A Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The final installment of reclusive auteur Peter Jackson’s epic LOTR sextet, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, succeeds not on the putative battlefield or in the CGI bloodbath cum soon-to-be-amusement-park-ride sequences that take up so much space, visually and otherwise, but in the fugitive moments between the histrionics and slash. It is not the sight of Smaug (voiced with oily desire by Benedict Cumberpatch) laying waste to Lowtown (bizarrely spliced in with footage of Dresden being firebombed back to the stone age) that stays with you long after the curtain finally rises and you are once again, alone; it is the image of Smaug casting what I can only describe as knowing, intimate glances at the chain smoking children, the heavily bandaged urchins playing strip poker while their city burns.
While some might bemoan the amount of screen time devoted to the town’s master (Stephen Fry, with dollar signs flashing in his eyes), it is not his predictable greed and its consequences (the Luftwaffe flickering on the skyline) that hypnotizes us. Rather, it is said Master’s incongruous Keds leaving tiny bird-like tracks in the blood of his slaughtered servants, as he minces his way toward the piano made (we find out soon enough) from the bones of all children who have shown the ability to read music. Do we loath him? Certainly. But his unfinished libretto “Songs for the Consumed,” plays over the squalor like the fugue of rats scrabbling back and forth through his mansion’s walls (the scene a clear nod to a certain well known hip-hop impresario, the lingerie clad corpses surrounding Fry as he drains goblet after goblet of an unnamed pink froth, rattle their bones to the beat). One can quite easily find the sword and sorcery wish fulfillment one expects (here is Smaug’s metal plated breast exploding from a well placed bolt; he explodes into a million red paper cranes, here’s a mysterious object that matters more than all other objects, here and here and here and here: strongly suggested oral) but it’s in the miniature that you find what’s worthwhile: the “spoiler alert” tattoo on Bard’s sculpted arrow knocking arm, the aimless strains of “Enter Sandman,” playing as Gandalf looks in on the sleeping dwarves [the door closes, the screen goes ominously black], Alfred Lickspittle (Ryan Gage) checking his belt buckle obsessively even as the arrows pierce his lover’s flesh, the look of mute desire/anguish in Bilbo’s (played again with a certain concupiscent charm by Martin Freeman) eyes as he watches Legolas tenderly bringing Galadriel’s bloody bandage to his lips.
The plot here is incidental to the grandiosity of these small, disappearing things. But to readers of Tolkien, the plot itself will hold little or no surprises. Here is the dragon, here is the dragon screaming in German as he dies, here are the titular armies massing for an hour long festival of gore and yes, acrobatics (Orlando Bloom’s Legolas being the chief culprit as he uses bats- yes bats- to leap from skirmish to skirmish, his loin cloth in ever increasing danger of revealing his swollen-with-battle elfhood), here the goblins throwing their amputated limbs, here the trolls fuck-loving the broken trees, here is Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee, wearing a never explained rubber Reagan mask) locked in a passionate kiss, here Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) on the edge of the battle, his face turned aside, rutting with a fallen orc as MGMT’s “Weekend Wars” blasts plaintively across the screen. The “plot,” unsurprisingly is little but a ladder to Jackson’s later LOTR films. Plot, such as it is, is reduced to foreshadowing, to “this thing that is happening here will connect to what happens later though since you’ve seen it it’s kind of earlier for you, the viewer, but work with me here.”
This is a flaw, a real one. The nearly one-to-one correspondence between the appearance of a thing here because later it is there rewards indifference far more than close attention. The swastika Galadriel reveals beneath the caked mud of the barn door comes as no surprise. But the sensual bleating of the animals, does. We know full well how this ends- how it all ends, on Mount Doom with the Nazguls flickering above it. But accepting that the narrative- the continuity if you will- does not matter, is incredibly freeing (as LA Magazine’s Steve Erickson says in Zeroville: “fuck continuity” as a staff record label and crew). The rain of orc limbs in Dol Goldur ceases to matter as a plot point (in fact: this was not in the source text at all, it’s simply Jackson mashing directorial buttons) but resonates still by virtue of its disconcerting beauty: etsy rings falling in slow motion from severed, bone white fingers. Freed from context, the Tremors-esque worms used by Sauron’s forces are allowed to be only themselves, wildly and tumescently strange as they soundlessly writhe over doll like warriors. It’s possible to see the movie that could have been in the midst of the posturing of the movie that is: a kinetically slick montage of plunging necklines, trembling fingers, spiraling roads lined with empty dresses nailed to crosses. This is the rare movie where the dialog seems not so much ‘off’ as irrelevant, a distraction from the music videos layered on each other like so much wizard frosting: children murdering each other to the beat, faces white-knuckling, a princess betraying her own kind for desire, eyes like windows after you’ve thrown a rock through them [beautiful], begging. At its worst this is a mosh pit of allusion and desire but at its best this same quality transcends the material. Relinquishing the need to sense-make, the viewer is allowed to glory in POV hero porn. This redeems even some of the “big” moments as they are flattened and made equal: the massed armies given exactly as much screen time as the hesitating hand of one dwarf finding the hand of another in the dark.
The “why” of all this bloodshed really doesn’t matter. Numinous treasure troves and the ability of the beautiful to infect the eyes of the beholder- these things are far more flimsy than they might sound. At the end of the days it’s a bunch of dwarves who find some pretty rocks and then want more pretty rocks and in doing so pretty much fuck up everyone’s lives. That the “disease of more” (as Pat Riley succinctly described LOTR’s worldview/ethos) leads to disaster comes as no surprise. There is no pleasure in what one thing causes (unless one marvels at gravity or how pure white gowns are inevitably stained, every captive fallen in love with and slain). Thorin (Richard Armitrage) gives us very little as the victim of acute “dragon sickness (yes, they diagnose him with this) but Thorin hobbling out of the treasure room with a snail trail of semen on his iron boot: yes. Oh yes. There are movies where the eye can starve, conversations that empty the skull. But here Peter Jackson provides the audience with all they can desire, if they can but learn to desire it [the scuffed exclamation mark of semen on Thorin’s boot answers every question, if we but dare to ask it].
editor’s note: this post is part of our Sight Unseen series in which people review movies or other things they have NOT seen or read. Guidelines for submitting to Sight Unseen can be found here