Movie review: “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”

NOTE: This contains not only spoilers for “The Hobbit”, but also for “L.A. Confidential”, “Serenity”, “Avengers”, and “Leon: The Professional”. I like to talk about movies, what can I say.

Christ, this movie was long. Long like a six-year-old telling you the plot of a videogame, long like driving across Ohio in a rental car, long like your uncle’s rant about Obama. The last movie I went to that felt this long was LOTR: Return Of The King. And it’s not like it was tightly storyboarded, either; twenty minutes of nothing but well-lit reaction shots and echoing vocal flashbacks could have been cut out of this movie before an editor even had to *start* making difficult decisions. And part of this unwieldy length were the odd fits-and-starts and false run-ups to plot points that didn’t happen (see below), but part of it was also Peter Jackson’s staggering lack of comprehension of one basic tenet of cinematic storytelling, which is that the more time we have to anticipate, experience, and then reflect upon the death of a character, the less impactful that death becomes. Think about the most memorable deaths you’ve seen in movies. Think about Dudley Smith shooting Jack Vincennes in his own kitchen. Think about Leon almost making it to the alleyway. Think about Coulson getting stabbed in the back by a god who, a millisecond before, was standing in front of him. Think about Wash, for God’s sake.

(I’m sorry I made you think about Wash.)

What do all these deaths have in common? They’re all impactful because you don’t see them coming. There’s no ponderous what-does-it-all-mean trombone music. There’s no long tearful goodbye. There’s certainly no monologuing. By contrast, every death in Jackson’s world is foreshadowed and prefaced and foretold and premeditated and scheduled on an Outlook calendar. Every named character who dies in this movie dies by slow, grunting, impalement, followed by a fall down a cliff, after which they are surrounded by their friends, who have a little conversation with them about their feelings and their memories, and then the light does something majestic and their eyes cloud over and the survivors have a dignified little weep and there’s no less than three separate characters pondering on about their legacy and their legend and then it’s time for the funeral pyre. In the middle of an battle. Who has time for this shit in a war? Apparently, everybody, except Orcs, who are all either A) killed with an easy-peasy scissoring motion that requires no more effort than snapping the head off a daisy or B) are the spawn of Jason and Chucky, and can only be killed by being stabbed, shot, frozen, drowned, and then impaled by slow, grunting effort, as per Jackson’s Rule of Maximal Deathage.

In between the endless, excruciating deaths, we are treated to multiple false starts to plot points that either don’t matter or don’t happen. Can anyone explain to me what the point was of the entire battle with the Necromancer/Witch-Kings/Incipient Eye of Sauron, other than allowing Christopher Lee to look cool while swinging his hair around like a L’Oreal commercial? If it was just to break Gandalf out of his cage, isn’t there a moth for that? Was it really so all-fired important that we foreshadow Saruman’s flip to the Dark Side–and did this scene really tell us anything that the actual casting of Christopher Lee did not? Where was Radagast, physically, before the escape, and how did he travel so damn fast? If Galadriel can send Sauron fleeing for the hills by dropping her voice a register and looking like a greenish early 90’s arcade game for a few seconds, what do we need hobbits for?

Furthermore, what was up with all the eagles and bats and ravens that didn’t do anything except allow characters to make prescient observations like “The eagles are coming!” I mean, it’s very nice that Middle Earth has a thriving avian-and-flying-mammal ecosystem, but if, as Legolas claims, the bats were “bred for war”, what is their warlike purpose? So far as I could see, they gave him a handy lift to the top of a tower, and that’s it. If you are going to tell me these are war-bats, then I want to see them swoop down and drain an elephant of blood in 2.5 seconds, not just flap around looking menacing.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t enjoy this movie, or like I was filing my nails throughout; I did enjoy it, and except for the endlessly over-dramatized deaths of the Kennedys–I’m sorry, the Oakenshields–it held my attention. The battle scenes were outstanding, the animals that were truly utilized were terrific (one usage of a reindeer / elk’s antler rack stands out particularly as a hold-on-I-gotta-rewind-that moment), and Martin Freeman deserves All The Oscars this year, including for Best Sound Editing and Best Usage Of The Sniffles, because he is incredible and does not get anywhere *near* enough recognition, for the precise reason that he always plays overshadowed and overlooked men. (John to Sherlock, Tim to everyone else in the Office, the stand-in to the leading man.) You’re going to enjoy yourself in this movie. But when you stand up and realize that your knees are creaking and your neck is stiff and you have been listening to characters pontificating about the Legacy Of Thorin Oakenshield for nearly three hours, you are going to wonder why it needed to take so long for Peter Jackson to say goodbye to Middle Earth. And so did I.

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