December 9, 2014 Leave a comment
Having unleashed Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the unsuspecting denizens of Lake Town, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarves can only watch in horror as the dragon decimates the town below. All, that is, except their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who is more concerned with reclaiming his birthright the Arkenstone — unaware that Bilbo has already picked it up and put it in his pocketsies. Lake Town is not completely defenseless, however, and as Smaug circles above Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) looses a special arrow that soon slays the beast. With the Lonely Mountain now empty, save for a hobbit and a handful of dwarves, convoys of both men and elves descend on Erebor keen to repatriate items stolen by Smaug. Thorin, though, is unwilling to part with even a single coin, leaving them little choice but to unite as the two camps prepare for war. Elsewhere, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is freed from the Necromancer by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee); Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) investigate a swarm of giant bats at Gundabad; and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) leads an orc army to Erebor to avenge his father.
JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit was such a simple story, perfect (indeed specifically designed) for bedtime reading: a humble homebody is tricked into joining twelve dwarves on an adventure to reclaim some treasure from a dragon. There were one or two complications along the way, admittedly, but save for a fateful encounter with a cave-dwelling riddler and the subsequent acquisition of a magic ring nothing of particular import. It should come as something of a surprise, then, when during Peter Jackson’s adaptation — ostensibly split into three parts with the express purpose of elucidating on Tolkein’s words — you find yourself wondering what on Middle Earth is going on. Where is Legolas going, and why? When did Galadriel become strong enough to banish Sauron? And, most worryingly of all, given the subtitle — The Battle of the Five Armies — how many armies are there? Does the alliance of man and elf constitute one army, or are they counted as two? Is the second orc army a separate entity? Whose side are the eagles on? Surely — having dispensed with the dragon in the first thirty minutes — the least Jackson could have done was use the other two hours to draw distinctive battle-lines.
After all, it’s not as though he’s using his movie to tell the story of the eponymous hobbit — Bilbo’s barely had a look-in since he faced off against Smaug. He spends at least twenty minutes of the final battle unconscious, and most of the rest of it either invisible or simply unaccounted for. He pops up with Gandalf occasionally, but only to give the camera an excuse to be in any particular place at any particular moment — just in time for some CGI beastie to take a swing at another. By this point in Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy the hobbits were very much front and centre, yet you were so invested in the rest of the ensemble that you didn’t mind the occasional cuts to the returning king, the two towers or the remains of the fellowship. Here, however, you don’t particularly care about anyone — heck, half of the character’s you can’t even name, let alone relate to. Part of the problem is the sheer size of the ensemble, and the lack of attention given to anyone but Bilbo and Thorin, but mostly it can be attributed to the dismal casting of the two leads. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are terrible actors, the former gurning gurrulously while the latter fails to display any emotion whatsoever, and they are at their worst here.
It’s genuinely amazing just how divergent the two trilogies are in terms of quality. Whereas with each new instalment of Lord of the Rings the series gathered momentum, grew in complexity, and both encouraged and exploited technological advances, the prequels have become increasingly staid, silly and unsophisticated. It doesn’t help that Jackson — unperturbed by all evidence to the contrary — is steadfast in his support of 48fps as a viable filmmaking format. The unconvincing special effects shots are at least cinematic, in the sense that the best video games cut-scenes might be described as cinematic, and facilitate a suspension of disbelief. Every time Jackson cuts to a practical effect, however, you are immediately distracted by how uncannily theatrical it looks and the illusion is shattered. How is it that a series of films shot over ten years ago look more realistic than a similar series shot in the present day — by the same director and a largely identical creative team, no less? There are shots of Legolas fighting on a crumbling tower that look as though they belong in The Matrix Reloaded, while Billy Connolly is unrecogniseable in all but voice when he appears as a pixilated dwarf king. Pixar did a better job of animating him in Brave. The final battle is already narratively incomprehensible (it’s never obviously won; it’s just suddenly over), but WETA have succeeded in making the interminable action sequences visually confusing, too.
Unlike The Battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II or even The Battle of New York in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, The Battle of the Five Armies never feels like a separate or even distinguishable story in and of itself. A failure of pacing, staging and acting, The Hobbit 3 doesn’t just fail to justify its existence (Tolkein’s book barely supported two movies, let alone three) but to engage with its audience on even the most basic level. Somebody summon Peter Jackson a giant eagle, it’s time he was saved from himself.