There’s a shot part way through The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies that, to me, perfectly encapsulates the rot clinging to the exterior of Peter Jackson’s sixth entry in his Middle Earth franchise. There’s the shot overlooking a crowd of extras milling around a field. They’re rallying together after being displaced from their homes and almost dying. In the bottom left hand corner of the frame there is a dog that, for all the world, looks like a digital creation. If it’s not then the eighteen filters Jackson douses every frame with renders it unreal. It serves as a wonderful representation of the rot for one reason – why is that dog there? You could retroactively invent a narrative for that dog. Make it one of the families’ pets that survived the harrowing assault on Laketown. Imagine it dodging jetting flames and swimming great distances to reunite with his owners. But the truth is that’s all completely invented. In actuality, it’s the first domesticated dog in the whole franchise. It’s there because Peter Jackson thought it would look cool. In post (or maybe while shooting) he went, “Hey wouldn’t it be neat if there was a dog” and then there was. It serves no purpose.
That’s what sinks the last entry in The Hobbit series. Not the dog, but the complete lack of justification for every other choice made. Do you know why audiences responded to True Detective? Because every single moment of that show was there to reinforce and explore the show’s themes. Nothing in The Hobbit stems from anything other then a desire to stick some cool shit in the frame. There are one or two trappings of decent ideas in the scripting process, and some good moments, but nothing strings together in The Battle of Five Armies, and nothing strings together in the series as a whole.
Let’s talk character arcs. They’re not the be-all-and-end-all of filmmaking, but they are the backbone of most entertainment-driven films. Your blockbusters and basic dramas. Kubrick may not need them but an Iron Man movie does. The Hobbit movies are clearly striving for entertainment. So when I talk about the character arcs I’m not implying every movie needs them, just that this movie is designed for them, and utilizes them badly.
So first we need to acknowledge that the main character of the franchise is Thorin, not the titular Hobbit. Which is fine. I’m talking about the movies, not how well the movies adapt the books. So in The Hobbit series Thorin is the main character. Except he’s not. Because really the movie is an ensemble piece. Thorin, Bilbo, Bard, Gandalf, Legolas, Tauriel, and, believe it or not, Alfrid, all get about the same amount of screen time. Thorin must nominally be decreed the main character because, of that list, only he has an arc. The only other character with an arc is actually Thranduil. Clearly none of that makes any sense when we’ve spent the whole movie following one of the least fleshed out ensembles in film history, but if Jackson has decided Alfrid and Thranduil are more important than most other characters who are we to argue.
The thing is Thorin’s arc in The Battle of Five Armies absolutely does not string together with the past movies. The first movie ends with Thorin befriending Bilbo. The second one sees him repeat the arc. The third one sees a clumsily manufactured way for him to complete the arc a third time. Which is insane because completing that arc in stages would’ve been totally functional. Thorin could’ve come to begrudgingly respect Bilbo’s bravery at the end of the first movie, come to begrudgingly respect his contribution to their group at the end of the second movie, and come to honestly befriend the hobbit by the third movie. Boom. That took me three seconds to figure out. Instead we get Thorin tripping after being infected by the gold, which is somehow cursed because a dragon was sitting on it? It doesn’t make any sense and feels like this weird need to have externally driven character changes.
And of course the second most important character, Bilbo, gets no arc. Sure you could argue he learns to be brave or whatever, but that’s sort of invalidated by the fact that at the end of the first movie he’s sword-fighting orcs. Indeed every other main character in the ensemble piece gets absolutely no arc too. Bard stays noble and driven by family. Gandalf stays Gandalf. Legolas stays driven by his love for Tauriel. Tauriel stays driven by her love for that dwarf that made that joke about his penis in the last movie. And Alfrid stays greedy, except at one point he’s greedy and in a dress. Good one Peter Jackson. That’s funny.
So the attempts at character arcs are all garbage, or relegated to characters we’re not invested in, like Thranduil. Actually his arc is garbage too.
So much of this movie is erroneous. It’s clear that splitting the book into three films was a terrible decision, forcing the movies to absolutely soak in filler scenes, like everything with Alfrid in this movie. Not only does the third movie rely on filler, but the opening scene is one of the clearest structural mistakes I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Basically, before we even get the Battle of Five Armies title Jackson wraps up The Desolation of Smaug. The pre-credits sequence of this movie is the entirely absent finale from the last one. So instead of giving the Desolation of Smaug any sense of conclusion, any pay-off for the eight hours that movie takes up, he uses it to open the next movie, where it has no emotional pay-off. Awesome. That time absolutely couldn’t have been used to better establish the frequently confusing world of the third film, or even better give us some more time with the main characters. Time that could’ve been used for arcs.
