The Tyranny of Cinematic Spectacle (A review of The Hobbit 3)

battle-of-the-five-armies-smaug-dies-and-nothing-else-happensThe Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was finally released and I can only imagine what that must be like, or has been like, for the easily awestruck 12 year olds out there. My heart is envious of their youth and increased capacity for novelty. Though, I fondly recollect my own relative experience viewing the first Lord of the Rings trilogy in my late teens. I was 16 when the Fellowship of the Ring came out, working my first job at a Sam Goody music store; Northway Mall Anchorage, AK.

It was one of those REAL snowy days, but not blizzardy. The snowfall was slushy and water logged. For whatever reason, these conditions gave the family quest getting to the move on time an air of daring and mystery. Successfully traversing the odd road conditions and suction cup pockets of slush in the parking lots, we were now cozily huddled in a dark theater, ready to witness the beginning of what became the seminal theatrical experience of my generation.

Oddly, despite growing up as somewhat of a budding cinephile, I wasn’t all that aware of Fellowship’s release before hand. It may have been that first job, or school, or girlfriends — I don’t fully recall — but I was mostly ignorant of what lay in store. Fantasy movies hadn’t ever reached for the level of gravitas and dramatic impact which Peter Jackson achieved on a New Line Cinema production gamble. But, I doubt any of this was going through my mind at the time. It was more like, “oh, hmmm, family has tickets for a movie, family is picking me up from work, I’m down for a flick, I hope it’s good.”

The theater lights dropped and those whispers beckoned. Lady Galadriel’s voice permeated the dark space around us with poetic and ethereal presence, and then the strings played the theme of the ring. I was taken from this earthly realm, Middle Earth became reality for those near 3 hours. I hardly knew what this place was, having never read the books. I was perfectly primed for Fellowship to be an otherworldly spectacle having very few preconceptions. Put it this way, if no one had ever played for you Stairway to Heaven, had you barely acknowledged Led Zeppelin’s existence, had you never had to hear it played in a dive bar, and while driving late at night–randomly flipping on the radio–and before having even chosen a station–clear night with a mostly empty road–on a trip that allowed stretches of pensive contemplation, and you heard those first string moments of Stairway, taking that journey as ignorantly as possible; imagine what that might be like.

I would say my Fellowship viewing experience was something akin to that; novelty, majesty, mystery, beauty, tragedy, action, myth-making, world building, sagacious wisdom, philosophical concepts, moral dilemmas, sacrifice, love, friendship, the quest, the loneliness of despair…The Fellowship of the Ring will forever remain one of the greatest movie experiences I ever had and ever will have. They just don’t make them like that anymore…am I right?

Well, more so, my expectations are now primed in too many ways before attending movies as an adult. Too often, bombastic filmmaking is accompanied with worn tropes, a lack of subtlety, and obvious thematics. So, in attending The Battle of the Five Armies, there was no way the Fellowship experience of my youth could be matched. “It’s not you PJ, it’s me,” is what I’d like to say, but I cannot assert that as truth. “Peter Jackson, it’s definitely you that was the problem this time around.” The Hobbit trilogy was too often about Jackson’s need for spectacle, need for epicness, need for hitting us over the head with Middle-Earthisms (a tag I propose to describe the ways in which PJ tries so hard to make this finale feel like LOTR magic that it then loses its natural quality and becomes borderline absurd). The original LOTR trilogy–Fellowship, Towers, and ROTK–never felt absurd (with the exception of Legolas skating down a giant elephant trunk and his delivery of that line, “a diversion”).

The Hobbit films aren’t parody, per se, but they are most certainly pandering. As if Peter Jackson in his years away from the land of Middle Earth got it twisted that these films needed one specific quality, and that this quality is what made the original trilogy the fantastical bliss that it was. But that’s incredibly facile to infer, since so much of what was brilliant about LOTR comes down to nuances in storytelling. Battle of the Five Armies has ne’ery a moment of subtlety, and where the nice touches do exist, they are rare and only remind you of what possibly could have been.

Almost every one of these moments comes via the masterful performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. It’s hard for me to say, but even Gandalf became rather gimmicky. There is no moment on par with McKellan’s early master strokes: “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”, the sublime moment of his arrival at Helms Deep, his consoling Pippen before the battle for Minas Tirath. The best scemne we get Gandalf laboring with his weed pipe, next to Bilbo, after the orc hoard has been dispersed. Thanks, Peter Jackson, for reducing Gandalf’s significance and impact such that a humorous stoner moment feels like his most inspiring.

In other respects–acting, visual effects, awe, and wonder–Five Armies does make out pretty well. Thematically, unlike the other two, Five Armies also gets to the point. Although not much time is spent on it, the essence of why this story is interesting and has moral significance is touched on poignantly, even if, not nearly enough. Friendship transcends our differences and the world we come from. Bravery, love, and sacrifice can inspire great things in people towards acting in the interest of the greater good. Darkness overwhelms, but if compassion and wisdom are fostered, their capacity for changing hearts can be what drives people and cultures down a better historical path.

