Five Armies, No Waiting

by wjw on January 6, 2015

For the most part the holidays were spent in attitudes of collapse, but I did manage to drag myself to the theater to view The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies.

Those who remember my notes on the previous two films will recall that I feared the third movie would consist only of the Battle of Lake Town, the Battle of Dol Guldur, and the Battle of the Five Armies, for two and a half hours of solid combat.  And alas, I was pretty much right.

The Battle of Dol Guldur, at least, is mercifully brief, and has a limited cast.  Galadriel wins the fight via the unexpected tactic of holding her breath till she turns blue.  (Tolkien geeks will rejoice that Narya, Nenya, and Vilya were the right colors, and on the right fingers.)

 The Battle of Lake Town had its moments of grandeur as Smaug strafed the town, though as everything in a Peter Jackson movie is Bigger! Better! Faster!, and because if you’ve got something made of CGI it can be as big as you like, Smaug is longer than an aircraft carrier and should be just as unstoppable.  Bard’s method of shooting him from the sky would never have worked in reality, and continued the series’ tradition of physical action that is frankly impossible.

Which brings us to the Battle of Five Pages, which is how long Tolkien takes to describe the battle in the book.  In the film, the battle lasts over an hour, which amounts to more than twelve filmed minutes per page of type.  (Bigger!  Better!  Faster!)  This is accomplished by jettisoning Tolkien’s battle and inventing a new one that, well, drags on forever.  It contains all the beats of Tolkien’s battle, with a lot more added, and more characters, and more orcs, and more eagles, which seem to be about the size of a B-47 and have enough room in their bomb bays to carry a giant were-bear.

Much of the action in the battles is physically impossible, as is so often the case in CGI-heavy action films.  To my mind, the action scenes would be far more effective and interesting if they stuck to something like physical reality, but maybe that’s just me.

Most of the additional material accomplished its purpose, which was to delay the ending of the movie so that the film wouldn’t end 45 minutes in.   There was, for instance, a lot of screen time given to a false dilemma.  (Will Thorin sulk in his palace during the final battle scene, or will he prove worthy of his ancestors and join in the fighting?   Why am I even asking this question?)  Minor characters, like King Thranduil, were provided with an arc.  (He begins the film as a bigoted snob, and after a bunch of orcs hand his ass to him, he becomes slightly less bigoted and snobby.  I’m not sure how that follows, but what the hell.)

(And incidentally, kings are about the worst-behaved people in The Hobbit.  They’re all arrogant and unpleasant.  Give Thorin a crown and he turns into a paranoid, bombastic shit.  It makes you wonder why everyone in Gondor is so happy to get a king at the end of LotR.)

Most prominent among the additions is the three-way romance between Legolas, Fili, and Tauriel the Elf-Maid, which in the third film reached its inevitable tragic finale.  Tauriel, unfortunately, turned out to be a damp squib.  She spent the Laketown battle evacuating, and the final battle knocked out of the fight, watching the boys doing all the important hacking and hewing.  Unfortunate, after the buildup she got.  Legolas, meanwhile, did his usual trick of polishing off a few hundred orcs before breakfast.)

The one addition that I thought actually worked was giving Bard a wife and children, which made the one-dimensional character from the novel more interesting, and provided different points-of-view on the climactic scene.

The previous two films were redeemed, I thought, by Martin Freeman’s marvelously humane characterization of Bilbo.  In this film his acting seemed twitchy and less heartfelt, and I found myself unmoved.

The theater was packed when I saw BotFA, but at the end there was no cheering, no happiness, no delight.  We just trudged away from the joyless theater, beaten into pudding by over two hours of relentless action.

Maybe for once the director’s cut could actually be shorter?  Ninety minutes maybe, with all the extraneous material cut out, and the focus on Bilbo?

Well, one can dream.

Kristin January 6, 2015 at 1:57 pm

Best. Review. Yet. Totally agree. Personally, by the time movie #3 rolled around, I wanted Smaug to smite the town, smoke the armies, and eat the main characters to put me out of my misery.

One can indeed, dream.

Mark Wise January 6, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Great review. I’ve been referring to it as “The Dwarf King Under the Mountain: Part III.”

Alas, Jackson needed a prequel trilogy for LotR and Tolkien didn’t write one. It’s almost like story matters…

Michael Mock January 6, 2015 at 2:23 pm

“To my mind, the action scenes would be far more effective and interesting if they stuck to something like physical reality, but maybe that’s just me.”