So in place of arcs The Battle of Five Armies entirely relies on action sequences to carry the weight of the audience’s interest. It’s basically all action. I mean, it works for John Wick and The Raid Redemption right? I loved those movies. Why couldn’t it work for these movies? Surely that format could work in any world, with any characters? Well maybe because this movie brings, and this is no exaggeration, Transf4mers level bad action sequences. That’s not an accusation I toss around lightly, nor a comedic comparison. Instead it’s born of several extremely comparable tendencies laced throughout The Battle of Five Armies.
The biggest sin of The Battle of Five Armies action is simple – geography. Action scenes rely heavily on geography, which is basically just knowing where everything is in relation to everything else at any given moment. It sounds easy, but it’s really not. Someone like Steven Spielberg can eschew these principals in order to enhance tone (we’ll get to tone in a bit) but most people who eschew or fail to create a sense of geography simply end up with confusing sequences that feel unreal. When geography breaks down, the audience feels like anything can happen at any time, which, naturally, eats away at any potential sense of stakes or significance.
There isn’t a single scene in The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies that has passable geography. A dwarf sprints down hundreds of stairs in a shot. Bard’s family seems to teleport to the background of a scene at one point. Characters dramatically turn around when they need to get somewhere and find armoured mountain goats (despite the fact that the dwarves are all on foot). Impossible heights and distances are traversed in no time. Giant swinging bells appear and disappear. Characters vanish from scenes. It all feels like highly stylized gibberish that totally overrules any significance of the scene.
This effect is horribly compounded by another key problem with the movie’s action – every character in this movie is Neo. But Neo at the finale of The Matrix. They can all cheat physics and logic at a whim. Or maybe Peter Jackson and his team of animators can. Bard can judge the exact way a cart will move to simultaneously avoid running over HIS OWN FAMILY by a hairsbreadth and launch himself successfully at an opponent. Legolas can scale collapsing stones in slow motion. Bilbo can kill whole orcs by casually lobbing stones at their heads. It’s all completely ludicrous. Azog can launch himself out of freezing water and through ice without anything to push against. It’s one of the few films where dumb unimportant tangible detail stuff is actually wonderfully illustrative of the absolute lack of thought put into the movie. When someone questions the logic of the wall-head-butting troll, or where exactly the randomly added Shai-Huluds go between shots, and why they’re not used in the battle, what they’re actually noting is symptoms representing Jackson’s disease. Every choice in the movie is driven by momentary flashes of unfettered imagination. Like Axe-Cop if it was trying to be dead serious. Every moment exists entirely independently from every other moment.
That’s another massive problem with this movie – tone. It’s not even that there are a lot of disparate tones; it’s just that the presented tone and content are constantly at war with each other. Like I’m a Cyborg and that’s Okay if the achieved tonal disconnect was unintentional and a thousand times messier. All these ridiculous action scenes and superfluous character arcs are played for conventional drama, but they’re all so ridiculous it, quite simply, just feels wrong. The movie doesn’t know what kind of movie it actually is. This disconnect is especially notable during the extended scene where Thorin fights against the dragon-curse by hallucinating in increasingly silly fashions. Or the lengthy conversation about needing the fourteen dwarves to turn the tide of a massive battle. Or that bat-quote I put up front. Or when characters we don’t care about die or profess love dramatically. These moments are so unnecessarily played for drama that it actually made me laugh aloud a few times. The presented tone is so violently unearned it’s almost amazing. No amount of filters, music cues, and slow motion could make up for the movie they actually filmed.
Those filters, music cues, and slow motion shots are overwhelmingly bad, by the way. This movie is shockingly ugly and clumsily crafted. The digital cinematography is overly long, graceful, and complex, at the expense of drama. The real-world cinematography attempts to imitate this by over using shaky cam. Most of the cinematography is digital though, as eighty percent of every shot is weirdly bad, soft-focused digital CG. Which means we get lots of fake shots of fake-looking (identical) armies clashing. A more undramatic sum I could not imagine. (Actually that’s not true, one of the worst fight scenes we see comes when Saruman, Galadriel, Radagast (still with shit on his face), and Gandalf are fighting ghostly Ringwraiths. We know all the characters will survive. The effects and cinematography look like a video-game ad. We don’t understand how any of the magic powers on display work. So there’s basically the opposite of stakes.) Even this movie’s audio is ragged and ugly. The music cues are almost non-existent, and the rampant use of ridiculous effects on voices is every bit as jarring as the overuse of terrible post-production filters.
Overall The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies is a harrowingly bad experience. I’d like to think that it marks Peter Jackson’s complete disinterest in the series (maybe making Thorin’s gold-themes an apology). The alternative is that Peter Jackson is no longer capable of creating films at all. There are so many basic mistakes made in the service of his complete and utter commitment to putting every passing thought on the screen. The part of Peter Jackson’s artistic process that involved questioning and examining his thoughts and choices is gone, leaving us with a sloppy, pointless, artistically useless exercise in self-gratification.