Sunday, December 21, 2014

Day 333: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

"If more of us valued food, and cheer, and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

The most glaring issue with Peter Jackson's entire Hobbit trilogy is perfectly illustrated in the first ten minutes of its conclusion, The Battle of the Five Armies. He, and the films themselves as a result, has no concept of how long something should last. When last we left the dwarves and their hobbit companion little more than a year ago, they had just unleashed a terrible scourge on the denizens of Lake Town, inadvertently letting loose a vengeance driven dragon on them. The opening moments of this third and final film are nothing more than the conclusion of the last film, as Lake Town is destroyed and Smaug smote.

Had this been two films as originally planned, this wouldn't be quite as glaring an issue as it is, but because Jackson chose to make this a trilogy, he must quickly do away with his third act antagonist from the previous film and sweep him under the rug so he can get on with this titular battle. Imagine for a moment that The Empire Strikes Back ended just before Luke and Vader had their duel on Cloud City and then that battle opened Return of the Jedi. The former film would have been lambasted for being incomplete, and the latter for quickly concluding an unfinished storyline to get down to the business at hand. Yet somehow, Tolkien fanboys are willing to give Jackson a pass for making an equally asinine choice because it gives them two and a half more hours in their favorite fantasy world.

In fact, when it comes right down to it, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies isn't a terrible film, it's just a wholly unnecessary one. Despite an epic battle sequence which eats up the bulk of the film's running time, it's nothing but a 145-minute loose end tie-up session. I know that's reductionist of me to say, but it's the truth. It doesn't feel like the culmination of all the themes of the entire saga rolled into one film, the way the final Lord of the Rings film did. It feels instead like a man with a checklist ensuring that all of his boxes get ticked before we can mercifully go home and get on with our lives.

As a bridge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it's perfectly serviceable, but as entertainment, it's lacking in nearly every way. Are the battle sequences exciting? Not really. They're just a lot of fantastical beasts, nameless armies clashing, heads being lopped off at an alarming rate, and plain old noise. Jackson is also constantly shifting focus between his numerous characters, none of whom are true protagonists outside of the titular guy from the Shire who we'll get to in a moment. Attempting to make an audience care about multiple people at the same time, and often within the same breath, can work if done well, but it's frankly not done very well here.

Such shifting was Jackson's strong suit in The Lord of the Rings, constantly checking in with the main characters while also giving you a scope of what's happening in the overall battle. Here, he focuses so intensely on single moments that the audience loses sight of the big picture and becomes hopelessly lost in the shuffle. Hey look, that fairly major character just got killed, and here come an onslaught of orcs to deal with these other two characters, and this character is angry and wants revenge, and this other character is leaping up falling rocks, and it ultimately just makes me want to throw up my hands, crack open the book, and suss it all out for myself.

An audience needs to feel something other than overwhelmed to connect with a film, and Jackson has truly lost sight of that. He thinks that simply showing us characters crying or dying in slow motion will elicit a response, but he does nothing to get us invested in anyone. Everyone's motivations are so muddied, and often change at the drop of a hat, making it impossible to keep pace with the various reversals borne out of such poor motivations. By the end of this thing, I couldn't tell you who gained what or why, which is a real failure on Jackson's part. He didn't keep a strong through line in this trilogy, choosing to send us off on so many side quests and missions that by the time Gandalf finally gets around to saying why it's so important for the dwarves to reclaim their home, I forgot that was what this whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place.

Jackson also loves to throw so many things at you at once that oftentimes the coolest things get the least amount of attention. There's an entire scene of set-up for these giant creatures referred to as "earth eaters" which end up looking not unlike the sandworms from Dune. When they finally do show up several scenes later, we mostly get reaction shots of our heroes gazing at them in fear, and then they're out of the picture entirely. We're already here, dude. You've got our money, give us the god damned sandworms already! Instead Jackson chooses to give us yet another scene where some dwarf I could care less about lectures Thorin in how he's lost sight of what it was they were doing in the first place. I think he's just following his director's lead at that point, fellas. No need to get so down on him.

The other truly careless thing about this final film is a curious focus on the Master of Lake Town's henchman Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage. His broad antics, which basically consist of him doing the exact same dereliction of duty routine every time, had no place in this film, and felt like an attempt by Jackson to put some humor into his otherwise totally dour film. These scenes are glaringly out of place and grow weary instantaneously. It also doesn't help that Gage has pitched his performance to such unbelievably theatrical heights that he seems to be angling to reprise his role in the inevitable parody of this film. It's stuff like this that really makes me think that Jackson has lost his mind.

Thank goodness for Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins for giving this film, and frankly this entire trilogy, some sort of grounding. Though Bilbo was often relegated to the sidelines in his own story, he managed to score the most affecting scenes in each of the first two films, and does an admirable job of carrying this film despite the constant Sturm und Drang happening all around him. It might be the best piece of casting in this entire Middle Earth saga, making his treatment as an afterthought throughout all the more distressing.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. These films are not a total debacle on a par with George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy. They feel wholly of a piece with the world that Jackson set up in his first trip to Middle Earth. They're just so leaden, so dull, and so full of unnecessary garbage, that they reek of the putrid stench of being cash grabs. There was simply no reason to expand a 300-page novel into nearly 500-minutes of screen time, particularly when they're so full of filler and feet-dragging. At this point in time, Peter Jackson has proven, fairly conclusively, that he's a one-trick pony. The most scathing indictment of all, however, is the fact that he's just not that good at pulling the trick off anymore.

GO Rating: 1.5/5

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]