The Battle of Five Armies is a suitable finish to a trilogy which had no business being a trilogy. It’s kind of a mess, kind of boring, occasionally spectacular, possibly offensive, and ultimately forgettable. If it is less absurd than the first film in the series (and then, not by much), it lacks that film’s cozy tedium. And it lacks really likable characters–but they shall receive theirs in due time.
Maybe my seeing it at an evening showing (on top not only of an afternoon viewing of Into the Woods, but also of Christmas dinner) didn’t help. But a battle of this scope and ostensible importance should’ve jolted me awake. Instead, I realized for most of the running time that I simply didn’t care.
This review ended up being more profane than I expected. I wonder why.
A summary seems almost irrelevant, but here goes:
Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), the dragon who was unleashed at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, goes to wreak havoc on Laketown, but owing to his own idiocy, is killed by Bard (Luke Evans). Meanwhile, the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) survey their reclaimed stronghold, Erebor, and search for the Arkenstone, a magical stone which will apparently confer great power on the dwarf king who wields it. Thorin becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the stone, as well as with keeping as much of the dwarves’ considerable treasure to himself.
His obsession tipping over into megalomania, the other dwarves become wary of him, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), when he finds the Arkenstone, conceals it rather than feed Thorin’s madness.
Meanwhile, several other groups begin to converge on Erebor: the people of Laketown, seeking a place to live; the elves, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), who want some valuable gemstones (and something else, I think); an army of orcs, led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), who are in the service of Sauron, while Azog has a personal vendetta against Thorin; and another dwarf army, led by Dáin (Billy Connolly–wait, really?), coming to reinforce the small band who have followed Thorin.
The titular battle ensues. Also, there’s a showdown between Sauron (voice of Cumberbatch) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), while Gandalf (Ian McKellen) does some shit, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) does some shit (and has shit on his face), and Alfrid Lickspittle (Ryan Gage) does everything he can to avoid doing anything.
Can you guess I wasn’t into it? Can you guess that I’m just done with this trilogy and kind of amazed at how it turned out, but not the good kind of amazed? What can I even say about this film that I haven’t said about its predecessors? The production design is still impressive–Dan Hennah won’t win another award from me, but he did a hell of a job over this series. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is fine. So, of course, are the costumes and makeup (with one exception which I’ll get to shortly). Howard Shore’s music didn’t introduce any new themes that I really noticed, but shit happens. Jabez Olsson’s editing doesn’t keep the film from becoming boring, but I suppose, given the convolutions of the story, I generally knew what was going on. The special effects are a little iffier at times, but that plays into an issue I want to save for later, for the one who will receive the brunt of my wrath. Can you guess who it is?
That’s right, it’s Peter fucking Jackson, the man who squeezed eight hours’ worth of film out of one 300-page book, by breaking its bones and stuffing it with an unholy amount of nonsense. Everything with Sauron and the Neuromancer. All the extra material with Radagast. Azog, the hysterically inept Orc general. Hell, a scene like Bilbo returning home to find his house being auctioned off–which I’m assured was in the book–comes off as more padding! (Not that I’m saying Tolkien was totally innocent of padding–I didn’t really need that last scene in Return of the King–but good God.) And, on top of that, he doesn’t even resolve the fate of the Arkenstone!
At least this entry is less padded than An Unexpected Journey (it’s a full 25 minutes shorter), but it falls short of that film in other ways, one of which I didn’t expect: I found it hard, if not impossible, to really root for any of these characters. Let’s take this character by character:
- Thorin is a massive douche in this entry, a nasty, greedy, power-hungry bastard who’s ready to go back on his word for the sake of hoarding his riches. The idea, of course, is that when he inevitably realizes the error of his ways and redeems himself in battle, we’re meant to be cheered by it. But I was not, because Thorin’s always been a smug stick-up-the-ass jerk.
- Bard is a moron; the only reason he even defeats Smaug is because Smaug is even dumber, committing a complete Talking Killer Fallacy, and he proceeds to let the cowardly, selfish Alfrid stick around, sparing his life, even giving him positions of responsibility in battle, in taking the watch, etc….he’s incredibly naive and luck-dependent for a supposed badass (and don’t even get me started on that ridiculous scene with him riding a wagon down a hill. That was some video game bullshit.)
- Bilbo barely does anything in the film. Aside from the bit with the Arkenstone, a bit where he gets sort of caught in the middle of the battle, and his final return to the Shire, he really has little to do, and I doubt he’s an active presence in more than a third of the film.
- Thranduil. Do I really need to say anything more, other than remind you that Lee Pace played him? I mean, he’s clearly meant to be a douche, but he’s such a douche he really makes the rest of the elves look bad. Legolas doesn’t come off all that well either (though not as patronizingly as in the last film). I will give Thranduil this, though: he rides an elk, and that’s pretty badass.
- Most of the other dwarves are as they have hitherto been: ciphers. Aside from the avuncular Balin (Ken Stott) and the lovelorn Kili (Aidan Turner), they rather badly blur into one another; Bombur (Stephen Hunter), who in the first two films weirdly never uttered a word, but served as oafish comic relief, is essentially absent from this entry. In any case, it’s never good when the characters you’ve spent three films with are as anonymous at the end as they were at the beginning.
- And again, Smaug…you goddamn idiot…you had so many chances to burn Bard to a crisp, but you just talked and taunted and took your sweet fucking time and got an arrow in the belly for it. You…fucker.
- And Radagast still hasn’t washed the bird shit off his face. Enough said.
And Alfrid is going to get his own paragraph, because fuck him. A friend of mine, who’s spent much of her life in Europe, argues that Alfrid, especially in visual terms, represents a Jewish stereotype on a par with Jüd Suß. His black clothing, shabby appearance, cowardice, opportunistic nature and intense greed all play into this stereotype.
Was this the intention of the designers? I don’t know. (The same friend suggested that the design was based on a specifically British paradigm of anti-Semitism.) But whether the character was conceived to be a stereotype or a generic weaselly foil for Bard, his shtick is tiresome and his continued presence in the plot illogical. Gage doesn’t stint on the hammy villainy, but the design and material defeat him.
Jackson drops the ball elsewhere. The showdown between Galadriel and Sauron is, to put it plainly, embarrassing. There are weird, cheesy strobe-cuts (or whatever they’re called), and at one point Galadriel goes all green like she’s in a fucking Asylum film. Exactly what was happening (other than random magical bullshit) I could barely determine, other than Sauron was held at bay, and Saruman, with all the subtlety of a fart in an elevator, said “leave him to me”–and we all know how that worked out.
The battle scene itself, which sprawls over the second half of the film, has some impressive moments, no doubt. It’s big-budget fantasy spectacle, and if none of it has the weight of the Rings trilogy, it’s reasonably entertaining in of itself. And as superfluous as the Thorin-Azog feud was (and can I say, Azog sucks. He’s totally inept at his job, and only survives this long because of narrative convenience. He’s a pretty disastrous character), their final showdown was decently handled–aside from a really wonky fake-out, but whatever–including what I must assume was a little nod to Alexander Nevsky.
But really, I find myself with very little of consequence to say about The Battle of the Five Armies. By and large, it’s not so bad that it makes me angry, but it inspired little real excitement or awe as it sat through it. Mostly just a sense of a trilogy that never should have been, limping to an overdue finish, with all the unnecessary characters coming back for an encore and all the unnecessary storylines being tediously tied up. I’ll allow that some of my indifference was the result of fatigue, but that only goes so far.