Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Written by Boniface

My wife and I went out to see the Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies a few nights ago. I am still trying to digest what I saw. I mean in the same way one tries to digest bad Mexican food. This film was definitely the weakest of the three. Unexpected Journey and Desolation of Smaug had some problems, but Battle of the Five Armies just fell totally flat. Even the previous two Hobbit films were entertaining on a basic level; while I had problems with the river scene in Desolation of Smaug and Bombur spinning around in a barrel whacking orcs with two axes, this was at least fun to watch. Battle of the Five Armies was not fun to watch. Even as I sat in the theater I could feel it - could tell that the movie was failing before my eyes. But why was it a failure? What specifically made this film in particular fall flat on its face. I pondered this as we left the theater and have been spending the past few days mulling it over. Finally, I think I know why. Let us explore, shall we?

It would be easy to dive right in to deconstructing some of the minutiae of this film (like how war-goats suddenly showed up out of nowhere as a deus ex machina device to provide the dwarves a method of getting up the side of a mountain in like five seconds, or how Tauriel has red-hair even though in Tolkien only Noldor high elves of Feanor's house have red-hair), which is always a temptation for me. But I'd like to begin by stepping back and taking a 'macro' view of the film.

In Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson finally succumbed to the dreaded Lucas disease. The Lucas disease has several characteristics, but primarily, it consists in this: that Peter Jackson forgot he was making a film adaptation of a JRR Tolkien book and instead thought he was making a Peter Jackson movie.

When I first saw the LOTR trilogy, I was blown away. I still remember the experience of watching Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. I'd never seen anything like it. Jackson, then a somewhat obscure director breaking new ground, developed his own unique directorial style in order to bring Tolkien's masterpiece to life. And he was phenomenally successful. But by the time we get to the Hobbit films, its as if Jackson is no longer trying to bring Tolkien to life, only recycling the old cinematic tropes and gags from LOTR - but without the original creativity and innovation, which makes them ring hollow. He is no longer dramatizing Tolkien but making what he thinks a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie should look like.

The problem with this is that it reduces the creative process to a mere equation. What was fresh and innovative in Fellowship of the Ring has by Battle of the Five Armies become a formula. And it just doesn't work. George Lucas exemplified this painfully with the Star Wars prequels and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So Jackson caught the Lucas disease; let's see what its symptoms are as found in Battle of the Five Armies. To do this, we must do a post-mortem by studying the problems on a 'micro' level.

Perhaps we should start with the elephant in the room; I mean of course the cross-racial romance between Kili and Tauriel, by which the invented elf-girl falls in love with the dwarf who looks like a human (that's to make it less weird; a romantic attraction with a dwarf who looked like Gimli would have been too bizarre). Of course, there is no romance in the Hobbit book. It's about stealing treasure from a dragon, for goodness sake. I don't know how the idea of a romance got introduced into this script, but I am willing to bet that some idiotic producer somewhere along the line opined that the contemporary market would not be interested in an adventure without a romance. Jackson was either won over or forced to go along and so we get this contrived, fake, artificial and forced romance - the most forced and unnatural romance since Anakin and Padme. 

We must pass over for now whether the assumption is correct - that modern audiences 'want' romance. I am here interested in pointing out the contrived nature of this romance; at least Arwen was a real character from LOTR who actually did have a romantic relationship with Aragorn. But in the Hobbit? Where is there room for romance? There was SO no place for romance that they had to invent a fake character to make it possible. Then, as an excuse to find away to drag her around so she could show up at every pivotal point in the film, they had to go even farther and make her a warrior elfess, something with no precedent in Tolkien or even in the first Peter Jackson triology. 

Once the Tauriel novelty was introduced, many other absurdities were bound to follow: The forced dialogue between Kili and Tauriel in the elf dungeon as an excuse for them to meet each other, Kili getting wounded with the poisoned arrow as an excuse to leave him behind in Lake Town as an excuse for Tauriel to save his life (a trope repeated from Fellowship of the Ring), which in turn necessitated the whole fabricated and absurd battle with the orcs in the town that blighted the end of Desolation of Smaug. There is another forced encounter between the two at the beginning of Five Armies, but it falls flat. The film tells us we are supposed to care about this relationship, but we simply don't. There's no depth to it. They've no background, have gone through nothing together (except the fabricated "save Kili from poison" episode which is pretty one sided since Kili was delirious). In short, there is no reason we should believe these two to be in love and as a consequent we don't. It fails in every respect. 

