As Peter Jackson brings his Middle Earth saga to a close, Nicholas Barber asks whether The Battle of the Five Armies is worthwhile or unnecessary.
Peter Jackson’s sixth and final Middle Earth film is also his shortest. The three instalments of The Lord of the Rings clocked in at about three hours apiece; the first two episodes of The Hobbit lasted 169 minutes and 161 respectively; but the finale, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is a mere 144 minutes from start to finish – and that includes the ridiculously wordy title. Well, it’s 144 minutes until next year, anyway, when Jackson releases the inevitable extended cut on DVD and slots in another half hour.
But even though the current film is a relatively brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, it’s still astonishing that The Battle of the Five Armies is as long as it is. JRR Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit, is slimmer than any of the three volumes which comprise his later tome, The Lord of the Rings. And by the end of the previous Hobbit film, The Desolation Of Smaug, Jackson had ticked off the whole book except the last 65 pages. All that was left was a sequence in which Smaug the dragon sets fire to a town built on a lake; another sequence in which some dwarves, elves and humans bicker over which of them gets to keep the dragon’s gold; and a battle between these bickerers and an orc army. It’s not much material for a two-and-a-half-hour film. So how does Jackson fill the running time?
The answer is that he fills it with everything he possibly can. Mindful, perhaps, that this would be his last chance to play around with the mythology of Middle Earth, he crams the film with acrobatic action set-pieces, retina-scorching special effects and dozens and dozens of characters, whether they make an appearance in Tolkien’s novel or not. What’s more, Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, give each of these characters the opportunity to wrap up their own personal subplot and to prove how heroic they are. Never mind, then, that Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) doesn’t feature in Tolkien’s novel at all. In the film, he gets to hang upside down from a giant bat as it flaps through the sky, and then have a swashbuckling duel on a collapsing bridge over a canyon. And what about Dain the dwarf (Billy Connolly)? He’s barely mentioned in the book, but in the film he gets to swear lustily in a Glaswegian accent, and dispatch several orcs by headbutting them, mid-conversation. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), meanwhile, is joined by his fellow wizards for a mountaintop martial-arts bout with a band of flickering ghost-knights. And even the lake town’s weaselly deputy mayor (Ryan Gage) gets almost as much screen time as the hobbit himself, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Say what you like about Jackson, but he definitely gives his viewers value for money.
The Battle of the Five Armies is undoubtedly a colossal technical achievement, with something marvellous to look at in every corner of the screen. The CGI is immeasurably better than it was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and no dragon in cinema history has ever been as awe-inspiring as the vast, snaking, spiny Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). And it’s not just the monsters that are spectacular. Just as much care and attention has gone into the tiniest details of the characters’ armour, weaponry and hairstyles. There aren’t many film productions which would go to the effort of engraving the toggles on either end of a dwarf’s moustache.
The fact is, though, that if you find your attention wandering to moustache jewellery in the middle of a climactic fight to the death, it’s a sign that the film you’re watching isn’t very gripping. It’s a sign that while the film is a triumph in lots of ways, it doesn’t ever make you believe in or sympathise with the people on screen. That’s certainly how I felt about The Battle of the Five Armies. If you love the sight of computer-generated warriors charging at each other, you’ll have nothing to complain about. But if you don’t, then the continual fighting does start to get numbing after an hour or so. When you’ve seen one orc getting its head lopped off, you’ve seen ‘em all.
Fundamentally, The Battle of the Five Armies is one big battle, as its title suggests. Jackson keeps flitting between different locations, where different characters are busy waving their painstakingly designed swords, but all of these skirmishes are variations on the same theme; that is, they’re all hand-to-hand clashes between the goodies and the baddies. There’s no narrative progression to lend the film momentum, no moral ambiguity to engage our brains, and no question as to the outcome of all the head-lopping. As scary as the villains may be (as ever in the Middle Earth films, beauty is equated with virtue, and ugliness with evil), they’re awfully easy to kill. In one scene, Bilbo throws three stones, one after the other, and each time he hits a towering orc between the eyes, leaving it stone dead.
However many pointy-eared Errol Flynns and architecturally magnificent settings Jackson crowbars into the film, The Battle of the Five Armies still has the same basic plot as those last 65 pages of Tolkien’s novel – which is another way of saying that it doesn’t have much plot at all. And that’s why the decision to split the book into three lengthy films seems more problematic here than ever. The Battle of the Five Armies is so lacking in story that it feels like what it is: the third act of a film, rather than a film in its own right. There’s very little character development, because Jackson and his team assume that we know all the characters already. And there’s little sense that we’ve come to the conclusion of an epic journey, because, unless you rewatched your other Hobbit DVDs recently, you won’t be able to remember what that journey involved.
So why didn’t Jackson just make one satisfying Hobbit film, as he initially planned? The reason, he says, is that he wanted all of his Middle Earth films to work together as a single, sprawling saga. Tolkien’s novel of The Hobbit was published 17 years before The Lord of the Rings, and it was a much shorter, sprightlier, more child-friendly yarn. But Jackson was keen that his Hobbit adaptation would serve as a prequel to his Rings trilogy, so he made sure that it had the same grave tone and grand scale, as well as introducing several of its key characters and conflicts. Looking at it that way, The Battle of the Five Armies is a success, because it stands as an ornate bridge between The Hobbit and the The Lord of the Rings. But as a stand-alone film, it’s not very compelling. And as an adaptation of Tolkien’s charming book, it’s a travesty.