Saturday, December 20, 2014

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies": review

[NB: I'm taking a break from working at the office to write this review, banging it out while the film is still fresh in my mind.]

I wanted to see "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" last night, but once I got back to my place, exhaustion fell upon me and I went to sleep. Such is the plight of old men. I resolved to catch a matinee showing, which I did at 10:30AM today. Was the 144-minute film worth a W5,000 ticket? In a word: yes. A bit more detail: the movie was good but not great, and overall the second film gets my vote as the greatest of this trilogy. Would it have been worth a W10,000 ticket? Probably not.

"Armies" is, I suppose, Peter Jackson's last attempt at putting his stamp on the Lord of the Rings saga, to which he was at great pains to tie JRR Tolkien's humble little novel for children, The Hobbit. I had thought the final film in this very stretched-out series was going to be titled "There and Back Again," but much like "Revenge of the Jedi," this title proved to be a red herring (for titling issues, see here).

Here's an impressionistic summary: there were moments that wowed me thanks to the always-capable cinematography and the fantastical melding of actual New Zealand scenery with CGI landscapes and structures. There were moments that touched me, too, especially in the way the film dealt with Thorin's and Kili's demise (surely this isn't a spoiler for you, is it? you did read the book, yes?) and with the final moments of Bilbo's return to the Shire. There were moments that made me laugh, especially with the welcome introduction of Billy Connolly in a role he was born to play: that of Dáin the dwarf, cousin of Thorin, and proud wearer of the most aggressive facial hair I've ever seen.

Then, alas, there were the long moments that bored me. I think Peter Jackson, who took Akira Kurosawa's battle scenes and amplified them, through CGI, into massively bloated martial tableaux, has pretty much shown us everything he's capable of when it comes to land warfare. As much as I love fight choreography, I'm not sure I'm any longer a fan of war choreography. It's all CGI these days, and CGI sucks the life and meaning out of every battle: it's just pixels striving against pixels. Even on a more personal scale, CGI tends to remove much of the charm from a fight. You can watch Orlando Bloom's spry Legolas leap impossibly from rock to rock only so many times before you have to stifle a yawn.

I also found it strange that quite a few of this movie's most powerful moments come through characters who either aren't in Tolkien's novel at all, or who are in it only peripherally. Tauriel weeps over Kili, and Thranduil (whose character arc in this movie is nearly impossible to understand) is there to comfort her. Bard shows mercy toward Alfrid (a character, like Tauriel, created for the movie), the simpering sidekick of Lake-town's Master. And while we're on the topic of things not in the book, I can't remember whether the book ever mentioned a condition called "dragon sickness," which serves as the movie's explanation for the temporary twisting of Thorin's otherwise sterling character, but fails to explain why Thorin's grandfather succumbed to a similar ill. "Dragon sickness" felt awfully contrived to me; it screamed plot device, much like the umpteenth deus ex machina appearance of those Eagles.* At this point, I'd almost rather see a dwarf point to the sky, shout, "The Eagles!"—and have the Philadelphia Eagles come charging into battle.

But there were positives. My favorite fight scene was the utterly non-canonical one involving Saruman, Elrond, and a bevy of ghosts. Galadriel, after spending most of her time protecting Gandalf, went into Valkyrie mode late in that fight, dismissing every malign spirit that had chosen to congregate in the fortress of Dol Guldur—even the specter of Sauron himself. This was enough to make me wonder just what sort of being Galadriel was. Other positives included a cameo by Radagast the Brown and a very brief glimpse of Beorn, airdropped into battle by an Eagle. Also enjoyable were the actors' respective performances, although with an ensemble cast as overstuffed as this one is, it's only natural for some performances to upstage others. Billy Connolly's Dáin wins the prize for most memorable character. Finally, it was amusing to see the various animals used as destriers in battle: Thranduil rode his enormous moose-caribou-thing; Dáin had his war boar; the dwarves of Erebor somehow got hold of armored mountain goats, which proved useful in climbing up to Azog's lofty perch.