I suspect another reason for the romance was to try to invest Kili's death at the end of Battle of the Five Armies with some meaning - to tug on our heart strings a bit. "It's so sad! Now the elf-dwarf romance will never happen!" In the book, Kili is simply killed in the melee of the battle; nothing spectacular, and it would have been even less spectacular had Kili not had such a central role in the film (imagine how the audience would have responded if, say, Oin had been the one to die - which one is he, again?). Jackson wanted the death of Kili to resonate with the audience, and so he had to give him a more central role, which was done by manufacturing the Tauriel romance. But even this element fails. By the end of Five Armies, we are so sick of Kili we're ready to see him go and cannot connect with Tauriel's sadness at his death because their relationship never meant anything.

Let's talk about combat. Fighting. This movie is stuffed with combat as Bombur is with food. Maybe they figured since it was called Battle of the Five Armies it had better be replete with battle. I'm not exaggerating. The battle begins in the first half-hour of the movie and we are pretty much in the midst of a huge war for the next two hours. 

This is another symptom of the Lucas disease: the belief that more and more and MOAR fighting will make the film better. Well, it doesn't. In fact, you get numbed by it fairly quickly. The war scenes in LOTR left me teary-eyed at times for sheer awesomeness; do we all remember doing a man-cry at this scene? But the thirty-five minute battles of Five Armies left me yawning.

I remember seeing Peter Jackson in an interview on the the special features of the Unexpected Journey DVD that the embellishments in the new trilogy were meant to make the Hobbit films a little more epic - to help them "live up" to LOTR (another aspect of the Lucas disease). But LOTR was pretty freaking epic. How can the battles of the Hobbit be ramped up to compare with LOTR?

Well, three ways: (1) More fighting quantitatively (2) More epic fighting (qualitatively) (3) New characters fighting who we didn't get to see fighting last time.

Number one, more fighting - much, much more. As I said, this movie is pretty much a two hour battle. Non stop. As I mentioned, it got dreary after awhile.

Number two, more epic fights. In Battle of the Five Armies, this meant more CGI fights and more one-on-one duels. These both come together in the character of Legolas, whom we are given to understand is the Aragorn replacement in the Hobbit films. Given the fact that Legolas never appears in the Hobbit book, it is absurd how much screen time he gets. His one-on-one fights are ridiculous. A scene of him running up a series of falling blocks in what looked like a video game sequence elicited derisive laughter in the theater I was in - mostly from me. There are so many one-on-one duels in this movie; yes, I know they had them in LOTR too, but not nearly as much. Remember any one-on-one duels at Helms Deep? I don't. How about at the Battle of Pelennor Fields? Just the Witch-King and Eowyn, but that wasn't really a duel. She just laid there whimpering until Merry stabbed the Witch-King in the back. 

There is only one major one-on-one duel I remember from Fellowship of the Ring, and it was the totally awesome sequence when Aragorn fights Lurtz, the captain of the Uruk-hai, while Boromir lay dying. Let's revisit that scene, shall we? Please take a moment and watch this one minute clip here, then return to this review. Awesome, wasn't it? A few things to note:

The entire duel, from the moment Aragorn jumps on him to the moment when Lurtz gets his head chopped off lasts 44 seconds. 44 seconds, people. Yet there is more peril and intensity in this 44 seconds than in one of the many twenty-minute duels from Battle of the Five Armies.

Also, note the realism of the fight. This wasn't CGI. This all really happened. There is nothing inherently unbelievable in how this went down - I mean, other than that orcs don't exist. But it was a real, bonafide fight. Punching, kicking, swinging of swords, sometimes sloppily like in real combat.

