At last, the great battle of our age arrives upon our shores – the critics versus Peter Jackson’s studio mandated drive to expand a charming icon of children’s literature into nine hours of computer mandated mayhem. Having recently consumed the enhanced Blu-Ray of The Desolation Of Smaug I’m sorry to say that my antipathy toward the second film in this bloated trilogy has shifted from mild antipathy to outright hostility, with the introduction of redundant characters and set-pieces making me scream as effectively as any twisted Mordor torture merchant. The fact that it has taken me five days to see this film given my legendary love of all things Tolkien (I read LOTR again this year for probably the dozenth time in my life and I’ve reached Volume VIII of the associated Christopher Tolkien collection) speaks volumes I think, yet I’ll admit there was still a pleasant pang of anticipation as I attended the local multiplex this afternoon for one final journey – those swift and deep running waters of my adoration of the people and events of Middle Earth run deep as the falls of Rauros. I’ve been tempted to cleave this piece into a purist and pedestrian version, but given my exasperated sense of disappointment with this final installation of the sextet I cannot muster the strength of will to offer you anything but something of fan-boy rant, so with all my critical neutrality abandoned I must seek your star-kissed blessing – if you seek an impartial opinion of the films merits or lack thereof then you’d best cast your gaze elsewhere.
When we last left Bilbo (Martin Freeman playing Martin Freeman), the resourceful and hardy gentlemen of the Shire co-opted into a diminutive adventuring career by the manipulative crone Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellan playing Gandalf The White) events were hotting up as the great Fire-drake Smaug was speeding to the waterlogged hamlet of Dale to wreck his terrible vengeance. The thirteen dwarves led by the imperious Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage who tries his best with some flat and uninspired writing) have secured the ancient stronghold of Erebor from the wyrm whose vacation becomes permanent in the opening set-piece of the film, a seismic shift in the geopolitical balance of Middle Earth where the various races of the sundered realm now hungrily seek the gold in them there stone hewn hills. The elven lord Thranduil (Lee Pace) desires the return of an ancient heirloom of his people from the legendary treasure haul, while the newly elected lord of Laketown Bard (Luke Evans) seeks financial restitution for his hungry and homeless people. To complicate events an ancient power has awakened and has ordered his minions to march upon the lands as a strategic move in his charcoal tinged return to terrible power, setting the stage for an epic showdown that will echo throughout the ages.
Like Thorin’s poorly explained and redundantly resolved gold sickness Jackson is now fully a slave to his digital whims, inserting events and influence at the expense of the genuine magic and wonder which flickered into life in the original trilogy – now doesn’t that sound familiar? It might be obvious but the spectre of Lucas and his unchallenged interference casts a familiar shadow over this series, as no-one seems to have had the courage to challenge Jackson or his screenwriters Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh that their additions are flatulent and frail, and ultimately drag this series into the dark pits of mediocrity. There isn’t a jot of emotion or nuance in the film sneaking around the pixellated pyrotechnics, very little of magic of the Teleri going to the shores or the majestic battle at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm or even the soaring last march of the Ents which distinguished LOTR with some genuine moments of awe and wonder. Maybe its just cynical ole me but I simply don’t care about Bard and his tedious children, I don’t care about Alfred the weasel and his ‘hilarious’ sneering (who gets far too much screen time in this picture with precisely zero effect or narrative resolution), but worst of all is the fledgling romance between Kili and Tauriel, an entirely invented notion which is embarrassing in the extreme. Now as I’ve said before I have no problems on paper with indoctrinating some lurve dimensions to presumably woo a wider audience demographic as they did with Arwen and Aragorn in LOTR, in the original trilogy this actually wielded a deeper dimension to the hidden ancestor of submerged Númenor whom is a something of cypher in the books, but the weeping and lamenting in this movie is intolerably bad, and cleaves the emphasis into grotesquely bad film territory. There is zero evidence of the genuinely moving and sacred romance of Beren and Lúthien – proof that in that classical, mythological sense Tolkien could conjure up some vivid emotions beyond the fantasy trappings – while the ninja acrobatics of Legolas and his set pieces eliminate any sense of threat as he tediously dispatches his opponents with all the intangibility of his CGI foes.