One major plot hole, though, involved enormous rock-eating worms capable of boring gaping tunnels into mountains, facilitating the movement of Azog's and Bolg's goblin/orc armies. Those worms struck me as the chthonian answer to the Eagles: a deus ex machina from below, they could have won the battle for Erebor—the dwarves' mountain kingdom and rightful home—with ease, swallowing up treasure by the megaton and leaving the dwarf kingdom in tunneled ruins. Instead, the worms appear only briefly, making a few large holes and then retreating, never to be heard from again. That was disappointing, but maybe Peter Jackson understood that we've had our fill of sandworm-like menaces, which have appeared as recently as "The Avengers" (a picture of a Leviathan is in my "Avengers" review here). Still, if I were Azog, I'd use those worms to reduce the Lonely Mountain to rubble, and maybe even to punch holes into the Earth's crust, cause some major quakes and eruptions, and turn Middle Earth into a far more goblin-friendly zone.

Overall, I found "Armies" extremely flawed but watchable for the price of a five-dollar ticket. It was consistent with the previous film in its overt departure from Tolkien's vision, but in terms of its major battles, it held absolutely no surprises. A few judicious cameos (Dáin, Beorn) leavened the plot with a little extra mirth and excitement. The non-canonical characters received too much screen time and were given too much emotional heft, in my opinion, but the movie hit all the major plot points of the book: the death of Smaug by Bard's hand, Bilbo's ferrying of the Arkenstone to the Elves, Thorin's rage at and reconciliation with Bilbo, the deaths of Kili and Fili, and Bilbo's eventual return home. In short, the film was both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

My final view of Peter Jackson's latest trilogy is that, really, he should never have expanded a lone book into this bloated monstrosity of a series. I also think it would have been better to see Guillermo del Toro's vision of The Hobbit rather than Jackson's. Jackson didn't really show me anything I hadn't seen before in his magnificent LOTR trilogy, and the feeling I'm ultimately left with, when all is said and done, is a pining for what might have been.

ADDENDUM: My buddy Charles and I seem to be on roughly the same page. Click here to read his massive review, which he considers more a form of writing therapy than an actual review—a way of exorcising his disappointment. He might not style the movie "satisfactory and unsatisfactory" as I did, but he obviously had many of the same complaints that I had, and he goes into impressive detail in discussing them.

*This site describes dragon sickness and says it's a concept from Tolkien's novel, not a contrivance cooked up for the movie version. I honestly don't remember the malaise's being mentioned, but the site contends the sickness was a rather important concept, so I suppose it's to my shame that I don't recall it. The sickness still fails to explain why Thorin's grandfather Thror, who ruled before the dragon ever came to the Lonely Mountain, fell prey to the lure of Erebor's treasure. ("I am not my grandfather," Thorin repeatedly grates to himself at one point in the movie, alluding to his grandsire's temptation.)

A further wrinkle: Wikipedia suggests that Thorin's father Thráin, not Thror the grandfather, is more likely the one whose heart was corrupted by his possession of a Ring of Power. Did Peter Jackson get this wrong? Did he pin the moral failing on the wrong generation?


1 comment:

Charles said...

When I was putting the finishing touches on my "review" and getting ready to upload it, I noticed that you had written one as well--but I've only just read it now. I would agree that we seem to be on roughly the same page, especially this: "...the feeling I'm ultimately left with, when all is said and done, is a pining for what might have been." Yep, that's it.

Good point on the worms. I was a bit surprised when they burst out of the earth... and then disappeared again. The burrows, caverns, and warrens that the orcs and goblins used in the books were, of course, already in place. There was no reason to introduce these worms other than to have big monsters.

It's just so frustrating that Jackson and Company wasted their time and energy on things that mean nothing when they have shown that they are fully capable of bringing Tolkien to life.

One point where we disagree: I feel that the first film was far and away the best. The second film definitely had its moments, but the first was closest to what I had been hoping to see, even if it did go slightly off the rails at points.

I suspect that I will have to do a Hobbit marathon at some point in the future and revisit all of this. Maybe we can have a Hobbit party or something.