Though these messages can be pieced apart from Five Armies, it often felt too obvious, sensationalistic, and a cheap facsimile compared to the first trilogy. The Hobbit 1-3 felt like they were very much for the kids. I won’t even hesitate in suggesting that Jackson pulled a George Lucas here; granted these prequels were not so insulting to the intellect. The storybook and staged feel that exists in Five Armies may actually be intentional; something understandable but not necessarily defensible. Middle Earth for me worked much better when it had a sense of being lived rather than feeling like a grand stage for apocalyptic doom.

In certain ways it even cheapens how Fellowship begins. You’d think that Gandalf might be more aware that Middle Earth stood poised on the precipice of destruction, and not just swinging by Bilbo’s for tea and toast. But whatever, that only goes further to serve my ultimate point about Five Armies and the Hobbit flicks; they are incongruous to the craft and care that existed a decade ago.

What works? Thorin’s descent into madness was shown with considerable impact and visual pizzazz. The scene where he gets swallowed by a floor of mirror like gold was particularly effective. What didn’t work? Thorin’s sudden turn to fight with the rest against the Orcs was just another staged moment. I didn’t feel much sense that he and his band could turn the battle nor was I all that sympathetic since his madness was so selfish. I felt like Thorin had just been a deluded jerk. Contrast this with how clearly Theoden was influenced by otherwordly forces in the Two Towers, much more effective. What is the point with Thorin? That he has a dwarven greed at the essence of who he is; that this greed is dangerous and utterly self absorbed? I’m not sure, which is the source of my disappointment because his change back to being heroic wasn’t  earned. I will say, Richard Armitrage and Martin Freeman still play the key moments to perfection with the material that they’re given. Maybe the Five Armies extended addition will flesh out more of that psychological conflict. But as it stands, it’s thin and unconvincing.

What else worked? Legolas! Strangely, it’s as though Orlando Bloom came back primed to demonstrate his veteran status, while taking it up a notch with his dramatic presence. Legolas mostly serves one role: be a badass. Legolas is supposed to be younger in The Hobbit, though he neither looks nor acts younger. So take that for what you will, it’s hardly my biggest grievance.

Five Armies’ major weakness comes from an inability to decide who the main character is, and thus we really don’t have one. By the end, it would seem that Bilbo serves that purpose, after the first 2/3rds toyed with the Bard and Thorin in this role. I was mostly disinterested with the Bard’s leadership arc and the plight of Laketown. The entire Laketown saga came off as PJ’s excuse for extending the run time and justifying a trilogy. Smaug’s assault was visually impressive but lacked dramatic heft since the wind in those sails had long blown over from a years passing since Desolation. So he breathes his fire and dies in completely predictable fashion, tacked on as a limp prologue.

This “tacked on” feel demonstrates a strangeness that’s present in all three films. We jump from set piece to set piece as though Peter Jackson is ticking off boxes on his homage-to-Tolkien checklist. This is all less about a coherent story and more about squeezing out every last drop of spectacle. But he’s still TRYING to make story seem important. The elf/dwarf romance–the names of whom I can’t even conjure–, the Bard’s hero arc, Thorin’s madness, Gandalf’s foray to some uber scary tower, and in this installment the band of dwarven fellows who we’d grown fond of fade into the background completely. It’s like Jackson occasionally thought “oh yeah, characters matter”, but the thought didn’t linger for long before tossing the ball over to WETA for some more visual splendor. I daresay this could qualify as the advent of ‘Middle Earth porn’.

So why the naysaying and criticism? Well, Return of the King won the Oscar, that might be one reason. We’ve had it proven that high fantasy can work as both spectacle and dramatic brilliance. As a cinephile and a fantasy nerd, it would have been pleasing to see these heights reached for again. Alas, the LOTR films are probably just one of a kind. If you’re looking for high art in fantasy anymore, it’s going to be on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and that’s about it. Fantasy as film, in all honesty, may not exist to be taken with complete seriousness. Let it be known that The Hobbit in its own right is still an immersive and awesome theatrical experience, taking digital and technical mastery to a whole new level.

But here’s the rub with for me. I won’t watch the first two again for probably 5 years, if ever. Five Armies I might revisit when released in extended form, and for the fact that it felt more quintessential to what I expect from Middle Earth excursions. Yet, I won’t be revisiting it as any sort of study in dramatic craft or for getting creative inspiration. When it comes to movies and art, I want to know and witness genius. I want to ask myself what the creative intent was and consider whether it’s worthwhile or profound. And with The Hobbit 1-3, the genius just isn’t there.

The bare bones assessment: Five Armies should be seen in High-Frame Rate, on a large screen, while witnessed, beheld, and experienced in the way that one might experience skydiving. “WOOOOOOOO, exhilaration, but am I coming away a better human being or a more inspired artist?” I guess that’s for each viewer to decide individually. For me, the answer to that question is ‘no’. Nevertheless, I have zero regrets seeing the movie at least once in its full theatrical glory.

PEACE

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