So I missed the first ten minutes of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The theater I go to is called Legacy, and — wouldn’t you know it! — there’s a similarly-named theater in Indiana, a state in which I do not live. The online purchasing mix-up was doubtless part of a North Korean ploy. After considering flying to Indiana to catch a movie I barely wanted to see, I opted instead to just jump into a showing that was already underway. It’s ten minutes, I thought, and this is a Peter Jackson movie.
So I’m waiting for Smaug to come out and breathe his fiery breath onto the poor Laketownians, but first it seems there’s a weepy scene between Luke Evans’s Bard and some other Laketownians. I try to ease into my seat and into the flow of the movie, but it’s instantly confusing. Is this a flashback? It’s only been ten minutes, so what could these people have to be weepy about so soon?
The answer, of course, is that they’re weepy about the destruction of Laketown, and that weepiness is compounded by a bittersweet realization that Bard has finally and heroically done the impossible by killing the giant dragon Smaug, and that weepy bittersweet realization is apparently doubly shocking once the Laketownians process the fact that the entire thing took less than ten minutes. It was certainly a disappointment to me, absent for those ten. In the book The Hobbit, Smaug is the primary antagonist and the Battle of the Five Armies essentially amounts to a footnote. In the movie — which, lest you need reminder, is only one-third of Hobbit on film — the Battle is the entire film and Big Bad Smaug is done and dusted before the poor saps who arrive late even find their seats.
There have always been two Middle-Earths, but it’s never been this glaringly apparent before. The Battle of the Five Armies takes place almost entirely in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth, while the majority of The Lord of the Rings and snippets of the first two Hobbit movies are in the Middle-Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien (or, at the very least, a Jackson-Tolkien hybrid). Jackson wants desperately to recapture the glory of his Rings trilogy, and there are some moments in Battle where that glory peeks out briefly. These are exciting moments, to be sure — but then in the next second the fabricated elf-dwarf romance is back to the forefront, and then the CGI armies move in suspiciously uniform waves, then chubby Legolas whines about his mother and does some cool acrobatic shit, and then Chad Kroeger Dwarf gets killed and it’s supposed to be as big a moment as Boromir’s death.
The tirade against Jackson turning a 300-page book into a full-scale trilogy is a boring and exhausted one. Considering studios are now splitting single chapters of trilogies into two parts (see Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.), Jackson’s Hobbit could one day be considered sparse. It’s not the length that’s so bothersome, but just the use (or misuse) of the incredible stuff at the director’s fingertips. Gollum! Smaug! Bard nailing Smaug in that sweet spot with a big black arrow! Why the heck are these characters and moments that are integral to the book seemingly minimized in favor of extended fight scenes and Legolas cameos? Especially with three films in which to spread out and work, there’s a noticeable and severe case of time mismanagement in all of the Hobbit films. One case-in-point in Battle is the giant bear-man Beorn, who gets a nice set-up in The Desolation of Smaug and then gets a whopping eight seconds of this final chapter. Another moment in which this mismanagement is evident is when the dwarves line up at the end to say goodbye to Bilbo; if you don’t know who the hell half of these characters are, it’s because they’re not really characters. They were always there, but we never got to know them.
Again, Battle has a few solid moments. Jackson’s filming of the New Zealand landscapes remains unmatched in beauty and grandeur. The unearthly (or Middle-Earthly) quality of the rocks and hills is at times breathtaking, prompting a sincere thought of wow — is that real? amidst the general CGI-provoked thoughts of wow — that looks fake. What’s always impressed me is Jackson’s ability to balance these grand sweeping shots with tiny little details, from the livestock at Laketown to the cobwebs on the weaponry. The final duel between Thorin and Azog is a high point because of the spellbinding detail in the reflective, slippery ice on which they fight. And lastly, as in the first two Hobbit films, the real saving grace is Martin Freeman as Bilbo. He’s the only one that totally fits with the Jackson-Tolkien Middle-Earth and not just the Jackson one, and Bilbo is a real character thanks to him.
So Jackson’s final return to Middle-Earth isn’t as satisfying as it should be, but the frustrations are partly inherent to the fact that great trilogies are rarely improved upon, and The Lord of the Rings is a great trilogy. If Jackson can refrain from going back and inserting Hobbit cameos or a ghostly Hayden Christensen into those original films, I’ll be happy enough. Meanwhile, though Battle of the Five Armies is worth seeing just for the sake of completion, there’s little doubt you’re going to be more satisfied by Fellowship or Two Towers or Return of the King. Or Braindead.