cliffhanger ending). The terribly (and inaccurately) named Battle of the Five Armies is a failure of story telling, structure, pleasure and nostalgia. It is a plodding second act, and seems content not to have either a beginning or an ending. Lampoon Return of the King for it's eighteen false finishes, but it least it had some to spare. Five Armies can't even be bothered with that, preferring, after rushing through all of it's plot points, to just peter out, and assume that would be fine with everyone. It isn't.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that really want a war pig. Just, you know, in case.

Where to begin with this mess of a film? The fault, it becomes clear, lays at the feet of the editing. Both of the script and of the film. The transformation of Guillermo Del Toro's duel scripts into Jackson's three, I actually championed. In many ways, I still do. Three films, I said, provide more elbow room for Jackson to focus on the emotional journey of the story, while still anchoring each film with a major sequence, and preventing any one film from becoming too dense. Apparently, I was giving Jackson too much credit. He opted instead to simply hack the script into three unequal pieces at roughly appropriate moments. This was done, it can now be seen, without any attempt to reconfigure each of the film's into it's own story, and there inlies the first major failing of this trilogy. Never once was any of these Hobbit films treated as it's own, self contained thing. A tacked on ending to Journey, and a cliffhanger in Smaug brought those films to a close, and never did Jackson attempt to make the films independent and connected to one another.

Perhaps what is most frustrating about Five Armies is that it vindicates every nasty thing said about Jackson over the last four years, in his treatment of the Hobbit, and hasn't really deserved to this point. He deserves it now, boy-oh. His fanatical devotion to over elaboration, but in the mot irrelevant of sectors, has resulted in poorly paced and far too long previous entries, and a dizzingly rushed and detail-ignorant finale. I'll let the Purists know, had the novel been adapted to only a single novel as they have so blindly demanded all along, it would look far more like this film than any other, so be careful and regretful of what you wish for. This film contains all of the traits of Tolkien's children's book, complete with skipping over matters entirely, keeping things only to a broad edge and not showing any interest in development of any kind. Which is fine in a fun children's book from the edge of the last century. Not at all acceptable in a billion dollar film franchise.

The film should have been renamed The Cameos of Middle-Earth, because that's all it was. Despite taking 6 hours to get us to this point, like Gandalf the White, Jackson apparently believed himself to have no time. So, Five Armies is a film with no character development whatsoever. I mean at all. You might argue that Thorin undergoes some, but no. He just reverts to his former self, which he had inverted from at the end of the last film. So, everything is as it was last time, and sticks there. Stuff just happens around them. And it happens so quickly, and without attention to detail, that it fails to capture our attention at all. The battle sequences are all identical, and completely impossible to keep straight who is who, and who might be winning, that I found myself more immersed in the metallic echo of the loose speaker casing just behind me in the theatre than anything that was happening on screen. It's all rushed fist fights, without nuance, intelligence or imagination.

A point of pride in the Lord of the Rings, which contained more than its share of sword fights, was how many discussions there were. How much of the films were political, and revolved around debate. None of that here. I had hoped that, if the Battle of Five Armies was getting it's own film, that Jackson might take the chance to include scenes of discussion, to get to the political and racial heart of the film. That there might be some opportunity for commentary on our own world, as elf and man and dwarf are forced to stand together against the orc hordes. Something both timely and timeless, relevant and engrossing. Instead, there was a war pig, some war rams, and a few grabboids. Even the poor White Council, literally a United Nations of the most powerful beings on Middle-Earth, was reduced to fisticuffs as they expelled the Necromancer, a sequence I hope Jackson is deeply ashamed of. Perhaps it all the weaving of his camera made him dizzy, and he can claim, Will McAvoy style, that it was vertigo medication that kept him from making a competent film.

