The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

2015 #36
Peter Jackson | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesPeter Jackson’s epic Tolkien adaptation blunders its way to a conclusion with an instalment some have declared the trilogy’s best, presumably because they really enjoy watching someone else play video games. That’s what about half of this sextet-completing movie feels like, as it concludes the three-part Hobbit narrative with a CGI-riddled rendering of the titular battle. It’s the shortest film in Jackson’s Middle-earth magnum opus, though it comes to something when a film the best part of two-and-a-half hours long is described as “short”.

Before said battle, the movie finds itself with some business to attend to: we pick up immediately where the second part left off, with giant dragon Smaug flying towards Laketown with destruction on his mind. Kicking things off with a gigantic ten-minute action sequence isn’t a wholly bad decision pacing-wise, but this particular sequence is the wrong way to do it. Really, it’s the second film’s climax displaced — once Smaug is dealt with, a whole slew of new developments and subplots grow out of it, and that’s where the material that feels like it belongs in this film commences. Of course, that means there’s a lot of talking and manoeuvring, both politically and literally as people and troops shuffle about the board. Were it not for the big opening, there wouldn’t be an action sequence for about half the movie, and I guess that’s not considered acceptable in the modern blockbuster environment.

Now, if you were to watch all three films in one sitting, I suppose it wouldn’t matter precisely where the breaks fall. But how many people are actually going to do that? Not first-timers, that’s for sure. And then you’d get the problem of massive action sequences butting up against each other: the one that opens this film, right after the dwarfs-vs.-Smaug sequence invented during reshoots to take its place at the end of Film 2. Surely there were two other options available to Jackson when he made the decision to extend from a duology to a trilogy: he could have ended Film 2 before it even reached Smaug, Smaug attacks!or he could have ended the second film with Smaug defeated and added more material to this third film to reach his desired running time. Or not even bothered adding stuff: if you lost the Smaug opener, The Battle of the Five Armies would still be over two hours long, which anywhere but Middle-earth is considered a decent length for a movie.

The rest of the film is a mixed bag for different reasons. For instance, Ryan Gage’s Alfrid is given a significant role — that’s the Mayor of Laketown’s assistant, if you’ve (understandably) forgotten who he is. Every minute that’s spent on his “comic relief” part is a minute wasted, and there are far too many minutes of it. Why that wasn’t left to the extended cut is anybody’s guess. It wouldn’t be particularly palatable there either — he’s just irritating, his actions predictable and unfunny — but longer versions are where there’s time for such indulgence. Conversely, Tauriel and Legolas are underused, wandering off on a completely aimless mission before wandering back for the battle.

Said battle feels a long time coming, but when it arrives… well, it’s a long time happening. It’s an epic by default, due to its sheer length. There are good bits, like the effort that has clearly been put into working out the armies’ tactics and the ebb and flow they would create. Wide aerial shots showing legions of troops swarming in formation, directed by generals with flags and horns mounted on high, are rather effective. Generals mounted on highOn the ground, the meat of the conflict only occurs when individual heroes are parcelled off into one-on-one duels. None of these particularly stand out, however, other than Legolas athletically jumping around a collapsing bridge that’s all so much CGI. This is where my earlier video game comparison really comes into play.

Some characters die. The impact is little-felt because of all the noise and bluster. That’s partly because there’s not really enough time for all the characters, of which there are more than ever. As with the second film, there’s been criticism that Martin Freeman’s eponymous Bilbo is barely featured, and, as with the second film, I disagree. Freeman’s not especially well-served in the acting stakes — Bilbo’s character development remains completed by the first part — but there’s still a focus on the actions of the little hero, some of which are pivotal.

Coming out of things best is Richard Armitage as Thorin, who succumbs to the paranoid madness that has afflicted generations of his family. Can he overcome it to do the right thing? The extent of this is sometimes laid on a little thick, but that’s the filmmakers’ fault (maybe this is another place that would benefit from a few trims) rather than Armitage’s performance. As the leaders of two of the titular armies, Lee Pace (elves) and Luke Evans (humans) also get a bit of a part to play, but the remaining dwarfs are given short shrift. That includes those played by James Nesbitt, Ken Stott and Aidan Turner, He loves only gold...all of whom I’d thought would have more to do in the second and third parts of the trilogy. Turner, in particular, should have expected a bigger boost from Jackson’s decision to enrol him in an interracial romantic triangle, but it feels like they pulled back from that story thread a little after it proved unpopular in the previous film. It’s still obviously there, I just expected more of it.

On balance, The Battle of the Five Armies is probably the weakest of the three Hobbit films. Really, it’s just one big battle with a lengthy preamble. I can sort of see why Jackson felt like he could extend his original second film into a second and third — if you imagine them shorn of the reshoot-added bits, there’s still too much material for a single feature. The better solution, I suspect, would have been to accept splitting it into two shorter (i.e. regular-length) films, applying a bit of restraint in the process, rather than padding things further in an attempt to create two epics out of one ultra-epic.

As the credits begin, we’re treated to a sequence that emulates the one from Return of the King, with pencil sketches of the main cast alongside their names. On the Lord of the Rings concluder, it felt earnt; a special ending to a grand adventure. Here, it doesn’t. If anything, it feels like a reminder that the story we’ve just seen may have pushed to reach Lord of the Rings-level epicness, but is really just a tale of a small group going on an eventful hike, capped with a fairly large skirmish. A contemplative, momentous credit sequence does not feel warranted.

Legend tells of a ring...I was something of a defender of Jackson’s version of The Hobbit at first. I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey and stand by my comment that, while it’s not The Lord of the Rings, it is the next best thing. As the trilogy has dragged on, however, it’s been dragged out, and the shine has gone off it. I still think there are elements to commend it, but I also think it could have been executed better. It’s hard to imagine an even longer version will improve much this time.

4 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.

My review of the Extended Edition can now be read here.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.