Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies was written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. It was directed by Peter Jackson.

At long, long, long last, we reach the end of our journey through Middle-earth. A journey that began thirteen years ago, way back in 2001. Love the films or hate them, you've got to admit that Peter Jackson has accomplished an impressive feat with these six films. I don't think any other director has ever spent so much effort, money and years of his life filming the works of a single author.

Savor this last trip through Middle-earth though, because this is it— there're no more stories to adapt. There's The Silmarillion of course, but it's unlikely it'll ever become a film series. It's more like the Bible than Lord Of The Rings, as it's a series of separate tales without any overall narrative. It would be extremely difficult to adapt it into a movie. 

It's a moot point anyway, as the Tolkien estate owns The Silmarillion lock, stock and barrel and won't part with it anytime soon, as they reportedly don't care for Jackson's adaptations.

This is the shortest of the three Hobbit films, clocking in at a lean (for Peter Jackson) 144 minutes. Terabytes have already been written (much of it by me!) about how The Hobbit should never have been turned into three films, so I won't flog that dead horse any further. 

I will say that despite the fact that the story's been spread out over 474 minutes (almost eight hours) of screen time, there's still a ton of stuff that's left out at the end. Not only do events in the book not get proper closure, but neither do incidents Jackson invented from whole cloth himself. Puzzling, to say the least.

SPOILERS FOR A 77 YEAR OLD STORY!

The Plot:
Picking up right where the last film left off, Smaug the dragon flies to Laketown to destroy it because... um, why is he doing it again? Oh yeah, because the men of Laketown gave aid and comfort to his enemy Thorin Oakenshield.

Anyway, Smaug proceeds to firebomb Laketown, which is kind of ironic, since they, you know, live on the water. Bard the bowman breaks out of prison and uses his super secret Black Arrow to shoot Smaug in the heart, killing him. He falls onto the fleeing Master Of Laketown, which kills him. Roll opening credits.

Bard then leads the Laketown survivors to the ruins of Dale, which lies outside the Dwarvish city of Erabor. Inside the city, Thorin searches through the vast treasure for the Arkenstone, the glowing jewel that bestows kingship on its owner, or something. The other dwarves are afraid that the treasure is cursed with "dragon sickness," which is starting to drive Thorin a little nutty. Bilbo secretly took the Arkenstone during his encounter with Smaug, and decides to hide it. Thorin orders the entrance to Erabor sealed.

Meanwhile, Galadriel, Elrond, Radagast and Saruman enter Dol Guldur to rescue Gandalf. They're attacked by Sauron and the Nine (who will eventually become the Ringwraiths in The Lord Of The Rings). Galadriel hulks out and drives Sauron away with her awesome powers. Gandalf heads for Erabor to warn the dwarves of the approaching orc army. If only these guys could text one another! Think how much easier their lives would be.

King Thranduil and his elvish army arrive at Erabor and team up with the men of Dale. That's two armies. Thranduil is after certain elvish gems from the dragon horde, while Bard wants the gold that was promised to the citizens of Laketown. Given that Thorin is currently sitting on several billion cubic feet of gold coins, their requests don't seem out of the question. Unfortunately Thorin refuses to part with any of it. Just then his cousin Dain Ironfoot arrives with a battalion of dwarves. That makes three armies.

Just as the three groups are about to fight, the orcs attack. That makes four armies. It's never quite clear what the fifth army is. The bats? The eagles? Who knows? Hundreds of thousands of cgi soldiers then begin fighting one another in front of Erabor. 

Thorin eventually overcomes his dragon sickness and joins the fray. An hour or so later the battle ends as Azog kills Fili, while Kili is killed protecting Tauriel. Thorin kills Azog, but not before being mortally wounded.

There's still lots of questions to be answered, but apparently they're none of our concern as Bilbo heads back to the Shire and the movie abruptly (for Peter Jackson) ends. Cue the Billy Boyd song.

Thoughts:
• After all the buildup Smaug received in the previous two films, he's dispatched very quickly here. Almost anticlimactically, in fact. He's dead before the title screen appears!

