“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”
And so we come to the end at last, having been goaded into handing over silly money once again by Richard Armitage pleading “One last time!!” with sad, hopeless eyes. Where to start with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies? Rather than Peter Jackson saying farewell to Middle Earth (for now) with a triumphant celebration of all things Tolkien, we’ve been left with the most feeble of whimpers. Worse than whimpering, mockery. The Battle of The Five Armies is so bad it’s almost a parody of action films, filled with hilariously implausible stunts, jaw-droppingly clunky dialogue, and so many ‘GOTCHA!’ moments that you have wonder whether it was intentional. Alongside this you can throw in utterly pointless sub-plots, murky, sweat-drenched visuals, a travesty of CGI and some extremely confused editing. I could rant for days about all the ways this most recent Hobbit experience trips over itself; and I will.
Also, there is one moment so hilariously terrible that I can’t not mention it. Unfortunately it’s also very spoiler-y so I’ll leave it nice and separate.
We open The Battle of the Five Armies right back where we left off, roughly ten pages from the end of this fairly short book. I would say it begins in media res, but it’s not as if it starts at the end and jumps back – this film is literally just the closing pages of The Hobbit, padded to the point of suffocation. This opening set-piece in a film that consists almost entirely of set-pieces is probably as good as it gets. Or as close to good as it gets. It’s still very murky looking and something about Smaug is still just a bit off. Cumberbatch has the booming voice of a dragon nailed, but it just doesn’t fully gel with the sort-of-but-not-quite anthropomorphic dragon we’re seeing. That’s not an issue though because he’s seen off after about 15 minutes, leading everyone to wonder why the previous film didn’t just include the Battle of Laketown in the first place.
At this point we’re also introduced to recurring comic-relief character Alfrid. Alfrid is terrible. He is thoroughly, thoroughly terrible. He is also completely useless and untrustworthy but is routinely tasked with incredibly important tasks just because he’s around, sulking in the background, doing something sneaky. At one point he is charged with being the night guard for the newly evicted Laketown residents when they tramp off to Dale. He is the only guard. Mere minutes ago he was being lynched and now he is the only man on watch for these people. Naturally after he fails at that he is ordered to look after the children of Bard (the poor man’s Aragorn in a film that already has another), a man he has openly voiced his distaste towards. It makes so little sense it shuts down your capacity for reason and you just have to laugh. Also, this totally reprehensible character who is only interested in stealing from the poor and serving his own greed gets away completely unharmed, riches in tow. If he’s not an analogy for Peter Jackson’s helmsmanship of the Hobbit then I don’t know what is.
After that the film picks up somewhat, shifting attention back to the dwarves back home in Erebor. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield has always been a slightly strange main character. He’s more complex than he seems, but the films sort of flail wildly when they try and explore it. Suddenly he’s just not a nice guy, and then he is again. The Battle of the Five Armies opens with him in ‘not a nice guy’ mode, lending his permanent brood some meaning. He has become sick with greed now he has seen the riches of Erebor again and, one-note as the greedy schtick may be, Armitage and the film actually do an okay job with it.
With less global stakes you’d think The Hobbit films would be more character based, but they’re really not. Characters have loose arcs, but they just kind of lurch forward every now and again. Bilbo is especially poorly treated, but Thorin, admirably as this film tries, doesn’t get the care he deserves either. The other dwarves are pretty much a write-off. Except Kili because he looks nice. In fact for much of the film the other dwarves (I don’t know any of their names. Does anyone?) are kind of awol. I’m not even sure some of them get any lines.
It’s in part due to the terrible editing of the film, which sees the plot fly scattershot between sub-plots at one point, then stick with one fairly uninteresting thing for a bizarrely long time. One extended fight sequence must last a good half-hour on its own, without a single soul other than the combatants seen for the whole time. At points you stop and realise that Gandalf and a dozen other characters are in this film, but then you get distracted by Legolas doing something stupid. Mostly it involves riding animals. He rides many animals.