Finally, notice how exhausting this short engagement is. Watch it again. Look at Aragorn's face when his neck is pinned to the tree. See how he gets hit one time and his mouth is full of blood? You can catch glimpses of his face at various moments throughout those 44 seconds - fighting is hard work! Swords are heavy. See how sweaty he is by the end? This is how a really well done battle sequence looks. It's real.

The CGI nonsense in Battle of the Five Armies doesn't hold a candle to it. Watching Thorin or Legolas battle ten foot tall orcs with swords and axes for twenty minutes straight without cracking a sweat or shedding a drop of blood - with every move perfectly choreographed. It just sucks and lacks realism. That over choreography and lack of realism in fights is another symptom of the Lucas disease - compare this classic scene from Return of the Jedi where Luke is fighting Vader for the last time. The intensity! Luke is just whaling on him! Night and day from the bland, choreographed perfection we see in this embarrassing scene from Revenge of the Sith

Speaking of Star Wars, our third problem with the battles in Five Armies was the manner in which new characters are given battle scenes who by all rights should not have them. Galadriel. Saruman. Elrond. We get to see them all in battle. Anybody remember Elrond fighting in any of the books? How about Galadriel? Yes, I know they are powerful, but that's just the point. Their power lies in something deeper than the ability to merely enter into physical combat. Just like Yoda. His character was so memorable because we didn't think a little green creature of his stature could be so powerful; but his power was not in his strength, but in the Force - and a powerful ally it is! But when we see Yoda flipping around with a light saber in the prequels, it kind of robs the character of the one trait that made him so identifiable - his physical weakness.

Ditto here. Seeing Galadriel fight -albeit a magical fight  - as well as Elrond and Saruman takes away from their characters; it makes them smaller, even though Jackson probably thought he was making them bigger.

News flash: Just because a film is about battle does not mean it must consist solely of fighting. In the classic war film Zulu (1964), the protagonists spend about two hours preparing themselves mentally and physically for a battle that lasts only fifteen minutes. And it worked. Or heck, even just a rousing speech before battle to get us properly disposed helps things quite a bit. Remember this scene from Return of the King? It still gives me goosebumps. Or how about this. "Spears shall be shaken! Shields shall be splintered! A sword day. A red day, ere the sun rises!...Ride now! Ride to ruin and the world's ending!" Damn. That's awesome. That makes me want to hurl a spear through somebody - or at least watch it happen on the screen.

Nothing remotely close to that in Battle of the Five Armies. No rousing battle speeches here. In fact, the dialogue of the whole film is pretty pathetic. "Legolas. Your mother loved you." Ugh.

The point is battle has to be interspersed with other things. Yeah, the LOTR films were epic. But there was a lot of non-epic stuff in them, too. Remember all the scenes of Frodo and Sam simply walking? Frodo and Sam lying around. Frodo and Sam looking tired. There was a lot of that, and it all contributed to make the battle scenes more intense and believable.

By the way, Thorin's death is the dumbest thing I've ever seen. Nuff said about that.

Finally, let's talk about the way this film failed to "button things up." "Buttoning up" refers to the way a film winds down the story after the climax and ties up all the loose ends. For example, Return of the King does not end with the destruction of the Ring. There's a lot more: Frodo sleeping in Rivendell and the reunion with his comrades. We see Aragorn's wedding and coronation. Frodo and peeps return to Hobbiton. The Hobbits drink ale in the Green Dragon. Sam gets married to Rosie. Frodo works on the Red Book. And finally, the extended farewell scene when Frodo and Bilbo sail off to Valinor after a tearful parting with their friends at the Grey Havens. And then Samwise walking home to be greeted by his wife and children. Finally, the door of his hobbit-hole closing gently to peaceful music. Everything buttoned up nicely. The plot is put to bed.

Holy crap, what a contrast to Battle of the Five Armies! Thorin and Azog die, one scene of Bilbo coming home and then BAM! the movie's over. We last see Tauriel weeping over the body of Kili. What happens to her? Who gives a damn. Forget that broad. She served her artificially constructed plot purpose and now screw her. She's not important. 

Some of the people of Lake Town hail Bard as their king, but he is reluctant to take up the title and refuses it when it is offered. Does he ever claim the royal title? Does he become King of Dale as in the book? Who knows. After the battle the movie ends and we are clueless about his fate. 

