Wednesday, January 7, 2015


The biggest chore on my 2014 to-do list was turning out to be The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Some of the movies I watch this time of year, I watch out of a sense of obligation, and the final Hobbit movie was seeming more like homework than most.

It's not that I'm down on this Hobbit series. Actually, 2012's An Unexpected Journey just missed my top ten, so enchanted was I by my return to Middle Earth. But I was less enchanted by The Desolation of Smaug, and then the general narrative about the Hobbit movies switched to a discussion of exhaustion. Whereas Tolkien lovers were thrilled with each new installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they were now demonstrating weariness about the bloated and protracted Hobbit series. I can't help if some of that seeped into me. And then, when the reviews for Five Armies started coming in, even more of my enthusiasm was sapped. Especially when a colleague of mine at ReelGood listed the final Hobbit as one of his two worst movies of the year.

But I felt a duty to be completist on my theatrical viewing of these movies, all six of which I felt needed to be seen on a big screen. And instead of just trying to get the final one out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible, I decided to super-size my viewing, so to speak, by returning to seeing it in 3D HFR. 

That's how I saw (and loved) An Unexpected Journey. Like most people, I thought the images looked a bit like they had been shot on video, but there was also a hyperreal quality to them that made them unique. Both as a financial decision and a means of contrast, I caught The Desolation of Smaug in 2D last year, and didn't like it as much. There was no way to know, of course, whether HFR would have made a big difference for me with the second Hobbit movie. The story should play the biggest role in determining how well a movie like this works for us, but unless you can somehow orchestrate two "first viewings" of the same movie, one in each format, you really don't know.

Still, I thought it made sense to stack the deck in my favor for #3, especially since I could see it on a discount Tuesday night and pay "only" $16 for the movie, including the $4 3D surcharge. I also figured this might be my last opportunity for a while to see a movie in this format. You'd have to think some other filmmaker is working on a project in HFR, but if they are, I haven't heard of it. 

And wouldn't you know it, I did like The Battle of the Five Armies a whole lot more than The Desolation of Smaug

HFR probably did play some role, but it would be hard to quantify it. Storywise, I felt this movie was a lot more streamlined than the previous one -- possibly even than the first one, though I like An Unexpected Journey a lot more. That's kind of the opposite of what people have been saying. The consensus seems to be that this movie is most representative of the bloat involved in expanding a 300-page book into more than seven hours of movies. However, I felt it was the most concentrated on one single goal, of any of the six Tolkien movies. Everything and everyone is focused on the thousands of tons of gold resting the belly of the Lonely Mountain, and they will fight to the death to get it.

Of course, my favorite sequence in the whole movie has nothing to do with any of that. Ingeniously, Peter Jackson tidily closes up the story of Smaug the dragon entirely in a pre-title sequence. Unleashed from his castle toward the city of Laketown at the end of the previous film, Smaug predictably lays waste to the city with just a few swooping passes and a few extended fiery exhales. This was shot thrillingly, and the HFR gave the whole thing the look of a real set, like you might see at Universal Studios. The buildings burning and the people scampering here and there made it seem like a real production, rather than a largely digital creation. And that seemed to intensify the danger significantly. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) perched atop a flimsy tower, using his son's shoulder to steady the final arrow he has available to shoot at Smaug, gave the movie an immediate emotional intensity that I don't think it ever fully frittered away. Like a really great James Bond pre-credits sequence, it put me in a delirious state of anticipation for the rest of the movie. 

Which proceeds to focus on Smaug's prize ... who has the right to it, and what they will do to get it.

The HFR continued to deliver for me during the politicking leading up to the titular battle -- which includes a great descent-into-madness performance by Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield -- and through the final battle itself. That battle may not compare favorably with the epic battles in either The Two Towers or Return of the King, but it's the type of epic battle we have come to expect from Jackson's Middle Earth movies, and one that was absent from both of the previous Hobbit movies. On this front I welcomed it.  

The final smart decision, though, was to end the movie on the intimate scale of a one-on-one battle between Thorin and Azog, atop breaking ice no less. There's something about the quiet and setting of this battle that reminds me of the climax of Kill Bill Vol. 1. As such, the movie may actually be bookended by my two favorite scenes. 

Look, it may not be a great movie, but it is most assuredly a good movie, and I don't understand the people who think otherwise. Cumulative fatigue, I would guess, and a pre-wired inability to consider this movie on its own terms.

Looking back on all six of Jackson's Middle Earth movies, I note that the two series are kind of an inverse of each other, at least as far as I am concerned. Allow me to explain.

I got off to a rough start back in 2001 with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I actively did not like it, feeling that it was overlong, that it was overly emotional and that it left off at an unsatisfying point. (Remember, this was back in the days when not a lot of movies were made with an absolute certainty that the sequels would also be made.) Since then, I have watched it again and grown to like it. Conversely, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was my favorite of the new series. I was immediately on board. 

The second movie in both series represented a radical change from my thoughts on the first. The Two Towers was what made me fall in love with The Lord of the Rings, establishing itself as what turned out to be both my favorite of the series, and my favorite overall of Jackson's Tolkien adaptations, I can now say for certain. The Two Towers also made me reconsider the first movie and view it in a more forgiving light. On the other hand, The Desolation of Smaug kind of made me fall out of love with the Hobbit series. I still liked the movie, but I probably give it more of a pass than it deserves because of my lingering affection for the first one.

The third movie in each series is my second favorite in that series. The big difference is how close it is to my favorite. Return of the King is a lot closer in quality to The Two Towers than The Battle of the Five Armies is to An Unexpected Journey, but even just writing about it now, I actually think I like Five Armies even more than I thought I did at the start of this piece.

Here are my rankings:

1) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
3) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
4) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
5) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
6) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I do debate whether second viewings of An Unexpected Journey and The Return of the King would keep that order intact, or whether they would flip-flop. I think I accord An Unexpected Journey this level of respect in part because it was so, well, unexpected. The best picture winner is probably the better movie. So far, though, its daunting length has kept me from rewatching it. In fact, only the first two LOTR movies have gotten second viewings from me.

I titled this post "Completism," but part of me thinks that Jackson is not done with Middle Earth. If there are not other Tolkien stories to adapt (are there?), I wouldn't consider it beyond the realm of possibility for him to just write entirely new material himself. I guess that's kind of what he's been doing in fleshing out this latest trilogy.

But if he wants to use Gandalf, he better start on it soon. Ian McKellen can't keep playing this role forever. 

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