Legolas also has to fight with terrible dialogue and appalling characterisation – which makes sense since he shouldn’t be in these films and the writers quite evidently have no idea what to do with him other than fighting -, climaxing in the worst dialogue the series has ever seen. At one point his father, Lee Pace, who, incidentally, both looks and is younger than his ‘son’, turns to him and tells him to seek a Dunedain ranger. He tells him his father, Arathorn, was a great man, and that his son may be great too. He tells him he is known as ‘Strider’, but “As for his real name, you must find that out yourself”. If Viggo Mortensen had leaned over and winked and then pointed to himself it still wouldn’t have been so on-the-nose.
I feel bad for Lee Pace since he was probably the best thing in the series so far (Gollum not included), but he’s treated pretty terribly in this edition. Still, at least he’s actually there. Dain, leader of one of the titular armies, isn’t even a real person. He’s a fairly important supporting character, but for some reason he’s entirely CGI. Every other dwarf is a real person and then there’s this Scottish guy from Brave. It’s utterly baffling. It’s perhaps the most confusing moment in a film that is defined by head-scratching and ‘Oh, come onnnn’-ing.
It’s one more moment where you stop to wonder what the hell was going on for the making of these films. Bolg, another relatively important character, was shown to be originally a guy in a suit before he was replaced with CGI; and now, with Dain, you have to wonder again if this is CGI dropped on top of a real person. You wonder what would happen if you scraped away a few layers of the film, peeled back some of the gloss and sheen and CG. Would we have something more recognisable? Would we see the care and attention to detail that made the original trilogy feel so alive?
The Hobbit trilogy feels like a series of films that have gestated for much, much too long. They seem over-edited, over-polished, over-padded. There seem to be so many ideas and so many different kinds of film that we have ended up with Frankenstein-esque monsters that shamble desperately, begging for our money and holding up a sign saying “WE MADE LOTR”. Across all three films we’ve had consistent tonal inconsistency, shambling from the kid-friendly fare so frequently used to defend the films; to scenes of brutal decapitations, troubling journeys into dark psyches, and terrifying bursts of experimentalist white-noise representations of pure evil.
They’re films where one moment you laugh because that troll ran into a wall with a big stone on his head and he fell over (and died), and then the next you recoil in horror as another troll drags itself along, amputated at the knees and elbows, held together by freakish metal stubs for legs and vicious swords for arms. It’s like something from a Guillermo del Toro film, and it makes you wonder how far along his undoubtedly more twisted, surreal vision of the book actually got before it was ditched.
Hell, maybe it’s what they were trying to work off the whole time. The original trilogy was accompanied by beautiful artwork that captured everything the films were about visually. They had scale, they had texture, they had meticulous detail and loving care. What was the concept art for these films like? The crazed drawings of Guillermo that they all had to puzzle over and go “Erm, yeah, I guess we can make this work”? Or was it just a series of backdrops for greenscreens?
Watching the Fellowship of the Ring you can see the time and love and care put into making that film. It’s the work of master craftsmen (and women) pouring their heart and soul into something. Every image seems curated, agonised over. The film is a series of iconic images, full of artistry, invention and beauty. The Hobbit trilogy has felt like a rush job from start to finish. There isn’t a single truly iconic image from the films. Nothing that feels like it was done for artistry, instead just a series of stock set-ups to facilitate ‘events’. The latter Lord of the Rings films increasingly had this feel, but they got through it with sheer passion and verve. There’s none of that here. There’s no sense that anyone is as committed, as invested, as in love with the pieces of art they’re making as anyone was on The Fellowship.
With the previous films this love and care seemed to be a cinematic force unto itself, projecting a reality and a weight onto the world that no other fantasy film before or since has managed. Things seemed like they happened in places. Real places, with real textures and real backdrops and real people.
The Battle of the Five Armies takes place in about four locations. In spite of two hours being dedicated to so few locations I still don’t have a clue how any of them really look or feel. People just sort of end up places, and other people just sort of emerge from places. At one point a character announces that an army is coming from the north. Bilbo turns and asks “Where’s north?”. Good question, Bilbo; unfortunately, even after that army arrives, I still can’t tell you where north is or where they came from. They’re just there and now ‘events’ are happening.