It seems like an odd way to start a film– with what should have been the end of the previous one– but there really wasn't any choice. Based on where Jackson ended the second movie, there was no other way to begin than to kill Smaug in the opening minutes.

Blame Tolkien for this one though, more than Jackson. The book is structured the same way. The dragon is killed, which is the whole point of the book, but then the story goes on for another fifty or sixty pages.

• All through the second film we're beaten about the head with the fact that normal arrows can't pierce Smaug's armored hide. The only thing that can kill him is a Black Arrow. Despite this, Bard climbs a tower and spends a good deal of screen time shooting normal arrows that bounce futilely off Smaug's scales.

Bard knows regular arrows won't hurt Smaug, so why's he bothering? Is he trying it because he feels like he has to do something, even if it's futile? Or more likely, are they showing that normal arrows are useless for the benefit of audiences that didn't see the previous film? I'm guessing the latter.

• I was under the impression the Black Arrow had to be fired from the massive four-pronged windlance crossbow we saw in the previous film. Here Bard fires it from a normal bow. A broken normal bow, to be exact. So I guess it doesn't matter what the arrow's fired from after all?

Also, the black arrow is a good five feet long, and appears to be forged from iron. It's gotta be pretty heavy. It seems unlikely that any normal bow would be able to fire it more than a few feet.

• That elvish medicine is downright miraculous! In the previous film, Kili the Dwarf was only minutes from death after being shot with an orcish arrow. Tauriel treated him in the nick of time, bathing his wound with boiled athelas as she spoke a few elvish incantations over him.

Suddenly in this film he's up and around like nothing ever happened. Note that this movie picks up exactly where the previous one left off, meaning Kili recovered in the space of about five minutes. As I said, miraculous!

• Peter Jackson made a cameo in every previous Middle-earth film, but I couldn't spot him in this one to save my life. I'm sure he's in there somewhere though. Surely he wouldn't give up the chance for one final appearance?

UPDATE: After seeing the film three times (once in the theater and twice on home video), I still couldn't find Jackson anywhere, so I looked to the internet for help. Turns out Jackson is in the film after all. Eh, sort of.

At the end of the movie, Bilbo returns to Bag End and is dismayed to see all his possessions being auctioned off, as he was apparently presumed dead. Once he runs everyone off, he wanders through his ransacked home. He stops to straighten paintings of a man and woman above the mantle. 

The people are most likely supposed to be his parents, but in reality they're Peter Jackson (sans beard and glasses) and his wife Fran Walsh.

I did see his daughter Katie as a Laketown resident. She's had a cameo in every film as well.

There's also an extra in Laketown who looks amazingly like Bryan Cranston. Google was no help confirming if it's him or not. I kind of doubt if it is, but man, it sure looks like him (sorry, that's the best photo I can find for now).

• Whose film is this anyway? It's supposed to be Bilbo's, right? After all, his name is in the title (well, sort of). Oddly enough he practically sits out this last movie. 

The whole point of the story is seeing the meek and contented Bilbo leave his comfortable little world and to go on a dangerous adventure and find his courage. One would think that would happen in the final installment of the trilogy, right? Unfortunately he completed his little hero's journey way back at the end of the first film, when he attacked Azog the Defiler in order to save Thorin. 

That was a big misfire, in my opinion. That action effectively wrapped up Bilbo's storyline prematurely, giving him very little to do in this final film. He's been reduced to bystander or observer in his own movie. The focus is unquestionably on Thorin this time. They might as well have called it The Dwarf.

• In the book, the thirteen dwarves are little more than ciphers and are practically indistinguishable from one another. The only appreciable difference between them is the color of their beards and hoods. With the exception of Thorin and maybe Bombur, the rest of them have little or no personality.

Peter Jackson did a terrific job of making each dwarf an individual. He gave each one a very distinct look and unique characteristics, and made it easy to tell them all apart. In the first film, that is.

In the second film, a few of them are allowed to shine, while the majority are shoved into the background.

By the time this last film rolls around, almost all of them have been reduced to nothing more than glorified extras. Half of them don't even get a chance to speak. They've gone from fully realized characters back to the interchangeable blanks of the book.

