REVIEW REVISITED: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

This is a reprint of my review which was published on this blog in December 2015, with a number of significant revisions. That version of the review can be found here. 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (New Zealand/ USA, 2014) 
Directed by Peter Jackson 
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly

It's a cast iron rule of film reviewing that one should always judge a film on its own merits rather than the circumstances under which it was made. Of course the context in which a film was created, from the attitudes to the time period to the relationships on the set, should be taken into account when trying to assess a film. But these alone cannot determine whether something is good or bad: arguments and constant pressure can produce great creativity, while bonhomie and relaxation can lead to disaster.
In an article in The Guardian, Peter Jackson admitted that he "did not know what he was doing" when he was filming The Hobbit trilogy. Since this utterance hit the internet, it has been seized upon by critics of the series, either as final proof of Jackson losing the plot (in more ways than one), or as a perfect, all-encompassing explanation as to why this trilogy is inferior to The Lord of the Rings. Jackson's comments are pertinent in helping us understand how these films turned out the way they did. But even – or perhaps especially - in light of what has been said, The Battle of the Five Armies remains a reasonably satisfying way to round things off.
For those who haven't read The Guardian article or watched the YouTube video that accompanied it, here are the basic facts. When Guillermo del Toro left The Hobbit in 2010, Jackson stepped into the breach and had to effectively work from scratch to redesign every aspect since, understandably, his creative vision was rather different. With the release date looming and no leeway from New Line Cinema, Jackson had no time to prepare or storyboard the films; in the words of Weta Workshop's Richard Taylor, he was "laying the tracks directly in front of the train", Gromit-style, all the way up the final battle. When confronted with this part of the film, Jackson sent the crew home early so that he had time to map it out in his mind and give the audience something that did not look like it had been totally improvised from shot to shot.
Considering that he was "winging it" (in his own words), it is testament to Jackson's ability that the film got finished at all, let alone that it is this watchable. No-one could argue with any weight that this is as well-constructed as The Return of the King, but it is not the total disaster than many would have perceived. The battle scenes may never come close to the Pellanor Fields in that film, or even Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, but they still have a narrative progression to them which you don't get with, for instance, the Battle of Hogwarts in the final Harry Potter film.
Tempting though it is, it's ultimately cheap to dismiss The Battle of the Five Armies as one long action sequence. If you compare this to the so-called climatic battles in either Heaven's Gate or Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it doesn't take long to recognise that Jackson has acquitted himself pretty well as a storyteller. Both Michael Cimino and Michael Bay give us more than an hour of set-pieces, the individual elements of which could be shown in any order without altering the story. Jackson's battles may not justify 144 minutes on their own, but you always get the sense of things going somewhere, even if exactly where remains open to question.
Whether through the pressures he was facing at the time or a deeper desire to move the plot along, The Battle of the Five Armies does feel more consciously pacey. It has none of the meandering opening act of An Unexpected Journey, plunging us straight into the action with the attack on Laketown and the death of Smaug. Even without the sheer number of bodies on the battlefield, Jackson has a knack for capturing impending dread; there is an operatic quality to proceedings which puts us in a state of fear and desperation for the characters.
The film also sees the themes of greed and temptation that were explored in The Desolation of Smaug come to a head, as the dragon which guarded the dwarves' treasure is replaced with something equally monstrous. While Jackson could be accused of blowing his load by opening with Smaug's death, he does work hard to make us understand Thorin's inner conflict; he disappears into himself as the world outside burns, and his final redemption fittingly and pyrrhically completes his character arc. Richard Armitage has had little competition from among the cast for the title of most distinctive dwarf, but he has always avoided disappearing into his costume and acquits himself here very well.
In amongst all the smashing and bashing, Jackson also finds time to drop in links with the original trilogy, something which he began in An Unexpected Journey. Here, as there, the touches are very candid for those who know the stories, but Jackson avoids the trap that befell George Lucas in Attack of the Clones, namely using references and links with the old to unflinchingly justify the new. Besides, given that the final Hobbit film was originally envisioned as a bridge between Jackson's and del Toro's visions for Middle Earth, it's fitting that such a venture has survived at least in part.
Make no mistake, however: The Battle of the Five Armies still has a lot of problems. One of these problems is its effects, namely the obvious use of CGI which blighted the climax of Desolation. Granted, there's nothing quite as offensive here as the liquid gold with which the dwarves attempted to drown Smaug - that was as laughable as Pierce Brosnan surfing the wave in Die Another Day. But the fight at Dol Goldur would have been infinitely improved if the Nazgûl had more physicality, and didn't disintegrate like villains in old video games. The best effects in that battle are old-fashioned ones, especially the Ringu-esque make-up on the possessed Cate Blanchett.
Then there is the question of repetition. Lucas is said to have mapped the Star Wars prequels out with the same beats as the original trilogy, with the lightsaber battle in Revenge of the Sith trying (and failing) to follow the same pattern as Return of the Jedi. By drawing on The Lord of the Rings appendices so freely to fill out the action, Jackson provides us with spectacle which, while grand in its own right, smacks of retreading old ground. The arrival of the eagles is the most obvious point, and some of the movements (and jokes) within the battle feel cribbed from the Pelannor Fields.
Finally, there is the matter of unresolved character arcs. It's a common enough problem with war films that character development is set in place before a battle starts and is then abandoned as the misplaced logic of spectacle takes over. The relationship between Kili and Tauriel was already going nowhere, and so it's little surprise that the ending of their arc feels surplus to requirement. But many of the other characters get marginalised, with even Bilbo himself having to play second fiddle in a lot of scenes. Being caught up in a conflict that is bigger than you is fair enough, but when you're the title character we expect you to have a little more screen time.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a fun and reasonable way to wrap up an overly long franchise. It is riddled with problems every bit as much as its two predecessors, but benefits from fast pacing and battle sequences which, while owing much to The Return of the King, will keep most people entertained. The trilogy as a whole is enormously flawed, and it is perhaps for the best that Jackson is now going to leave Middle Earth. But even as a poor relation, there is just about enough good stuff in here to make it worthwhile.

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