What makes the Fellowship the best of the bunch is its focus. It’s why these places can feel so grounded. Surely Battle of the Five Armies, consisting almost entirely of battle scenes, benefits from the same refinement of scope? No, it doesn’t. It remains saddled by sub-plots, most notably the Wizards Alliance vs. Not-Sauron, which just sort of happens sometimes and then goes away for a while. Incidentally, how any of them have any questions about the ‘shadow in the East’ that the Fellowship sees them mull over now seems ridiculous. They all knew that this was self-evidently Sauron and then proceeded to just sit on that information for a while.
Jackson’s work here at times puts even Sith Lord Lucas to shame. When we see the Nazgul re-emerge from their graves it is both not at all frightening and totally jarring. The Nazgul were staggeringly cool in the original trilogy; now they’re all hopelessly over-designed. They all have some crazy weapon and some crazy accoutrement to their outfit, like they’re some death metal ensemble. It’s just silly.
The other major sub-plot, that of Kili and Tauriel’s crowbarred-in romance, is actually okay. I mean, they don’t get much time together but they use it relatively well. Mostly it’s good because it’s a break from the fighting. God is there a lot of fighting. At times you wonder how the fighting can ever end, how anyone can ever die, as the film drags out fight after fight to the point of incredulity. And then it goes past that point too and you just laugh because how on Earth did that character jump back up after that.
In Amon Hen and Helm’s Deep, Jackson can lay claim to having directed two of the finest extended action sequences in film history. The former may well be the outright best. They have momentum and energy and abound with subtle flourishes. In Amon Hen you feel the rush of the chase, you feel the movement downhill. Everything, most of all the camera, moves with real purpose. Amidst this surge there are token moments for the audience to gawp at – Aragorn sweeping an Uruk’s legs out, Gimli nailing one in the face with a throwing axe, Legolas standing around shooting things.
Legolas sounds the dullest there but he’s probably the best. In the moment in question he simply stands still as Uruks flood by and get shot. It’s devastingly simple, but works almost more as a character moment than an a proper action one. It tells you that Legolas isn’t a show-off – he’s cool, calm and composed. He can just stand at the edge of frame and shoot guys.
This mix of composition, character and genuinely cool action content makes for utterly gripping viewing. In Battle of The Armies you get a camera hovering like a drunk on a trapeze, swaying wildly over a mass of CG soldiers running to-and-fro, somewhere among them presumably some characters you care about. It’s like Total War: Middle Earth. It’s incredibly vast and detailed but it’s all just stuff. It’s just incomprehensible bodies of grey and brown surging and swelling around each other. I don’t even know who’s who, never mind who’s winning. There are no shots, there are no moments.
What moments there are come not in big set-pieces but in one-on-one combat. Compare Lurtz and Aragorn to any number of these scenes from The Hobbit (they’re all the same): Lurtz and Aragorn hammer it out for a spell, have a good to-and-fro, really go for each other, and then Lurtz gets horribly killed after a minute or so; Character 1 in the Hobbit fights Character 2 in the Hobbit and what you get is a ten-minute long mess of kung-fu and people getting thrown around. There is false climax after false climax, each one more pathetically lazy than the last. There is cool moment after cool moment, each one hopelessly over-done. There is a cut and a cut and a cut and the camera swirls and spirals and dives and, eventually, you just give up trying to work out what’s going on until the next near-death moment. These fights lack tension, they lack care in composition, they lack weight. Not only are these fights drawn out filler, the fights themselves have filler within filler.
You would barely even know these films were made by the same director, so stark is the difference in not only quality, but the fundamentals of style. Jackson’s previous work in Middle Earth had combined scale and groundedness, movement and stillness. He’d let an image or a line sit for a moment before moving on. He’d let you digest what’s happening. He seemed in control, carefully guiding you through this world. Here the action blunders from one shot to the next, everything hopelessly formulaic and routine. The imagery that has compelled millions of fans to flock to New Zealand seems drawn from another world entirely. This landscape instead seems barren, miserable, featureless. Where before the scenery seemed impossible in its beauty, now it seems impossibly ordinary.
