Wednesday, January 7, 2015

There And Back Again

Year: 2014
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Run Time: 2 hours 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I wish I could say this was the end of the Middle Earth franchise. It seems like it is. But nobody could have predicted that after the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Line Cinema could have ever become sufficiently desperate to drag a reluctant Peter Jackson into helming a trio of mirthless prequels based on the 300-page book The Hobbit. This is Hollywood, baby. Anything can happen. So take this with a grain of salt (or a handful of grains of salt around the rim of a margarita glass - I don't blame you if you feel the need to drown your sorrows), but we're finally, finally finished.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies cost more money than you or I will ever make in our lifetimes. Combined. Armed with that budget, it guarantees that the film isn't, like, bad bad. The costumes are neat. And the sets are impressive. But if I've ever seen a film so extravagantly, effortfully pointless as this, I must have blocked it out of my memory long ago.

Oh dear, it's all rushing back to me.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens its overlong run time (though it's mercifully shorter than the previous two entries) by leaping straight into where the last film left off. The dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attacking Lake Town while the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry), like 517 dwarves, and the city's populace attempt to make an escape through the besieged canals.

If you are like me, you prepared for this film by neither re-watching The Desolation of Smaug nor poring over The Silmarillion quite as studiously as you might have, and thus are completely in the dark as to what exactly is happening, to whom, and why (for god's sake, why?). Who are these dozens of characters we're meant to keep track of? What does this dragon have against the seemingly peaceful, if a bit unhygienic denizens of Lake Town? Why, in a world where places are named things like Rivendell or Mordor, did anybody think "Lake Town" was a keen way to go? And - most importantly - Why are we supposed to take this dragon attack seriously when it looks like a slightly updated remaster of Castlevania? 

To be fair, the CGI here is nowhere as egregious as in previous entries, but it opens on what is by far its worst bit, compounded with the fact that we have no time to take a breath and adjust to the narrative universe before all hell breaks loose. The scene with Smaug has no bearing on the plot of the film at large and would be much better placed at the end of the second entry, though I'm glad Benedict Cumberbatch will be receiving a third paycheck. Atta boy, Cumbie. ...Bendy? We'll come up with a nickname later.

We don't have time to worry about nicknames. We've got a dozen dwarves to pretend we care about.

The rest of the film centers around various troops mobilizing to stake their claim over the now vacant Lonely Mountain. If you guessed that there were five of said armies, you're quite clever. Far too clever for the film, which (depending on who's counting) displays somewhere between 4 and 7 armies, only three of which are etched out in any real way. These three are the dwarves from the first two films, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who just want their home back, though Thorin begins to succumb to his miserly treasure-hoarding instinct; the elves, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), who crave the return of some super cool fantasy gems that are rightfully theirs; and the humans of Lake Town, led by Bard (Luke Evans), who just want a place to stay and maybe a bit of reward money for helping the dwarves reclaim their kingdom and all. These armies face off against each other and a herd of orcs led by franchise villain the Pale Orc, and their battle for the kingdom lasts for pretty much the entirety of the film.

The Battle of the Five Armies gives up completely on developing character, especially for the dwarves in Thorin's crew, assuming (wrongly) that their work was completed for them in the first two thirds of the trilogy. Instead we get almost a solid hour and a half of action/war movie tropes so hoary and ancient that J. R. R. Tolkien himself would have thought they were cheesy. The day he was born. There's enough of them to make up the fifth titular army, including "we strike at dawn" (why wait?), name characters getting choked by villains instead of stabbed so somebody can come save them, and people switching between English and fictional languages with no rhyme or reason because nobody likes reading subtitles.

Perhaps the most indicative of these moments is one of those "lines heard earlier in the movie are repeated while a character makes a breakthrough" scenes, which lasts for about fifty minutes longer than it needs to and completely ignores the grandiosity of the film's attempted tone. It's melodramatic, operatic, and atrocious.

And these guys don't even get to kiss.

That scene is one among many that plays for sober grandeur, but ultimately winds up being supremely silly. I shan't spoil them, for this is a current film, after all. But just remember that by the time the pipe-cleaning scene rolls around, your brain will have rattled too far out of its socket to do you any good trying to make fun of it.

Even without its more idiotic moments, this heaving lump of a movie never finds its bearings, swiveling from one subplot to the next without a care in the world. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) fades into the background, only existing in the narrative as a conduit for several baffling cameos. The love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) gives a brief twitch before rotting away in ignominy. And the filmmakers are too focused on the machinations of war to remember that they're supposed to be wrapping up something. A trilogy, perhaps? One gets the sense that the idea of this film's finality is but a distant, foggy memory, clouded by opium and self-satisfaction.

At least the fight scenes are decent. None of them match the mayhem or kiddie fun of the barrel riding scene in the second film, but they're the kind of epic medieval battles we've come to expect from Jackson. Their large scale clanking makes for some enjoyable popcorn fun, the kind where you unfocus your eyes and just let it wash over you. Too many of the endlessly unspooling scenes repeat themselves for the film to be a terrifically exciting ride, but all in all it could be worse.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a sprawling, miserly wreck. Between the scenes that require one to have substantial knowledge of the book and its battalion of appendices, the stunted characters, and the half-hearted computer graphics, one only gets the sense that it is a product of the most lazy, dispirited filmmaking on the market today. But Hollywood knows how to get butts in the seats and crams the movie full of shiny gewgaws, so at the very least you won't actively hate being in the theater.

TL;DR: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a shambling wreck, but at least its world is decently crafted.
Rating: 5/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I wouldn't, but it doesn't seem like very many of you are.
Word Count: 1291
Reviews In This Series
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Jackson, 2014)

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