• Inside Erabor, Thorin accuses Bilbo of secretly possessing the Arkenstone. He asks Bilbo what he's hiding in his hand, and he shows him that it's an acorn from Rivendell. Bilbo plans to plant it in his garden if he ever makes it back to the Shire.

It's never really stated, but this acorn is probably the one that grows into the Party Tree, site of Bilbo's birthday party in The Fellowship Of The Ring.

• Gandalf's rescue at Dol Guldur was pretty darned cool, even if it wasn't in the book. I especially liked seeing Saruman battling the Nine as he blasted them and protected himself with his own personal force field.

Galadriel going ballistic on Sauron was also pretty awesome. She's not an elf to be messed with!

One thing about Saruman's powers though. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, Gandalf and Saruman have an epic wizard battle. They wave their staffs around, knocking each other off their feet and pinning one another against walls. At no time do sparks, rays or anything else come out of the magic staffs.

Peter Jackson was adamant about this, saying he didn't want to see cliched red or blue rays emanating from the wizard staffs.

He must have changed his mind about this or forgot he said it, because Saruman appears to be shooting all kinds of energy out of his staff in this film.

• Legolas and Tauriel travel to the orcish stronghold of Gundabad to scope out the situation. Once there, they see an army of Angmar orcs preparing to attack Erabor. 

A couple things here. First of all, if you want to get all Tolkien-nerd about it, Gundabad is about 350 to 400 miles from Erabor. Legolas and Tauriel make the trip there in what seems like an hour. Maybe they know an elvish shortcut.

Secondly, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for this scene to be in the film, other than it was Peter Jackson's last chance to include the admittedly awesome-looking fortress at Gundabad.

• As the men of Dale and Thranduil's elves are about to attack Erabor, Thorin's cousin Dain Ironfoot arrives with an army of dwarves.

I really liked Dain (played by Billy Connolly) and his awesome battle boar. Too bad he wasn't in the film more. It could have used a bit more comedy from him.

• Just as the men, elves and dwarves are about to attack one another, several sandworms, er, I mean Were-Worms burst out of the nearby mountains. An army of orcs then pour from the tunnels dug by these worms.

I wracked my brain, but couldn't remember any mention of giant Were-Worms in the book. 

Turns out they're in there after all! Well, sort of. Near the beginning of the book, Bilbo says to Thorin, "Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-Worms in the Last Desert."

It's a good bet that these were legendary creatures and Bilbo was just referencing them for emphasis (like unicorns in our world). Apparently Jackson took the statement literally and included them in the film. 

I admit they were cool, but they don't make a lot of sense. Why use them just to bore tunnels? Why not use them as weapons? Three or four of them could have wiped out the opposing armies in minutes. And where'd they go once they dug the tunnels? Did they squish themselves to the side so the orcs could run past?

• In the book the five armies were men, dwarves and elves against orcs and wargs.

The wargs make such a fleeting appearance in this film that they shouldn't even be counted. So who was the fifth army? The second band of orcs? Or was it the eagles (the birds, not the band)?

• Another major departure from the book: the scale of the battle. In the book the five armies total around six thousand soldiers. Here it's hundreds and hundreds of thousands, as Peter Jackson seems determined to top the Battle Of Pelenor Fields from The Return Of The King.

The battle also took up about five or six pages in the book. Here it goes on for over an hour of screen time. It pretty much had to though, since by the time this film rolled around there was very little story left to tell.

• During the battle, a frantic Bard runs though the ruins of Dale looking for his children. A woman runs past and says she saw them on Stone Street.

I'm pretty sure this was an in-joke, as most of the film was shot at Stone Street Studios in Wellington.

• As he did in previous films, Legolas is full of more amazing signature moves, defying the laws of physics as he runs up a crumbling wall of debris. If seeing Legolas skate down the trunk of a dead oliphant bothered you in The Return Of The King, then you're gonna have a bad time during this movie.

• Bilbo's sword Sting is supposed to glow a bright blue whenever orcs are around. I only saw it glowing in one brief scene. Given the sheer number of orcs in the battle, you'd think it would be glowing white hot.

