Friday, 1 May 2015


Thorin finds himself surrounded by his foes.
Can't somebody sit Peter Jackson down and have a frank conversation with him about how his behaviour is destructive?

Last weekend I finally sat down to watch Battle of the Five Armies. It is not a good film. Nor is it merely a bad film. It's full-on flat-out incompetent, a swollen, bleeding mass of childish impulse set against a an unconvincing snowstorm of faded pixels.

(Spoilers follow, though if you insist it's important you not know the precise ways in which Jackson has utterly butchered a beloved children's book, it's possible this isn't the blog for you anyway).

It has long been cliche to suggest a film operates as though it thinks itself a video game, but there is no metaphor which better fits this film, nor any film to which the metaphor is so fitting. Everything here operates in the dense, burning forest of NOW. No road back, no path forward. The unfolding process of Smaug's desolating - the resolution of a cliffhanger the whole of the last film was building up to - is jammed into the opening like dirty clothes into a cupboard five minutes before your parents come over. As a pay-off to two hours' work and one year's anticipation, this is cheaper than Lake-town fish fingers. As the opening level of a video game, though, it's inspired; who wouldn't want to spend the first level of their latest purchase searching a burning village for the perfect spot to shoot an angry dragon in his scaly unmentionables? It's a classic opening, filled with spectacle and pyrotechnics designed to send the hind-brain into such spasms of ecstasy your cortex doesn't even realise all you have to do is jump onto a roof and shoot vaguely in the direction of a flying target.

After the fall, events begin to surge to the surface, one after another, breaking out like popping bubbles of marsh-gas, each one meaning nothing beyond what can keep the player involved in whatever level she's playing RIGHT NOW. Maguffins appear everywhere, blooming like flowers no-one's supposed to be bothered to recognise, and die unremarked once we might have tired of looking at their prettiness.  Thorin needs the Arkenstone because DRAMA! Thandruil needs... some necklace, I guess? - because CONFLICT! Does Thandruil even get his bling in the end? Doesn't matter, obviously. That was, like, level 3. Who remembers level 3?

Logic fares no better here. Why do the gobbos arrive by Shai-Hulud? Because them breaking out of the ground to tower above our heroes looks awesome! (Except: it doesn't).  Why doesn't Azog just use the giant worms to tunnel inside the dwarf city and win immediately that way? Because everyone battling outside the gates of Erebor looks awesome! (Except: it doesn't).

Characterisation is just as spotty. Well, not actually; characterisation is entirely absent. What I mean is that characters are just as spotty, appearing at random to satisfy Jackson's take on the Rule of Cool and then vanishing when the next slice of sound and fury collapses on us like a hastily rendered wave. Did Dain Ironfoot survive the battle? Did Radagast? Gwaihir? Beorn? It doesn't seem to matter, so long as they can be spotted in the swirl of chaos on-screen doing cool things whilst looking cool.  These characters are not only without arcs, they are without fates, their essential being reduced to cool moments to break up what might otherwise me a monotonous orc-slaying grind for the player. Here's a dwarf on a pig! Hold A for Porcine Charge! Double-tap X to headbutt! Press both triggers when controlling Legolas to have him leap across falling masonry. Really, what could possibly betray this film's true nature more completely than the idea of moving platforms unsupported and unsuspended that one can nevertheless gain purchase upon and use as a springboard for your next attack. The most amazing part of that sequence isn't the utter ignorance of physics it displays. It's that somehow "+100 POINTS!" doesn't appear onscreen each time Legolas lands on another piece of broken bridge.

Legolas prepares to stepping-stone himself to safety.
Jackson is far from the first person to mistake characters for set dressing, of course. It's perhaps more obvious a problem here than elsewhere, if only because the film has so large a cast: a hobbit, three wizards, five elves, fifteen dwarves; even three humans (one of which spends some of the film in drag because somehow Jackson's humour has become even less developed since he made Brain Dead). Plus Benedict Cumberbatch twice, of course. As a result our merry band of dwarves - you know, the whole focus of the first two movies - barely get a look in here. By my count, only five of the fourteen have more than two lines in the whole film, and a bare minimum of six dwarves are silent throughout, appearing only to frown or beam or stare staunchly, depending on the situation, at the characters lucky enough to have dialogue. They fade so completely into the background that I had to take it on faith the dwarf who accompanied Aidan Turner on their desperate mission was actually Fili; Dean O'Gorman spends more time in the film falling to his death than he does talking, which rather demonstrates the hollowness of the whole endeavour. Unless, of course, the point isn't to make us care about characters, but to raise the stakes whilst lowering the number of NPCs with any agency. A nonsensical concern in a film, a ubiquitous approach in video games. Think back on the action games you've played over the years, and ask yourself how long the average lifespan is for a character who's finished justifying/enabling whatever awesome sequences you just played through. Those poor bastards make mayflies look like Methuselah.

But even all this thorough refusal to engage with the most basic tenets of film-making wouldn't bother me so much if all these sacrifices hadn't been made in the name of a spectacle that was actually, y'know, spectacular. Instead what we get is merely exhausting. Not just exhausting for the viewer, either, though certainly the hyper-unreality of every other shot makes watching the film a distant, jarring experience that makes it feel longer than its already overlong run-time. It was clearly exhausting for the special effects bods too who, presumably overwhelmed by the sheer number of totally unnecessary CGI shots required (again, what's with the giant deathworms? Why were so many shots of the different races done in wide-screen to maximise the obvious computer trickery needed to make them all the right size?) have turned in not a convincing world but a sort of faded dreamscape of a film, unconvincing and disconcerting from it's bleached skies to its over-lit earth. The result is something outstripped not just by Game of Thrones (a show running on a fraction of the film's budget) but by ...Five Armies' own ancestors, the Lord of the  Ring films. Sure, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields didn't quite hang together, but as a major action sequence at the conclusion of a trilogy it kept its momentum  More to the point, it knew what it was, a ferocious large-scale battle sequence there to entertain those who expected the series to end with a cavalcade of catapult-fire, only so that the film could contract focus immediately afterwards and demonstrate that the real struggle had always been about two people refusing to give up hope until their efforts brought down an empire.

In other words, Pelannor Fields was a goal; the Battle of the Five Armies is the ballgame.  It's as though Jackson re-watched the final ...Rings film and concluded he was best off getting rid of everything except Theoden dying and that bit where Legolas kills an elephant. And so we get this, a pointless, endless rolling demo of a video game that claims to care about the horrors of war but actually makes it into a fetish, to to the point no criticism of its topic can be taken seriously. A film which trades entirely on how awesome battles look is not an anti-war film. It's the other thing.

Not just an incompetent film, then, but a dangerous one.  And proof, too, that whilst Jackson might adore Tolkien, he never understood him.


Tomsk said...

The deathworm thingies are emblematic with all that is wrong with Peter Jackson films. Cf the endless monster one-up-manship in the King Kong remake.

On the other hand I'm with Mrs Tomsk that it's worth sitting through all the filler to get to the glaswegian dwarf headbutting extravaganza. I'm pro any video game war that features Billy Connolly.

SpaceSquid said...

I agree entirely with your wife regarding the brilliance of Baron Billy Butts and his battle-beast Bacon.

darkman said...

Still better than Transformers: Age of Extinction

SpaceSquid said...

I am entirely happy to take your word for that, darkman. I stopped staring in bafflement at live-action Transformers at the same time Megan Fox did.

darkman said...

If you want to know what a psychotic break feels like I highly recommend watching that movie.

SpaceSquid said...

I always figured I was headed for one of those anyway, so...