Redundantly action-heavy 'Hobbit' finale is a travesty of character and a glossy digital eyesore
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring: Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Aidan Turner and Ryan Gage
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 24 minutes
December 17, 2014
(out of four)
For such an extravagant, large-scale epic - one that cost $250 million, no less - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies seems awfully small. Peter Jackson finally did it - his relentless pursuit of hugeness broke epic filmmaking. It is accomplished. He reached peak hugeness and just kept on going huger, at which point the effect began working in reverse. The bigger everything gets, the smaller it actually looks, even on a giant screen. The mountains are so towering, the castles and fortresses so massive, the vistas so vast, the armies so endless, that when you actually look at them - particularly in the very frequent wide shots - everything just looks like miniature toys. (Jackson at least used to have a sense of irony, so I hope he appreciates the dichotomy in play here.)
This is a perfectly appropriate, if admittedly cheap, metaphor for the trajectory of Jackson's career as a director, and the seemingly neverending Middle Earth saga in particular. The bigger his films and budgets have gotten, the more minor they (and he) appear to be. Pick any single episode of Game of Thrones - with its television-sized sets and television-sized budget - and it will feel bigger, more urgent and more epic than the whole of this trilogy. This movie, even more than its predecessors, is a crass victim of its own scale and grandeur. This is not filmmaking - it's masturbation. (And I say this as someone who adores his King Kong, which many others feel is gluttonous and overlong.)
His films have also begun to look cheaper as they've gotten more expensive. You know that tacky movie-poster look, with the glimmering romantic colors, and the glossy, unnatural glow of the images, and the faces that all seem photoshopped? That's what The Battle of the Five Armies actually looks like. The whole movie. There's hardly an outdoor shot that's not mawkishly dappled in sunlight, with all of its edges softened and smoothed. Every frame sparkles and glistens.
Here's another bit of irony: Jackson began his career defiantly flouting decorum and "good taste" with the likes of Bad Taste and the glorious Dead Alive. Now that he's been "respectable" for so long, he's making the tackiest-looking movies of his career, only by accident.
Five Armies also illuminates the problem with having practically limitless resources, which in this case comes down largely to the computer animation that is responsible for so much of what we see on screen. In an interview earlier this fall, director Rian Johnson talked about using practical sets and practical effects on Star Wars VIII as opposed to a heavy reliance on CGI: "I think people are coming back around to [practical effects]. It feels like there is sort of that gravity pulling us back toward it. I think that more and more people are hitting kind of a critical mass in terms of the CG-driven action scene lending itself to a very specific type of action scene, where physics go out the window and it becomes so big so quick."
If Johnson is right, then perhaps The Battle of the Five Armies - and the Hobbit series as a whole - will be seen as a sort of unofficial tipping point. That, or a last gasp for a brand of filmmaking that has already plateaued and, in certain ways, run its course*. There's a fine line between having creative freedom and deciding to do whatever idea pops in your head just because it's technically possible. A disciplined filmmaker knows how to make those choices; an undisciplined one creates an action scene involving Legolas (Orlando Bloom) that's so absurd, so completely unconvincing even within the loose bounds of a fantasy universe, so obviously created almost entirely by computers, that it ceases to be the cool action moment it desperately wants to be and ends up serving only as an emblem of the movie's excess. These used to be George Lucas problems; now, apparently, they're Peter Jackson problems as well.
* I'm not arguing against CG filmmaking - far from it. I'm only pointing out that this particular kind of spectacle has hit something of a wall. CGI has made its point. Now it's time to be smarter about how and when we use it.
The film as a whole is basically one long, two-hour action sequence (until finally slowing to a crawl with a concluding 20-minute epilogue that we'll get to in a minute). Jackson jumps right into the action from the start, and I confess I had no idea what was going on. In order to really have a grasp on it all, I think you would've had to have given the previous two movies a second thought since you first saw them. But I haven't. (Middle Earth die-hards will likely have no such trouble following along from the beginning.) In any case, even once I caught up, there's very little actual drama to sink your teeth into. It's just a lot of empty spectacle - excessively dour, mostly humorless and entirely tedious. The time not spent on action is spent on setting up more action, as the battlefield continually expands with the arrival of each army. (I think there are five of them.) The movie is basically a two-hour version of the opening scene of Gangs of New York - or perhaps more accurately, the Gangs of New York parody in Anchorman, only with a million CGI extras and no sense of humor.
One of the main reasons the film doesn't work on a dramatic level is because the trilogy has been such a travesty of character. This is the Middle Earth equivalent of a Transformers movie. With the Lord of the Rings movies, at least, there was some semblance of balance between spectacle, action and character, and it often tipped in the favor of the latter. The Hobbit movies are a different story. The most important character in the third entry is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who has essentially been driven insane (in a similar fashion to the effect the ring has on those who possess it for too long) in his search for the Arkenstone. It's his madness that sets the table for much of the film's war and bloodshed. And then, when Jackson and his writers apparently grow tired of his antics, they decide to instantly resolve Thorin's storyline with one brief and horribly designed dream sequence.
No character has gotten shafted as thoroughly as the titular hobbit, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who's been largely erased from his own story. (He seems to have a few big moments, at best, in each film and is otherwise neglected.) This is what makes Five Armies' epilogue so infuriating. After all has finally been resolved, the film pretends it has really been about Bilbo all along, disingenuously spending its final 20 minutes with him after everything else has been resolved. Sorry, but if the filmmakers really cared this much about Bilbo Baggins, they wouldn't have ignored him for the better part of three long-ass movies. The fact that Jackson has promised (threatened? warned?) that the extended cut of The Battle of the Five Armies will be 30 minutes longer has me wondering if that's where all the character development is hiding. (I'm guessing not. I'm guessing that extra half-hour will just be more action. A precedent has been set.)
Whatever the case, I won't waste my time finding out. I've already spent nine hours over the last three years on an aesthetically vulgar series with no real characters (yet far too many actors) and ultimately no point. I can't imagine spending another three hours on more of the same.