Back Here Again
"Did you know that Farrah Fawcett died the same day as Michael Jackson?"
--Riggan Thomson, Birdman
As I sat in a theatre watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies yesterday morning, Sony Pictures announced that it would pull Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's new comedy, The Interview, from theatres next week. This was an escalation of the previous day's events, which saw major chains like AMC and Regal cancel Christmas Day screenings, for fear that faceless cyber-terrorists would make good on their threats of "9/11-style" attacks on any venue showing the movie. A few hours ago, Sony killed The Interview altogether, placing it firmly on the Shelf of Legends with Jerry Lewis' unreleased Holocaust comedy, The Day the Clown Cried.
Faced with the prospect of never seeing our young century's most controversial film (no VOD, no Blu-ray, no nothin'), I struggle to find the words or enthusiasm to write about Peter Jackson's latest bloated, soulless, live-action cartoon--which will be on half of America's phones within six months. But I will soldier on, and in hopes of leaving this glossy, pixel-fisted cash-grab behind me.
To be clear, I rooted for The Hobbit to succeed. I was late to the party in appreciating Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and was a champion of his first Hobbit entry, An Unexpected Journey. Though certainly drawn out, I dug the poetry of Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) mission, and the filmmakers' leisurely, lyrical approach to Middle Earth. An Unexpected Journey was silly and adventurous, where Lord of the Rings was gray and grim, and the contrast helped ease the feeling that I'd been roped into an identical eight-hour tour of the fantasy realm's greatest hits.
The dull and uninspired Desolation of Smaug knocked me off the fence. Halfway through Bilbo and his dwarf compatriots' quest to reclaim a mountain kingdom from its slumbering dragon overlord,* the focus shifted to skirmishes between humans, elves, and spiky-slimy things. There were CGI wars and rumors of CGI wars. Lots of rain and sorrow, made flesh in Luke Evans' cyanide-colored, reluctant-hero eyes.
In the end, Bilbo exchanges monologues with Smaug the dragon, just as he'd done in the previous movie with Gollum (Andy Serkis). Heroes are scattered to the four winds: wounded, imprisoned, or impaired by depression, and we cut to black as the dragon we thought for sure had been killed soars into the sky--fueled not so much by hatred as the desire for an even bigger holiday box office the following season.
That season is here, and I'm happy to report that The Hobbit trilogy is over. I pity the generation who will watch these prequel movies before Lord of the Rings. By the time they get to The Two Towers, they will likely be as fatigued and unimpressed as I was twenty minutes into Five Armies. At this point, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Phiippa Boyens, and Guilermo del Toro are on narrative auto pilot. There is literally nothing in this movie that you haven't seen before, if you've seen any five other fantasy pictures.
Smaug is knocked off within ten minutes, leaving his kingdom wide open for the armed and ambitious factions of Middle Earth. Dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) obsesses over finding a sparkly rock that will ensure victory over everyone. Bilbo has hidden the rock on his person, for fear that its power will corrupt and destroy his friend. He's also in possession of the Ring of Power which, we all know, is also a force of dark influence. That we never see Bilbo go crazy is, perhaps, proof that these two mythic elements cancel each other out--or something.
Soon (but not nearly soon enough), Smaug's castle is surrounded by more dwarves, a legion of elves, the displaced farmers of a smouldering Lake-town (the site of Smaug's last stand), the Orc hordes, and our tiny band of confused heroes.** Blades and shields clash, monsters pop out of the Earth for a second, and we're treated to more "all hope is lost" moments than you can shake a magic staff at. Seriously, this movie could be called The Drinking Game of the Five Armies, for all the embarrassing moments in which we see a hero on the ground with a foe overhead about to swing a sword/bring down a hammer--only to be interrupted by an arrow to the chest or another hero tackling him/it from out of frame. There's a single variant on this staging, towards the end, but it comes long after Jackson and company have expanded the Rule of Three into the Rule of Thirty-three.
Perhaps the movie would have been more bearable had it at least looked plausible. Jackson and his effects shop, WETA, plunge so far down the digital rabbit hole here that audiences can count the number of tangible objects on one middle finger. All the actors are bathed in a buttery, glowing sheen that makes the lighting on ABC Family commercials seem positively natural. In particular, Orlando Bloom looks like a sick experiment involving bad makeup, plastic surgery, and digital airbrushing. And don't even get me started on Billy Connolly's mad-dwarf warrior. I haven't read up on whether or not he's a complete CGI creation, but his mouth is a freakish melange of ones and zeroes to be sure.
Completists will see The Battle of the Five Armies because it's in their nature to do so. Casual LOTR fans may skip this one and wait for home video--rightfully so. Sadly, we've reached the point where Jackson's fantastical imagery, Howard Shore's sweeping score, and a host of great actors playing revered characters have become passe. Aside from Armitage's touching final scenes and Freeman's ability to sell snarky dubiousness in a simple head tilt (which wears painfully thin as this chapter hobbles across the finish line), there's not a single remarkable performance, character moment, or story beat to be found.
We're left instead with dodgy computer graphics of supermen who can, say, spot a dragon's weak spot from two miles away and survive the flaming collapse of a tower beneath his feet after shooting an arrow that he's balanced on his son's shoulders. I know these aren't "people", per se, but the denizens of Middle Earth were at least recognizable, a long time ago, as beings who mostly bowed to physics and didn't benefit from selectively impenetrable skin.
What was once a journey of narrative and cinematic discovery has been reduced to the filling of a slot in a studio's schedule. Rarely has fantasy felt so obligatory as it does here, and I long for the bold and dangerous days of Jackson's early career. If Hollywood keeps acquiring and neutering artists like this (and if artists keep allowing themselves to be acquired and neutered), it won't be long before terrorist threats aren't necessary to clear out multiplexes everywhere.
*Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, 'cause he's growly, British, and new.
**Thankfully, the screenplay informs us that dwarves are "loyal to a fault", which kind of explains why twelve authority-bucking warriors' reaction to their leader's sudden irrational orders and petulant behavior is to sit around wringing their hands.