Monday, December 22, 2014

Battle of the Five Armies (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Really, I mean it. You've been warned.

Let me begin with a bit of context. First, while a big fan of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I do feel they gradually diminished in quality. Many seem to think ROTK to be the best, whereas it seems the least good of the three to me. More, I saw it coming. The whole fantastic battle of Helm's Deep seemed impossible to top, which sparked a fear the filmmakers would to try for the third film and in doing so upset the balance of the story (because the siege of Minas Tirith is a side show, not the main action). Alas I was proved right.

Same thing happened here.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies continues in expanding the original small novel into a full trilogy, sometimes with great impact. In particular the story of the White Council and their efforts at Dol Guldur have been a nice extra to the relatively straightforward tale of Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure very nearly against his will. This carries over into BOTFA, but only a little bit alas. One scene, essentially, well done as far as it goes but that single scene hardly gives the weight of these events they deserve. Frankly I'm also bothered by the coincidence that Galadriel shows up just as what seems
to be the sole remaining Orc in Sauron's fortress decides to kill Gandalf. Meh. But otherwise the scene looks great! But it feels like an earlier draft, and the context of it seems curiously absent. For example, I wondered at the lack of shots or lines noting the fortress really has been emptied. Perhaps as a trap? I didn't get it. Still don't. And certainly the business of Galadriel using her own Ring this way violates canon about how the Rings of Power work! I could go on. What comes out right about the scene seems extremely right, moving, dazzling and fun. This is what I hoped to see! What comes out not right feels puzzling, unfinished, uninvolving and sometimes (not really in this scene) both exhausting yet somehow dull.

So it is for the entire movie!

More, and this has ticked me off in all three films, I genuinely hate it when Jackson and company recreate moments from the earlier trilogy. Galadriel going all dark and evil witchy. The drums and lights in tunnels heralding the arrival of Orcs. The warrior maiden weeping over the man she failed to save at the end of the battle. The Arkenstone as a surrogate for the One Ring. Legolas once again demonstrating Bugs Bunny-like powers in combat (his Dad Thanduil does the same thing), even down to the weapon through the skull from above, and using one of the enemy's beasts as a mode of transport. The cartoon-like slide down a staircase (that should have killed everyone involved after all, including those children). A Wormtongue-clone. Give me a break!

When these films do something original and clever, I felt enchanted and fascinated! Didn't we all know Thorin and Azog (great notion, incidentally--bringing him out of the appendices as an antagonist) would eventually fight it out one on one? That fight proved spectacular and thrilling, not least because we cared so much about Thorin's pain (bravo Richard Armitage) and Azog achieved such stature as a villain. More, the fight resembled nothing I'd seen before. Yet this same movie refused to allow this actor to use his skills in showing Thorin's struggle between his honor and his rage. He could have done it by pacing in front of the other dwarves, or watching the battle. But no, we got a CGI extravaganza that took so much more time and money and looked cool amidst a film that needed not one extra special effect. *sigh*

Jackson and his co-writers often make wonderful choices in adapting Tolkien to a very different medium than the printed page. Loved how Bilbo came to be knocked into unconsciousness while doing something important to the story, for example. A tiny point, yes, but demonstrative of excellent adaptation. Turning Lord Dain into a specific person (Billy Connelly as the fiercest of fierce warriors proved such a delight), just as giving Bard a family to protect--all good. Or not. The sheer number of characters weighed the story down after a time. Just as the amount of time that went into the actual battle coupled with all the extra elements--friggin' BATS for example--emotionally confuses. Much like the political intrigues of Laketown--could see no good reason for it save to turn two movies into three.

Here's what I mean about what is both glorious and very poor in this trilogy and this film. Tauriel. Leaving aside my suspicion about why she has red hair (yeah, somebody saw Iron Man 2) which is supposed to be extremely rare among Elves, only seen in one highborn family--the whole idea of Tauriel intrigued me loads. Yeah, a female warrior is cool and all that, but what moved me most was how she retained the sense of Hope and Light her King seems to have lost. She never turned her back on the rest of the world. That she could even allow a dwarf into her heart said much about this extraordinary subplot, a story in its own way as moving as that of Beren and Luthien, of Arwen and Aragorn. No wonder she touched a raw nerve in Thranduil--she embodies the part of him he suppresses. But all that really ended up so poorly done. A writer myself, I keep seeing different ways to make that story work. Certainly I'd've liked to see Thranduil react to Tauriel mentioning Gundaban, where his wife died. More, the way her arc reached its climax left me cold, unsatisfied. Just a replay of Eowyn over the body of Theoden, with the added (and unrealistic frankly) notion of her never having felt loss or love before.

I pondered, and as a writer, here's what I found myself wanting to see. My expectation was for Tauriel and Kili to die in battle together, but that would have echoed Thorin's end so avoiding that makes lots of sense. Rather, I would have had Thranduil proven even more contemptuous of Tauriel, but after the battle in which he finally let loose his full rage and thus could feel again, he walks among the many dead and dying. He sees others tending the sick. Kissing their loved ones goodbye. He comes across Kili's corpse, Tauriel very nearly dead and bleeding beside him, having managed to crawl to him and hold his hand. Thranduil then heals Tauriel himself, for which she at first feels no gratitude at all. But instead of defending himself, he lets her weep and scream, recognizing his own grief in her. As she winds down, they look at each other, each of them with tears in their eyes--a shared visceral moment without any "on the nose' dialogue.

But that is just me. Wanted to get that off my chest.

Honestly, I could go on and on about the different elements of the film--many of which (including the performances) really do shine and thrill. But with so much time and effort going into the look of it, into one spectacular special effects shot after another (let's have giant worms suddenly gnaw out tunnels for the orc armies, yeah!), the story and characters did suffer. Much as they did with ROTK, only moreso. Still worth seeing if this is your cup of tea. I do intend to buy a copy on DVD and hope to watch lots of cool special features. At its best, this second trilogy really does deliver magical moments, delightful scenes and characters, stupendous vistas and exciting stories. I have complaints as well, and must say The Hobbit simply is not as good as Lord of the Rings. This trilogy does seem to be setting up another movie or movies, one focusing on Legolas and probably Tauriel getting to know Aragorn--who will have to be recast, evidently, as well as possibly on Saruman (who, alas, would almost certainly have to be recast--Sir Christopher Lee does a wondrous job but is 93 this  year). Honestly, I hope someone else directs. I still wish Guillermo del Toro had directed these flicks.

Just my humble viewpoint. As ever.

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