Or perhaps that’s simply because you never see any of it properly. Amidst the wash of CGI characters the film suffers from another excess of post-production – a horrible, plastic, smudge-y sheen that surrounds the world; like someone dripped coffee all over the camera lens and just rubbed it in rather than getting it off. The far-off landscapes of Middle Earth, once captured with the stunning clarity that only a location shoot can achieve, are now a blurred, bloomed-out mess of colours exploding in the distance. The sky is always impossibly golden or impossibly black or impossibly white. It feels so far from real, so far from what audiences knew.
Jackson’s insistence on shooting 48ps is probably a large factor in this shift in style (as well as more ordinary over-indulgence from behind a computer screen), with excesses of contrast and tighter framing perhaps an attempt to compensate for the formats tendency to show up the artificiality of sets. An attitude of keeping things out of sight and out mind leads to a horribly ugly film, with perhaps the only striking image being Smaug’s fall. Even then it isn’t captured particularly gracefully, it’s simply too impressive not to look good.
Also, perhaps more crucially, it’s striking because it’s simple. The recent George Lucas version of the Star Wars trailer nailed his newfound insistence on filling the scene with an excess of crap all the time. Jackson seems to have fallen down the same hole. Perhaps it’s another means of covering up the artificiality of both CGI and set by overloading images with stuff, but the end result is a cinematic vista that just looks clogged. Clogged is the only word for it. It’s just…clogged. There are many things and none of them are particularly attractive, but you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of things into thinking it’s impressive. It is, in a way, but it’s not very subtle. What made Middle Earth so convincing was the amount of empty space, the feeling that they were actually traversing a wide, epic landscape. Battle of the Five Armies is decidely un-epic. It is decidedly bad. It is decidedly hilarious.
And so, eventually, mercifully, we reach the end of my rant, as seemingly interminable as any of Jackson’s recent works. Looking back on the trilogy we can see how this latest entry fits in, loveably stupid as it is: we’ve had Sleepy and Grumpy, and now there’s Dopey to finish it off. It’s the worst of a bad bunch, but at least it’s entertaining for that. The series is too far gone to disappoint, and I entered this one content to see it crash and burn, too smug to be angered by a cop-out ending like the second installment. Appropriately enough the end to this final instalment neatly ties old and new trilogies together, undoubtedly offending legions of fans in the process. And somewhere in the background, Mr. Jackson finishes squeezing the last droplet of money-flavoured milk from the thoroughly exhausted teat of a once universally beloved franchise.
Cut to close-up of large old book.
Slow zoom to reveal the word Silmarrilion etched on the cover.
Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage share this year’s award for most hilariously terrible movie death scene. The death of Thorin should have been shocking and moving but, preceded as it was by that absolute farce of a final showdown with Azog (that moment under the ice was a thing of beauty), I perhaps should have known better from these films. What we got instead – Bilbo awkwardly saying “Look, the Eagles….they’re here….” whilst nudging Thorin as if he was a small child – was a moment of absurdist comedy genius. Freeman hasn’t done enough straight comedy since The Office but this is his funniest moment in years. He portrays this tonal catastrophe with astonishingly convincing gormlessness, as if he was just some random guy who happened to be around when this legendary warrior fell: “Here, mate, head up, eagles…right over there…look at ‘em, there they are”.
It is a cinematic triumph, made all the more brilliant by Jackson’s astonishing conviction in carrying out this travesty of a come-down when we see Freeman and McKellen sit awkwardly in the next scene; McKellen struggling to light a pipe and Freeman swinging his legs nonchalantly. They look like two extras off for a fag, each one bubbling up with excitement, bursting to tell the other how hilariously terrible they think the film they’re working on is, but neither sure if the other feels the same way. Instead they just sit, and quietly laugh to themselves; and we, the audience, sit much like them, and we laugh under our breath. We look around in disbelief, we hold our tongue, we keep laughing.