Peter Jackson (by way of J.R.R. Tolkien) is known for his richly textured fantasies and sprawling adventures unlike any to ever grace cinema. One lesson Jackson (and his controlling financiers) did not take from the master of fiction, however, is that unlike each of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit was not made to be broken into three parts. What results is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – a plotless and needlessly elongated series of battles that proves Jackson is simply grasping at straws.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies begins almost exactly where The Desolation of Smaug left off; the citizens of Lake-town are fleeing for their lives after incurring the wrath of the recently-awoken Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). The incredibly CGI heavy massacre is half comedic relief, half adrenaline-pumping action. Jackson proves to his die-hard audience that he can still direct, but it is plainly clear that many of the additions were inserted for time – and time alone. Jackson coaxes his audience out of his artificially created, white-knuckle thrill ride with various shots of the New Zealand countryside, and even more heavy-handed comedy. We quickly realize that the countryside is the only “real” location in the film, as Jackson has digitized nearly everything else. Even the face of Orlando Bloom as Legolas seems unreal (and left me doubting whether Bloom is ever actually in the film), and many of his highflying acrobatics leave no doubt to their artifice. The middle of the film is packed with dialogue and non-verbal brooding, until Jackson is able to flex his muscle as a masterful director of extensive battles. The titular battle lasts more than 45 minutes, and is, undoubtedly, an achievement in direction and digital craftsmanship.
Peter Jackson’s reliance on digital rendering and visual effects present a huge problem to The Battle of the Five Armies, not simply because of their bases on in a digital world, but because of Jackson’s “fantastic” directorial style. Through the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson still thought much like a camera-based director, “using” awkward, heavy cameras that had severe limitations. With his near 15-year experience in the digital realm, Jackson has been able to expand his vision, and had begun (to his deficit) to view his filmmaking in a new way. With the overuse of massive zooms, pans, and impossible tracking shots, Jackson has created an artificial world that LOOKS artificial. Moving in ways that are unimaginable to anyone who is not a fighter pilot or video game designer, the audience is left to grapple with the visuals instead of with the narrative. Lost in Jackson’s improbable world, the audience is left feeling empty where they should be enthralled.
While it may not have been Peter Jackson’s decision to split The Hobbit into three parts, his participation is tantamount to endorsement, and therefore, he is somewhat responsible. An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug covered a vast portion of Tolkien’s novel, leaving almost no actual plot for the third entry in a pointlessly created trilogy. Jackson could have easily called his film The Hobbit: And the Painfully Drawn out Exsanguinations, or Peter Jackson’s Fun with Slow Motion. One can only assume that after constructing his film, Jackson found it clocked in at a measly 105 minutes, and pleaded with editors to lengthen it (in keeping with his five previous heavyweights). Bilbo (Martin Freeman) weeping at the side of a fallen comrade, add three minutes of quiet reflection; a one-on-one fight scene between Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Azog (Manu Bennett) only lasted ten – slow-motion it to fifteen. Or perhaps it is just easier to think that Jackson is railing against his producers for turning his project into a trilogy, than to think he has completely lost touch, and resorted to using hackneyed cinematic work-arounds and shortcuts.
However dull and uninteresting The Battle of the Five Armies may be, it certainly has heart – courtesy of commendable performances handed in by Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and the always-dependable Ian McKellen. Superfluous though they may be, the protracted death scenes do show just how long Freeman can convincingly hold a look of complete despondency; lip quivering, eyes swelling with tears, and completely unable to utter an intelligible word. Armitage’s Thorin is held back from achieving any true greatness due a plot surrounding a quietly brooding king, unable to see just how blinded he has become. When he is finally able to shine, his talent is unflinching, and he resumes his place as the honorable and courageous leader. Yet, for every great acting moment, there are many more that are bad; cut short by editing, comically lengthened with gratuitous dialogue, or rendered completely ineffective by CGI.
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a film that should have never needed to exist. Doomed from the beginning because of greed or corporate stupidity, Jackson was left with table scraps of plot, and thinly spread narrative. As glorious and impressive as the battle scenes are, and as solid as the casting is, there simply isn’t any heart left in The Hobbit‘s final chapter.
December 17th, 2014
Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom (maybe)