Random Stuff Backlog: The Battle of the Five Armies

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So, Christmas is done and over with, and everyone can carry on with their lives stuffed with pie and feeling slightly woozy after a season of reckless excess and rampant consumerist greed. There was a lot of amazing stuff happening over the last month(s), but bugger if I could be arsed updating anything when there is another through full of pie to get through. So here is part one of indefinite, recounting the bunch of interesting stuff happening over December and whatever month now is.

The Battle of the Five Armies, like both the previous parts of the Hobbit, left me divided. It was both brilliant and rubbish – almost everything in it was good, but there was just so much of everything in it that it was absolutely all over the place, like a beached humpback whale stuffed into a size-12-corset.

Before going and beating Peter Jackson with a big bladder at the end of a stick, I should probably mention that the movie was overall fun with lots of awesome elements, and even despite all the cinematically challenged bits it’s still a pretty solid seven-out-of-ten.

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First, it looks brilliant. Peter Jackson has never been a subtle filmmaker (see Braindead and Bad Taste for reference) and he is really heavy-handed with his drama, but fuck me can he do amazing visuals. My poor eyeballs nearly popped right out of their sockets at the beginning of the film when Smaug finally reaches Laketown and silently swoops down over the town, before breathing out and turning the world underneath into an inferno. Every single character, building and item on screen looks perfect, and brings out Middle-Earth exactly the way it should look. The battle itself if a cinematically as impressive, if not even more, than the battle of Pelennor fields, and all the participants, trolls, orcs, elves, dwarves and men, all look amazingly distinct and gorgeous.

Peter Jackson’s biggest strength is world-building, and the world of Middle-Earth is brought alive in a way that would make even the nit-pickiest Tolkien nerd break down in tears and swear to be a better person and shower a bit more often.

The weak link of the story is in fact the story, which might come across as a bit of a handicap when telling a story. It’s just too goddamn bloated and unfocused, with the tone wobbling between heavy tragic drama and whimsical children’s comedy, and hammering the two together wasn’t working out quite like they probably planned in the design documents. “Oh no, it’s the inevitable doom that we are driven towards brought on by greed and hubris”, “You have changed, Bilbo Baggins”, “Oh no, Thorin is dying and we’re awfully sad about it”, “Oh wait, nevermind, now the funny man is wearing women’s clothing and stuffing money down his bra…”

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I hate comparing someone I actually like to George Lucas, but Peter seems to suffer from the Lucas complex to some small degree, where you start inventing unnecessary comic-relief characters and sacrificing solid story-telling for empty spectacles and heavy-handed clunky character-drama. Peter Jackson is an amazing visionary, but watching this and Desolation of Smaug, I started to get the feeling he works best within restrictions. That is when you have to push barriers to realize your vision and your spectacle has to serve the purpose; like when you can either have a massive fight-scene with 115 Uruks and Mountain Trolls, or sandwiches for the film-crew for the rest of the week, and you have to make some hard choices.

This film in particular could have done with a trigger-happy editor with two folders for all the clips: necessary scenes and padding, and only the contents of one of those folders making into the final cut. Another valuable addition would have been a tough but matronly script-editor, who would slap Peter Jackson’s hands away from his keyboard every time he started inventing additional characters and sequences, as if our story isn’t already sufficiently padded with expanded canon from Silmarillion, Lord of the Rings appendixes and Unfinished Tales.

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Following it’s release, the Hobbit series has already had more than one amateur re-cut, removing all the unnecessary fluff, cameos and padding, which cut around 50% of the run-time. It’s really pretty depressing how easily getting a bit edit-happy can focus the story back to the relevant elements of Bilbo, Dwarves and a fantasy heist-job, and provide a much improved, focused experience for the viewer.

Following the release J.R.R. Tolkien’s own estate has had enough as well, and are not going to give licence to any more Peter Jackson adaptations, and I can’t really blame anyone for making that decision. As a whole The Hobbit, all 8-something-hours of it, just doesn’t work. It’s too unfocused and bloated, while failing to keep a consistent tone or establish a sense of danger or adventure. Even if it has a lot of merit and good things about it, it’s like a sandwich with all filling without any bread; there is not enough to keep it together so it just drips all over the place and makes a massive mess.

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Overall, while ten years ago Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema was the perfect director/studio combination to take on the Lord of the Rings, it just doesn’t work as well today. Studio interests and sensible film-making seem to be at a clash, where every film to come out has to be more hyped and explosive and action-packed, which over time is going to lead to a Hollywood blockbuster singularity, where all franchises are going to mold together into a homogeneous mass of never-ending trilogies, where Tony Stark and Legolas are somehow both going to end up in the same extended universe exchanging bro-fives and jumping off exploding things.

In the end I kind of suspect Peter Jackson’s original purpose was to make the initially rumoured two-part Hobbit, resembling something quite a lot like the Tolkien Cut of the Hobbit, but studio pressure eventually lead to a lot of pointless subplots and Legolas stealing a lot of screen-time being improbably awesome. The best way this adaptation might have worked would probably have been the Game of Thrones/HBO-class miniseries, or a tighter, better-focused two-part film.

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