• In the first film, Bilbo and the dwarves were captured by three trolls named Tom, Bert and William. Bilbo outsmarts them by delaying them long enough for the sun to rise, which turns them all to stone.

There are quite a few trolls participating in the battle here, and none of them seem adversely affected by the sun. Tom & Co. were stone trolls— are they the only strain that turns to stone under UV rays?

• I'm very surprised that Tauriel survived this film. She was invented out of whole cloth just for these movies and she's never referenced in The Lord Of The Rings (how could she be, since those films premiered before she was created?) so I was sure she'd end up dying here.

Despite the fact that her ill-fated romance with Kili the dwarf wasn't found anywhere in the book, I thought it was pretty well done.

• At the end of the film, King Thranduil tells his son Legolas to head north and look up a "promising young Ranger" called Strider. A couple things here.

First of all, this little scene was so blatant that the two elves might as well have turned to the camera and given the audience exaggerated winks.

Secondly, many fans have pointed out that this is a major error, since Strider, aka Aragorn, would be about ten years old at the time this story takes place.

Eh... yes and no, depending on how you look at it. 

In the books, about seventy seven years pass between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. When Bilbo leaves his ring to Frodo, Gandalf suspects it may be the One Ring. He tells Frodo to keep it secret, keep it safe, and then heads off into the wilderness to find out if it's Sauron's ring or not. This seemingly simple task apparently takes him a whopping seventeen years, because as much as I like Tolkien, he couldn't write fast-paced suspense to save his life.

Peter Jackson chose to ignore the seventeen year gap and compress the timeline. In the films, Gandalf tells Frodo to keep the ring safe, rides to Minas Tirith and spends a couple of days in the library, then comes back and tosses the ring into the fire to test it.

So if you follow the book's timeline, then yes, Aragorn would be about ten. If you follow the movie chronology, which I suppose we should do here, since we're talking about the movie, he'd be twenty seven. So it's not really an error. From a certain point of view.

By the way, Aragorn is eighty seven years old during The Lord Of The Rings. He doesn't look a day over forty though, because he's descended from the Numenoreans, a strain of men who were blessed with long lives.

• In the first film they made a big deal out of the fact that Bifur the dwarf had an orcish axe permanently stuck in his head. This scrambled his brains, making him able to speak only in Khuzdul, the secret language of the dwarves.

It's never mentioned in the film, but supposedly Bifur was constantly on the lookout for the orc who wounded him. I predicted he'd meet up with this orc in the final film and pull the axe out of his head or something and kill him with it. I was disappointed when this didn't come to pass.

Or did it? At the end of the film when Bilbo's saying his goodbyes to the dwarves, we see Bifur in the background (of course) and the axe is no longer in his head. Did my prediction come true after all, just offscreen?

Expect to see this scene in the inevitable Extended Edition.

• Many viewers complained about the numerous, prolonged endings in The Return Of The King. The multiple endings didn't bother me; after all when you've just sat through a nine hour long story, you need a proper amount of closure. Jackson apparently took these criticisms to heart though, and wrapped up this film pretty quickly. Too quickly, if you ask me.

I can't believe I'm saying this about a bloated trilogy that lasts almost eight hours, but... it's not quite long enough. As crazy as it sounds, it needed to be a bit longer. Jackson skipped over quite a few very important endings that really needed to be dealt with. Thorin's burial, for example. In the book he's buried with the elvish sword Orcrist and the Arkenstone. Seeing him put to rest, and seeing the fate of the Arkenstone, which caused so much tsuris throughout the trilogy, seems pretty important.

After Thorin's death, his cousin Dain Ironfoot was crowned King Under The Mountain. Bard also became king of Dale. And Laketown was rebuilt. Those seem like pretty important scenes as well.

Was the gold all distributed? Did Thranduil get his elvish jewels back? What happened to Tauriel?

Apparently none of those things are any of our concern, as the film suddenly remembers its title and becomes all about Bilbo again.

I'm hopeful that all these dangling plot threads will be dealt with in the Extended Edition, but they really should have been included here.

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is a reasonably satisfactory ending to a very long journey, that amazingly manages to leave out some important scenes. I give it a B+.

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