And the character Alfred - the "wormtongue" of the Master of Lake Town - we last see him skulking off dressed in drag. Does he die? Does he live? He's been a pretty solid antagonist in two films. The audience deserves to know his fate, right? Wrong. The movie could give two sh*ts. 

Or what about Erebor, for goodness gracious? The whole buildup to the battle is about Thorin's claim on the throne of Erebor. But then Thorin dies. What about the throne? Who gets the gold? Did Bilbo get any cut? What happens to Erebor? You know the answers if you've read the book, but the film simply ends without settling any of them. Thorin's dead. Film over.

Ahem - and fate of the treasure!? The movie doesn't care. It just ends without wrapping that up. And what the hell happened to the Arkenstone? So much plot wasted on Thorin's mad search for it. We see it once in the hands of Bard and then we never see it again.

Someone might respond, "I bet all that is settled in the extended edition!" Listen, the extended edition is for crap that got cut from the film because it was not essential. It is certainly not for parts integral to the story itself. Unless it was some scheme to force you to purchase the pricey extended versions just to see the rest of the movie, but that would be extremely avaricious and money-grubbing and - oh, wait...I get it.

This really should not have been a three movie series. It could have been handled in two. It was made into three so they could add supplemental material relating to Gandalf, the Necromancer, and plot points setting us up for LOTR - building connections and using foreshadowing to get us ready for LOTR. But was this really necessary? We know what the Ring is that Bilbo finds. That was all the connection Tolkien gave us. Do we need to create more? The whole point of the Hobbit in its relation to LOTR is that Providence works in extremely mysterious and unlikely ways, and that things that we may think coincidental or of little import turn out to be of monumental importance. The finding of the ring is a relatively small aspect of the Hobbit, but it ends up to be world-altering in LOTR. Part of the charm of this is that it was such a little thing, such a trifle. It's delightful particularly because there isn't this massive attempt to constantly foreshadow LOTR in the Hobbit.

This means we don't need to create more ties to LOTR. The ones we see in Battle of the Five Armies are terribly forced. Saruman saying "I'll see to Sauron!" Oh please.

One thing that made very little sense in this film was that the White Council sees Sauron and the Nine. They know the Enemy has returned, but also know he cannot take physical form because he does not have the Ring of Power. They act like it's no big deal. Saruman says he'll handle it and its back to life as usual.

But if they already knew the Enemy had returned - and that he had the power to spawn armies of orcs - AND had summoned the Nine, all of which are clearly discovered and known in Battle of the Five Armies, then how does that jive with all of the investigating Gandalf does at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring? I thought it was only then that they realized the Enemy had returned? But if Gandalf knew the Enemy had returned sixty years ago - and had seen Sauron's form with his own eye - what the hell was he doing for the subsequent sixty years!? Yes, we know Sauron does not have the Ring of Power yet, but we saw from the Hobbit movies and LOTR that he can do a heck of a lot of damage without the One Ring. In LOTR, Middle Earth is practically overrun by orcs - and that was without the One Ring.

The idea that Gandalf saw the Enemy and realized the Nine were loose way back in the storyline of the Hobbit but somehow had to discover it again in LOTR is a gaping plot hole created by perceived need of "tying" the Hobbit films back to LOTR with more allusions that Tolkien himself even provided.

Finally - and this is a minor point - the ending over the credits. Weird. These crazy pencil sketches of the cast while Billy Boyd is singing some folk song. Totally bizarre and unlike any of the final credits of the previous movies.

I've really taken a dump on this movie. I'm sorry; it was a real disappointment. That's not to say everything in this movie was bad - Bard's killing of Smaug was really cool. It was neat to see dwarvish battle formations. Watching Stephen Fry get a dragon carcass dropped on him was cool. As always, Martin Freeman did a good Bilbo. But it is no mark of greatness for one to have to pick out a few good points just to so the review isn't a total waste. And the Thranduil...ugh...so homosexual.

And Radgast still had bird feces on his face. What an apt symbol for this movie.

I give Battle of the Five Armies one solitary tiara, and that's being merciful.

Review by Boniface

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