In his first piece for Hollywood Hegemony, Danny Turner examines the failings of the final chapter in the Hobbit series. Along the way he discusses absolute power corrupting absolutely, why rabbit sleds are the lamest thing since Jar-Jar Binx, and why Gordon Brown is the prince of all dwarves.
The third of the Hobbit films is an attempted return to form, by invoking the spirit of the epic showdowns in the Lord of the Rings films, and jettisoning the focus of the original book on children. The original Hobbit film reflected the tensions between representing the original spirit of the book, and the pressures of invoking the far more serious and epic Lord of the Rings films. The result was a discordant mess, with sing-alongs and rabbit sleds jarring awkwardly with po-faced, slow motion desperate battles with orcs.
The attempt to morph the Hobbit (or, more accurately, the small handful of chapters that are covered in this epic-length film) into the more traditional Helm’s Deep territory was always going to be a difficult task: the Hobbit is a very different book, and lacks the sombre causes and global events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
However, even if one accepts these difficulties, the action and epic war of this trilogy climax is unconvincing. The characters seem imbued with not just superhuman abilities, which is consistent with the universe depicted, but a knowledge of consequences that is borderline omnipotent. For example, in one scene the human hero jumps on a cart rolling down the streets, which duly propitiously rolls in the direction he needs it to, before he leaps out through the air and lands with his sword in his gargantuan troll foe. There is a clear distinction between fantastical scenes with internal consistency (for example, the glorious takedown of a rampaging Oliphant by Legolas in the Return of the King, using his superhuman reflexes to improvise a sort of Middle Earth parkour to climb atop the beast and dispatch it) and characters who have an internal, mysterious knowledge of how advantageous the rules of physics will be for them. The effect is a cartoonish, surreal nod to overly perfect fight choreography which arouses amusement in an audience, but not awe or suspense. Perhaps the increasing use of CGI in a film actually gives a director too much control, allowing them to present things far too neatly to be immersive, which live action often prohibits.
The lost opportunity of the film is the portrayal of Thorin’s arrogance and greed when he takes over the mountain of Erebor. The One Ring in the original trilogy is a particularly genius device, with endless theories on its meaning. The One Ring has been theorised as representing nuclear weapons in the wake of World War 2, drug addiction, the ring of Gyges described in The Republic, or more generally the concept of total power. The mechanical industrial pits of Isengard’s Fordist Uruk-Hai production line, similarly, is an effective reference to the ‘satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution’s rampage through British society, appropriately flattened by nature itself.
In a global environment in which a tiny minority of bankers, business elites and complicit politicians have presided over stagnating living standards for the majority of individuals whilst their own wealth has increased through the greatest recession in living memory for most, it is quite staggering how little investigation there is of the corrupting influence of wealth and power over Thorin. The film portrays Thorin not as a conflicted character, compromised by a concentration of wealth and influence in a world in which such power is required urgently by the poor and the victimised, but as character possessed by the spell of Smaug’s treasure. This device completely sidesteps the genuine moral scrutiny such corruption by power could have presented. Instead, Thorin is controlled through a convention of the story: in the same way control chips are used to make characters unthinking puppets (such as Hawkeye in Avengers Assemble) and external possessions control characters (such as the Exorcist), these narrative devices remove the conscious agency of the compromised characters. Thorin, however, could have been far more interestingly presented. He is Scarface, Jake la Motta in Raging Bull, or possibly Gordon Brown: a character corrupted and emptied by the very thing they spent their adult lives pursuing and attaining. Similar reflections could have been made on his unthinking revenge mission against Azog the Defiler, but instead this mission is never questioned: it is simply fulfilled, and the narrative arc is inevitable.
Finally, the film constantly attempts to invoke the previous films as if we will embrace this through a process of psychological association. However, it simply invokes a superior alternative to which the Hobbit films pale in comparison, not least of all because this film has imitated them the most. Do we need Legolas to be told to “find the son of Arathorn”?
I did briefly think such obvious cues would be aimed at children, but then if the film is aimed at children why does it show a number of the dwarves being stabbed so brutally through the heart? This yet again raises the problems of satisfying an older fanbase from an original trilogy whilst also trying to bring in a new audience: by never choosing a side and drifting in the middle of two mutually exclusive polarities, the film accomplishes none of the objectives of either in a manner reminiscent of New Labour. This is a similar process that made Episode 1 such a terrible film, attempting to introduce new fans to a cinematic world whilst answering the narrative concerns of pre-established fanbases.
In conclusion the Battle of the Five Armies is an incoherent film: hampered by an inappropriate story, the attempts to create an epic are contrived and forced. This is a real shame due to the film that could have been made: a stylistically independent recreation of the Hobbit tale within a single film, more akin to a fairy tale than a world war. And without any rabbit sleds.