It’s not just you. I have real trouble watching certain kinds of action movies (old James Bond, the first Mission Impossible film, Cutthroat Island) where physics is just kind of… ignored whenever it gets inconvenient. Give me some excuse to ignore that (as, for example, with the Underworld movies – or whatever phlebotinum they used in The Core) and I’m probably okay, but just ignore it? No. Distracting. I end up thinking “What the hell?” and not, y’know, watching the movie.

mearsk January 6, 2015 at 6:25 pm

I didn’t have a problem with the action so much as how CGI heavy it was. What made LotR movies great was they used CGI to complement the practical effects. For instance, the Urukai army in The Two Towers had several hundred actual people dressed up in costumes. They then used CGI to make the army into thousands. In the last Hobbit, it was all CGI, and it was obvious.

herewiss13 January 6, 2015 at 6:35 pm

I actually thought Thranduil’s arc worked pretty well. It wasn’t long or complex, but being able to see his own grief reflected in Tauriel allowed him to gain a measure of empathy that had been lacking previously. I felt the transition from scorn to sympathy was effective.

Also: I was somehow completely unspoiled for Billy Connolly’s appearance which was both delightful and random. He looked and sounded like he’d come over from the Worlds of Warcraft movie set, though.

kpacheneg January 6, 2015 at 7:13 pm

The important question is, however, if the trilogy made enough money to adapt the Silmarillion, as the prequel trilogy’s prequel trilogy or so.

Or maybe they pull an inverted Herbert/Anderson and let a semi-well-known and -competent fantasy writer create sequels out of notes that haven’t been made into books by Tolkien’s son.

wjw January 7, 2015 at 4:02 am

Nobody’s writing any more Middle-Earth stuff until Christopher Tolkien dies, that’s for sure . And I’m sure he hated the films, so I doubt the film rights to any additional books will be on offer. Since the Silmarillion wasn’t completed until years after JRRT’s death, I very much doubt the film rights were ever sold.

Plus of course Christopher Tolkien maintains that New Line cheated the Tolkien Trust out of tens of millions of pounds, so he’s not inclined to view the film world with charity, in any case.

Ralf The Dog January 7, 2015 at 4:26 am

Wait… I thought the books were based off of the movies.

As to unrealistic physics in movies, one bad example was The Matrix. Most of the stuff Neo did was not remotely possible. They also did a bad job of color correction. (It came off a bit green.)

If you want an example of a movie that got the physics right, watch the original GI Joe movie. Perhaps the most realistic scene in any film was the icebergs breaking up and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I also loved the part where the fighter jet took off and chased down two ICBMs simultaneously launched from the North Pole. The first aimed at DC, the second at Moscow. Most movies incorrectly show a suborbital ballistic missile being faster than a jet.

JaniceG January 7, 2015 at 4:31 am

Actually, although I was expecting non-stop battles, I did think they created some character arcs in there although, as you note, they are add-ons to the story in the book. Completely agree about the lady elf: we had been wondering after we saw the first film why there were two cute dwarves among the more dwarf-looking dwarves and then got our annoying answer in film two (Ohhhh, a love interest *sigh*) Given the trouble they took bolting this entirely new sub-plot onto the story, you’d have thought there would be a much better payoff in the final film.

Personally, I didn’t even notice whether Martin Freeman was in the film as it was entirely owned by Richard Armitage as Thorin, who did a great job even with some of the lackluster material he was given.

Regarding the CGI, I’ve been wondering whether other screenings were like ours: when Legolas leaped up on a “staircase” of falling rocks to avoid falling into the abyss, most of the audience (including us) burst into laughter.

Steinar Bang January 7, 2015 at 8:23 am

@Ralf The Dog: those icebergs were frozen heavy water, obviously…

Jim Strickland January 7, 2015 at 8:29 pm

Ralf, point of fact: the color correction was meant to be greenish in the Matrix. Only in the real world scenes is it not, or so they said in the making of notes with the DVD. Also, the whole point with The Matrix is that the world most of it takes place in /is/ CG.

Not to say there aren’t plot holes you could drive a semi through in the brief interludes in the “real world.”

Generally agree on 3d effects and physics. One thing they seem to miss is that /optical/ physics matter too. If you’re going for realism, you won’t see all the microscopic details on (for example) the Enterprise from every angle simply because many of them are too far away. Having them all visible flattens the image. (IMHO the JJ Abrams Trek effects are dreadful, by and large, though not so egregious as late George Lucas.)

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