The film is also a cartoon. I know, it has become cliched to review a film and say that they used too much CGI, especially if that film is a Middle-Earth picture, or by Peter Jackson, who despite filming in the most picturesque and perfect of locations, finds it far easier to paint his picture than film it. But it is a cartoon, as much as Penguins of Madagascar was (and at least that film had structure). Can someone please explain to me why Billy Connolly's entire performance (all three lines of it) was CG rendered? And quite so sloppily? Why do to all the bother of casting him at all if 1) you're not going to have anything for him to do, other than say the least appropriate lines in Middle-Earth history in a way that is so obviously Billy Connolly, and B) you aren't going to even bloody use him physically? Connolly has proven himself a fine and more than capable actor in the past, and I was hoping that Dain would be a tragic, hate-filled character, not comedic relief filler.

That, of course, brings us to a greater failing of the film: the script, and the acting it produced. Soap operas would have turned down this dialogue and acting as being "a bit much." It was at times, cringe-inducingly embarrassing. Yes, there were those that held their own. Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee and Ken Stott (whom I hoping sees a career bump from these films as McKellen did after the Lord of the Rings) can and were relied on to make even their own turds shine as no one else can. And Lee Pace, whose dialogue was among the worst in the previous films, really turned out something impressive with his conflicted elvish king, the only character who even approaches any growth during the course of the 2.5 hours. But everyone else is handicapped by just terrible, terrible writing. I'm quite looking forward to what Evangeline Lilly, in her trademark honesty, might have to say about these films some years down the line, because her role was a thankless (and ultimately and sadly, gender-role reinforcing one, rather than not) one. She was also saddled with the worst of the worst of the mouth noises, and can be forgiven for maybe not trying her hardest on the delivery. If I had been expected to say those lines, I wouldn't have put much effort into it either. Jackson clearly didn't give two tosses about making a good film, so why should anyone else?

Then there was all the unnecessary stuff, like the comedy. I like a good joke, and as I've said many times you need the laughs to make the tears feel more real. But Three Stooges-style slapstick in the midst of battle sequences has no place. These films have had a wildly inconsistent tone, which I took to be the merging of Del Toro's sensibilities (he's far more playful) and Jackson's (who knows the time and place for such things). But Jackson apparently felt no need to iron out these bits to fit his vision, so they stand out, obviously and uncomfortable. Also unnecessary is the amount of screen time Alfred, the Master's assistant, gets. It is staggering how many minutes are wasted on this third tier character. I understand that he was meant to represent the worst of humanity, and was meant to serve as foil for the just and honourable Bard. But Alfred is an unlikable straw-man that is meant to getting beaten down by the hero, not become the focus of his own storyline to the detriment of the hero. And all the more alarmingly, the way Jackson cut things, Alfred succeeds! The screen time that he and a dozen other distractions was given meant that Radagast, Beorn, Dain, Smaug, the Master, the Necromancer, Bilbo's return to the shire, and even Gandalf himself saw their roles reduced to the point where they were barely there at all. Even Bilbo, whom the films quite wrongly never made the narrative focus, is secondary to the events of the film.

When I watch Return of the King, I cannot get to the end without tear in my eyes. No matter how many times I watch either the entire series or just that film itself, from the time that the hobbits bow to no one to the first notes of Anne Lennox, I'm watching the film through rain. Because Jackson, in those first films, was able not just to structure a narrative that was engrossing and provided emotional payoff, but developed characters to whom we became intimately attached. He cared about Merry and Pippin and Sam and Frodo. We felt something for them, and when their stories were over, we were saddened by it. As The Hobbit concluded, I felt nothing. I wasn't even close to an emotional reaction. I was neutral, not even angry. Ian Holm's five scenes as Bilbo endeared him to me far more than three films with Martin Freeman. Freeman did a fine job, but Jackson let him and us down. As Bilbo returns home, I felt nothing. And it isn't the curse of the prequel, knowing that his story is far from over. I should be distraught that this story is over. I should care, dammit. I should care about Bilbo, that he went there and back again. I should care about what happened to him, and that he returned safely and now we're leaving him. And I feel nothing. I should feel incredibly sad that, likely for the last time, we as an audience are leaving Middle-Earth. And I feel nothing. And that is Peter Jackson's greatest failure.

After King Kong, obviously. That thing's a piece of trash.

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