Tuesday, December 2, 2014

'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' (2014) directed by Peter Jackson

Christ almighty Peter, what happened to you?  This final instalment in The Hobbit franchise marks the point where the final shreds of goodwill built up over the Lord of the Rings franchise circle the bowl before unceremoniously disappearing around the U-bend. This is a distressing to watch, akin to your teenage self's favourite band getting back together for a financially lucrative reunion tour.  You're excited to see these people you loved so much rocking through their greatest hits one more time.  Then you notice a slight deadness behind the eyes, a falseness in their tone, the awful, soulsucking sense that they're just going through the motions for cash.

'Going through the motions' largely sums up The Battle of the Five Armies, which can reasonably be summarised as a repackaging of the 'greatest hits' of Lord of the Rings, more specifically The Return of the King.  Once again we see cities in peril, fights across huge plains and (supposedly) the fate of the world at play, but it feels hollow and worse, devoid of emotion.

In a weird narrative twist, we open the film with the true finale of The Desolation of Smaug. That film came to a curiously unfinished conclusion with Smaug bearing down on the citizens of Laketown and we jump right back into that with little time to catch our breath. Opening the film with what is essentially a finale is a bit of a gamble, but at minimum it's exciting watching a dragon wreck up a town.  Once that's out of the way we reach the film proper, and launch straight into a financial dispute.

You see, Thorin, having seized the mountain of gold has suddenly turned evil for some reason.  Now the homeless citizens of Laketown want some gold to rebuild their homes, and remind Thorin that he agreed to help them in exchange for weapons and shelter.  Also a load of elves show up, desperately wanting some silver jewellery from the mountain for reasons that are never fully explained.  A less than interesting process of negotiating treaties begins, with every side ominously murmuring that this might lead to war.

Given that the title of the film is The Battle of the Five Armies we can pretty much tell that these negotiations aren't going anywhere.  Before we know it a load of orcs show up (for some reason) eventually followed by a load of dwarves, a load more elves, a bear-man, the Seventh Doctor, the monsters from Tremors, a flock of 'war bats', some armoured mountain goats and Billy Connolly.  The rest of the film is essentially these people (and CG versions of them) bashing into each other over and over to increasingly lessening effect.

The main problem with this is that, save for Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins, I don't give a shit about any of these characters.  The dwarves are still largely interchangeable and haven't developed a jot since they strolled into Bag End, the humans are cliches led by an Aragorn ripoff, the elves are ciphers, the orcs are evil because they're evil and even the supposedly tragic Thorin appears to have a switch on his back that flips randomly between good and bad.  Even Ian McKellen's Gandalf sucks!  This is hardly McKellen's fault mind you, the film relegates him to the role of pure exposition machine with no impact on the central narrative.

There's a weird depersonalisation effect at play in the huge battle that occupies much of the film. Jackson's virtual camera swoops around the battlefield watching faceless, helmeted men antiseptically dispatching other faceless, helmeted men.  Some of them might be elves, some might be dwarves, some might be orcs: it's honestly difficult to tell.  I guess what we're supposed to take away from this that generalised killing is occurring, but given that these are bloodless, computer-generated mannequins dying why should we care?

Worse, the big triumphant bits (you can tell because the music swells) are fluffed.  The romance between Tauriel and Kili takes up an inordinate amount of screentime and you soon realise with horror that we're genuinely supposed to be caring about this.  Jackson relies on these hackneyed forbidden love clichés for a decent proportion of the wallop of the finale, but you may as well be watching sticks rub together for all the passion on screen.  

Now, there were a few things I did enjoy here.  There's a nicely psychedelic interlude where Galadriel has some kind of tripout fight with Sauron.  I have no idea how it fits into the plot but at least it looks neat enough.  There's also the odd neatly framed 'painting come to life' shot; but occasional prettiness is pretty low down my list of compliments. 

The one genuinely great factor is Martin Freeman; who's been the best thing in all three. Every moment he's on screen you get fragments of recognisable humanity that're entirely absent from the exhausting Götterdämmerung that surrounds him.  More than ever his performance is the rock you cling to in the storm and he puts in a titanic effort to wrestle the film towards any level of quality.  What's astonishing is that he very nearly succeeds; though this film certainly does suck he alone keeps it from being a complete train wreck.

It's ironic that this film is so concerned with the corrupting influence of money.  Through squinted eyes it's possible to read the increasingly greedy and extravagant Thorin as Jackson himself, hell bent on wringing as much money out of this franchise as is humanly possible. What's perhaps the real tragedy is that somewhere lurking within The Hobbit trilogy is an enjoyable three hour cinematic classic, one we've been robbed of in favour of this epic grandstanding bullshit.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be cherished for years to come.  The Hobbit trilogy will be an increasingly irrelevant and embarrassing footnote.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released 12th December in the UK, 17th December in the US.

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