There are some pleasing moments however which I’ll explore more fully in the SPOILER section below, an early peak is the White Council’s sojourn to free Gandalf from the clutches of the dark power lurking in the caverns of Dol Gulder which invokes that sense of pure, unalloyed fantasy cinema onanism that the rest of movie sorely lacks, alas that sense of momentum swiftly dissipates as we lurch back to the sodden drama of Dale and Bards reluctant refugees – the holistic pacing of the film and his shifting moves on the chessboard marks Jackson as a very poor DM. For a movie titled The Hobbit there is remarkably little of Bilbo in it, as the witness to these scene setting events of the increasing shadows of the Third Age he should be the focus of the entire trilogy, and this is where the film and trilogy as a whole fail and bring the whole bloated edifice toppling down. Truth be told I initially supported the expansion into three films as a Tolkien fanatic (and maybe this helps explain that foolish decision), I was feverishly pondering the guilty prospect of witnessing more of the legendary creatures and characters get more screen time, but I was wrong, so very very wrong as the lack of emphasis and emotion focused on the central quest renders the series as little more than an uncomfortable blockbuster uncertain of its ultimate intent, oscillating between battles and ballistics at the expense of essential emotional infrastructure.
SPOILER SECTION – It would be churlish of me not to shiver in delight at some of the legendarium logistics exquisitely rendered on-screen, the scene of Galadriel, the only witness to the epic fluctuations of the First Age facing off with Sauron was certainly a powerful cinematic nerd elixir, and some of the combat sequences get the pulse pounding even as they shatter canon at the altar of amazement. The ideal of the wielders of the rings of power initially meleeing with the Nazgûl disrupts historical canon if you’ve diligently poured over the revelations of Unfinished Tales, but I confess that the wider illumination of Angmar’s history in the film and Saruman’s acrobatic animation made me grin with glee – yes I’m a penitent purist but fun can sometines be Fëanor inflected fun. Unfortunately this trust is corrupted in a distinct lack of any further connecting membrane, when the focus understandably orbits back to Erebor the emphasis remains micro rather than macro, and there is zero lip service to the original trilogy apart from one scene of Legolas being advised to go north and seek out a promising sounding ranger with a secret name. To spin all these webs may be beyond the disgusting vomit of Ungloiant even with the ruinous run-time, and I’m certain that Jackson et al have tried but failed here, with Gandalf’s portentous proclamations of the great battle of their time failing to muster the wonder of Smaug’s humongous appearance or the Riddles Of The Dark perfection. SPOILERS END.
A quick aside as I loved this of course, despite the hollow challenge of naming two of the immortal Valar landing with the feeble impact of an empty gauntlet echoing in the distant halls of Mandos – any true Tolkien nerd demands a far deeper and crueller challenge than that. Turning our will and spirit back to the film it may be unfair as a personal aesthetic clash but I have never cared for the design or presentation of Bolg and Azog, in fact the whole introduction of them as the primary antagonist’s within the chase narratives of the first and second tier of the series was another fundamental failure, the chief symptom of the films emphasis on green screen and compositing techniques when once Jackson blended models and CGI enhancements to convincing effect. My tolerance for Jackson’s penchant of dialing up the slow-motion portentousness in alignment with the angelic choir of Howard Shore’s lazy score had me gritting my fangs in frustration, he hasn’t grown as a visual or storytelling artist whom continues to fall back on the same tired tropes. It’s all so unfortunate as they nailed some moments in this second trilogy – Smaug was wonderful, Riddles In The Dark had some of the ancient magic and some of the nods and references to the wider legandarium are gleeful consumed – but the whole reduction of the dwarves to Scottish brogued comedic sidekicks (and don’t can me started on Billy Connelly’s Dain fucking headbutting steel helmed orcs to death in this bloody film) throughout this tier of films just makes me exasperated beyond the healing power of A Elbereth Gilthoniel.
This film needed more Beorn to make his blink and you’ll miss it return to the tale tangible, it required more context around Dol Gulder and the wider presence of the enemy’s return (I mean why did Tauriel and the ridiculous looking CGI enhanced Legolas even travel to Angmar in roughly ten minutes of film time? It makes no sense), and as a general purist point the entire personification of Sauron is troubling – in the books it is the threat, the lurking metaphysical and indomitable force, the overwhelming ancient power whom doesn’t translate as the pure personification of wrath and pride which they just about managed in the original trilogy in his never being directly witnessed. To be charitable some of these problems and the abbreviated, detached and soulless conclusions of the film may be fixed in the extended cut, but that doesn’t absolve Jackson and his crew from what is a deeply troubling final installment. Unlike the LOTR series where I exited the cinema moved and dazzled by the devotion to the books this is now the third time I’ve trudged out with a metaphorical scowl of disappointment on my face, these films play as computer game cut scenes when they should be yearning for Illuvatar’s song of celebration, Jackson the Melkor of modern movie hubris who has brought this beloved franchise to its fundamental knees;