Sunday 21 December 2014

Battle of the Five Hours

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is apparently the shortest of Peter Jackson's Hobbit series, but had you told me it was twice as long as any of the Lord of the Rings films I might well have believed you. The Battle of the Five Armies is, above all, an earnest plea for the importance of structure. It's a film that - after a prologue that feels tacked on from the preceding film - is just an enormous slog, without notable turns, shifts, pauses or high points.  It's noisy and epic in its ambitions, while at the same time being utterly inert and tedious.

I should say first, perhaps, that I haven't seen either of the two preceding films. (The release of An Unexpected Journey inspired me to re-read the book, at least.) But if watching the first two installments is necessary to enjoy Battle of the Five Armies, that hardly improves things: Each film in a trilogy, you'd hope, should have a satisfying arc of its own and be enjoyable watched in isolation, especially since they're being released a year apart. This is something, incidentally, that Jackson's own Lord of the Rings trilogy achieves in adapting a single novel that was split into three volumes at the insistence of Tolkien's publisher, even if the writers have to strain mightily to make it happen (especially in The Two Towers, where as a consequence the seams are most obvious). For The Hobbit, Jackson didn't even try.

The plot, what there is of it: The company of dwarves having finally reached the Lonely Mountain, their 'burglar', hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), steals the Arkenstone from Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Angered, Smaug flies off to Lake-town and burns it to the ground, but is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) in the process. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), suddenly freed from the headache of how to get rid of Smaug, refounds the dwarven kingdom of Erebor and, increasingly overcome by the allure of gold, has his followers fortify the entrance before others stake a claim. As indeed they do: Bard arrives with the people of Lake-town to demand the share of the treasure Thorin promised, to help rebuild the town; he is soon joined by the army of King Thranduil of the wood-elves (Lee Pace), who is incensed at Thorin deceiving and escaping him. Thorin's pig-headed refusal to negotiate is backed up when his cousin Dáin Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) arrives with an army of dwarves. Before the sides come to blows, however, a horde of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) shows up and much mayhem ensues.

There's also a subplot involving Gandalf and some characters you may remember from the Rings films fighting the necromancer in Dol Guldur, but that takes up all of five minutes.

The Battle of the Five Armies is pretty to look at, no doubt: the wintry surrounds of the Lonely Mountain are a triumph of landscape photography, set design and cinematography. Set in cold northern wastes the Rings films never touched on, The Battle of the Five Armies serves up new, interesting environs. And there are some genuine thrills there, too: Dáin's dwarven phalanx in action is a sight to see, even if the Warhammer-esque blockiness of the dwarf design, which I've never been a fan of, still spoils the view somewhat.

On the downside there are the terrible CGI-enhanced baddies. The Rings films, for all the criticism rightly levelled at them, were heaven for fans of practical effects. The design of the orcs, using masks, prosthetics and make-up, gave the creatures a gross physicality that lined up with the spittle, body odour and vile dietary habits that defined them as fictional versions of the working-class people of Tolkien's patrician nightmares. CGI allows the creation of wonders that old-school effects have never been able to achieve, but the trade-off is still often a lack of heft and weight.

There is no reality and thus no threat to these orcs, snarl as they might. Compare the magnificant fight between Aragorn and Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to Thorin's endless, mind-numbingly boring battle against Azog in this one, and despair. (A similar scene, in which Legolas leaps along a collapsing walkway like Super Mario, caused peals of laughter to ring around the auditorium.) With the Hobbit films (let's just boldly assume this problem affects the previous two films as well), Jackson has gone full-on Phantom Menace.

The film is hopelessly dragged down is its sheer length, forced by the mercenary decision to turn The Hobbit not into one, nor two, but three feature-length films. Reverse that decision, and this entire film could be wrapped up in the 45 minutes the material merits; the enormous structural problem would disappear; the fact that the nominal protagonist has nothing to do would be much less noticeable. Lengthy, pointless scenes involving cowardly Alfrid (Ryan Gage), in which jokes about such humorous subjects as men wearing women's clothes are expected to provide comic relief, could be cut, as could a bizarre psychedelic sequence involving Thorin among Smaug's gold that shows us  Jackson using the freedom granted by a near-total absence of plot to baffling effect.

But the film's length isn't its only problem: indeed some fairly important aspects of the book are passed over in downright indecent haste (the arrival of Beorn and the eagles), while threads are left dangling in other places (we're left to assume, for example, that Dáin and the elves defeated the orc army after its leaders are killed elsewhere, but the film doesn't see the need to spell out the outcome of the  titular battle). There's the film's uninspiring visual language too: where Rings had stunning images, even if they were often an homage to greater works, The Battle of the Five Armies offers little to look at, as if Jackson was overcompensating for his tendency to gawk at his sets.

Anyway, I'm glad this new trilogy is over, and sort of pleased Jackson doesn't have the rights to any more of Tolkien's works.

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