If there’s one thing we’ve learned during Peter Jackson’s epic Tolkien cycle, which has now spanned 15 years and six movies, it’s that the Kiwi director has a penchant for extravagant battle scenes. You can imagine his glee, therefore, when he managed to persuade Warner Brothers to turn a short paragraph of Tolkien’s novel into a third Hobbit film because the result is essentially one long battle-sequence that kicks off with the slaying of a dragon and builds to the monolithic skirmish for which it is named.
That The Battle of the Five Armies is spectacular is without doubt. Jackson goes all out to make the film suitably grim and grubby, injecting as much gore as a 12A rating will allow and working in enough tension and peril between the expertly-choreographed Orc-on-Elf-on-Dwarf action to create a rousing if confusing finale. But that these popcorn action-thrills come at the expense of concluding the story or developing the characters with purpose and meaning is disappointing, leading to a frustrating and surprisingly heartless send off to Jackson’s extended Middle Earth adventures.
Without any kind of recap we re-join the action as the residents of Laketown flee their homes to avoid the fiery-wrath of a supremely-pissed Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Across the way, Bilbo (Freeman) and his rag-bag band of dwarves enter the dragon’s lair as their leader Thorin (Armitage) descends into madness under the influence of Smaug’s treasure. Meanwhile, the legions of Azog the Defiler’s Orc army march towards Erebor.
To say this is the plot would perhaps be an overstatement as the novel’s narrative has been so stretched and convoluted by unimportant appendices over the course of three films that there’s no longer any sense of narrative fluency. We lurch from set piece to set piece while racking our brains trying to remember what it’s all about until the story is no longer recognisable – it’s just a series of meandering subplots in search of a climax.
What’s surprising about this prequel trilogy is that it hasn’t gone as deep into its characters’ motivations as it could, despite having the time and budget to do so. Bilbo’s journey from reclusive milquetoast to courageous hero and back again is entirely forgotten in the chaos of battle, as is the corrupting influence the Ring has on him.
Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is also underserved here, her character’s well-intentioned creation to add a little oestrogen to Tolkien’s male-dominated tale of heroism undone by burdening her with an unengaging interspecies love triangle that means all her actions are driven by the influence of men.
There’s also a tension-zapping divergence back to Dol Guldur where Gandalf (McKellen) and a few familiar faces try to prevent a shadowy power from rising, which may provide a nice set-up for the original trilogy but is totally superfluous to this film’s plot.
Even Thorin’s central arc of succumbing to the maddening allure of Erebor’s gold is poorly-handled, the constant cutaways to less important events destroying the claustrophobic atmosphere that feeds the dwarf king’s psychological collapse.
This queasy smorgasbord of characters and subplots makes it near-on impossible for the audience to form any kind of attachment to any of the cast, the film’s heart fast becoming lost amid the flurry of CGI-gore on offer. This coldness is highlighted in the way significant plot beats, such as a character’s death, feel devoid of impact or consequence, and it’s a shame that Jackson’s legacy may be tarnished by ripping the soul out of Tolkien’s classic tome.
The only bright spark to be found is the increasingly fraught friendship between Bilbo and Thorin, which is the only relationship that carries any weight. Freeman and Armitage give strong performances in these scenes, the latter’s destructive greed and paranoia contrasting the former’s earnest kindness, and their tearful farewell is the closest the film gets to gut-wrenching emotion.
However, it can’t save The Battle of the Five Armies from a lifeless conclusion, one that at least matches the storytelling quality of its predecessors by finding a convenient close to the action before leading us on a tedious victory lap through the Shire’s bucolic charms for a call-back to the Lord of the Rings. While this may ultimately please lifelong Tolkien enthusiasts, for the rest of us it serves only as a painful reminder of how inferior The Hobbit films are to Jackson’s first trilogy. Thankfully, it’s finally over.
Running time: 144 mins; Genre: Fantasy; Released: 12 December 2014;
Director: Peter Jackson; Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson;
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly
Click here to watch the trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies