Review of The Battle of Five Armies & Musings on the Hobbit

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A few days before Christmas I went to watch the last part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy: The Battle of Five Armies. As anyone who reads this blog or knows me personally understands, I have mixed feelings about this series of movies, despite my love of the source material. I will give a general review first, and then dive into specifics after the red spoiler barrier.

Here is my review of The Desolation of Smaug (w/Spoilers), the second movie, which was the worst offender, in my opinion.

In short, once I set aside fidelity to the book, I enjoyed The Battle of Five Armies. It certainly did not suffer the same level of (new) plot violations that The Desolation of Smaug did. It was an entertaining action movie with a great Tolkien backstory, worth seeing for anyone who loves massive fantasy battles and over the top action scenes. The parting scenes at the end of the movie are particularly poignant, considering that this is the last time that we will see a new movie set in Middle-Earth for a while, at least. I think Mr Jackson was sad to put this chapter of his life behind him, and his love of the source material does shine through despite the somewhat clumsy attempts to alter and improve upon it. Unless you are complete Tolkien snob or just don’t really feel excited about a fantasy themed action romp, it is worth seeing.

As a whole I thought the Hobbit trilogy was decent, but lacked both the emotional impact and epic scope of The Lord of the Rings movie. The best scene in the whole trilogy remains the first one they shot, the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Here Be Spoilers!

The Good

  • Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot: I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Billy Connolly’s Dain. Mr Connolly’s distinctive voice brought a strong personality to the pugnacious Dwarf (Thorin’s Cousin). Although the character was obviously CGI, the animation was decent enough (not Gollum level mind you) and really shone in fight scenes. Dain made the movie for me: Finally a Dwarf who isn’t outshone by Legolas!
  • The Dwarven Army: Although their screen time is fairly brief, the Dwarves finally show up in force and don’t immediately flub it. I was pleased to see some nice Dwarven formations and fighting styles here.
  • The Battle Scenes: The battle scenes were fantastic. There is some nice formation fighting, great epic shots, and wonderful fighting both in the field and on the ruined streets of Dale. My only complaint about the battle scenes is that there could have been more. The climactic scenes occur in an isolated ruin far away from the main battle.
  • The Acting: The acting was good. Nobody really seemed to phone it in or break immersion.
  • The raid on the Necromancer’s Tower: This is a scene that Jackson added that I actually liked, showing Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Radagast working to free Gandalf and confront Sauron in the guise of the Necromancer. I thought it was well done, did not step on the toes of the source material, and gave Mr Jackson the chance to get those familiar faces on screen once more. Martin Freeman is amazing, but more on that below.
  • Legolas Running out of Arrows: I hate Legolas in the Hobbit. I nearly cheered when his endless streak of awesome ended and he ran out of arrows.
  • The Beorn Bomb: Sometimes Jackson’s penchant for over the top action works out. When the eagles drop a transforming Beorn into the midst of the orc army it is an amusing moment.

The Bad

  • The Book is Called the Hobbit for a Reason!: Martin Freeman makes for a great Bilbo. Tis unfortunate then that this movie robs Bilbo of his major triumphs. In the book Bilbo sends a Thrush to tell Bard where the Dragon’s armour is weakest, thus helping defeat the great beast. While Bilbo is present in the third film he mostly putters around and looks conflicted. I was disappointed in his conversation with Thorin at the end and very annoyed that Bolg knocked him out.
  • Smaug’s Death: For fuck’s sake what is wrong with just having Bard shoot a bow? it works for Legolas! Everything about Smaug’s death stank. It was too early in the movie, occuring a mere fifteen minutes into the film. I blame the studio for this one, since they demanded that Mr Jackson make three movies, which required a longer battle of the five armies. It would have been much better for Smaug to die at the end of the second movie than at the beginning of the third.
  • The Thirteen Dwarves: Thorin’s company mostly remain inert once again. You think with all this extra time they could develop personalities for the Dwarves that accompany Bilbo and Thorin, but the closest they come is giving them unique facial hair styles. They don’t even get to show their fighting skills here. Much like Bilbo they seem overlooked in this movie. Lost opportunity.

The Ugly

  • CGI Muckups: The CGI was generally pretty decent. However, there were some pretty silly bits. After Azog kills Fili, the brother with no love interest, his weapons are strangely devoid of blood, let alone the serious gore that comes from running someone through. I understand the desire to keep in PG, but that was just silly. Even worse, however, was the way Smaug shrunk when he died. Before Bard kills him, Smaug is so enormous that he towers over the largest buildings in Laketown, striding with his feet on both sides of the canals as he attacks. When he falls out of the air, however, all he does is take out a boat. WTF.
  • Alfrid: Why the fuck does this guy get more screen time than any other character? Also we seem to be straying dangerously into the whole Randian ugly = evil trope with this character and all the orcs.
  • The Trolls: Every single troll in this movie was a unique and special snowflake, yet somehow they were not as interesting as the more uniform trolls seen in the first trilogy. The CGI jumped the shark a little when Legolas jumped onto a quadrapegic troll with ball and chain limbs and eyes that had been sewn shut. The ram troll was ok, the rest seem like the art department got a little out of control or the studio needed more filler.
  • The Sandworms: I nearly got up and left. The orc army has access to tunneling beasts that resemble the Sandworms from Herbert’s Dune. These serve no purpose in the movie, merely add a mindless visual flourish in getting the orc army onto the field. Too bad they also make Azog the Despoiler seem really, really stupid. I mean really, if they can burrow through solid rock why not have them burrow into the Fortress you want to take. Why not use them as weapons and undermine the enemy army or have your troops emerge at closer quarters so those elves get off less shots? No thought went into the tactical implications of adding these beasts to the story. How do the orcs even control them? For that matter where did they go afterwards? Why haven’t they used them before/after? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. King Kong moment right here.

In all, I enjoyed the movie, but found it deeply flawed. I think the series would have been better as one or two movies focusing more on Bilbo and the Dwarves. I much prefer the book in this case, while I thought the Lord of the Rings movies were better in some ways than the written trilogy.

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Snowpiercer, Metaphor, and Systems.

Watch it.

Watch it.

Last week I released, Warbound: The Shield Maiden, the third book in the Domains of the Chosen series. If you have read my other books check it out and leave me a review!

While recovering from this ordeal I watched the movie Snowpiercer, an interesting movie that has gotten a fair bit of buzz lately because of the drama surrounding its release in the US. You may have heard of it.

Spoiler Warning

The movie is about the last survivors of an ecological catastrophe that has frozen the planet. They have gathered on a supremely advanced train that circles the earth, the Snowpiercer, where over the last seventeen years a sort of model state has developed.  The film chronicles a revolution in which the 99% who live in squalor in the back car slums try to overthrow their oppressors from the front.

The film is visually sumptuous, well-acted, and very topical. The cast is impressive. I would heartily recommend watching it to almost anyone I know. If you cannot find it in theaters, it is available on demand in some places (that’s how I watched it).

Here are a few of the more interesting bits.

  • The Metaphor: The Train in the movie is an obvious metaphor for human society on any level, shrunk down to a microcosm where history unfolds at an accelerated pace. It makes for a riveting story of class warfare in a rigidly authoritarian system governed by the passengers in first class. The Metaphor is heavy handed, but it is treated with sensitivity and massaged into a decent story.
  • The Train Itself: The Snowpiercer is an enormous train, billed as a perpetual motion wonder machine, where the engineer is treated a a kind of messianic figure. The train is impressive and enormous, and as the rebellion progresses towards the front we are treated to a series of vividly imagined train cars that serve purposes from luxurious baths, schools, and ugly food processing places.
  • Tilda Swinton: It is hard to stand out in a film full of great acting talent, but Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason is an amazing blend of satirical upper class viciousness, dictatorial monster, and hardened survivor. It seems to be that a large part of the success of this portrayal is a dark version of a certain iron-lady, a very appropriate portrayal for a movie about class warfare.
  • The Action: Director Joon-ho Bong (You may know him from The Host, or other movies) does an excellent job in adapting action sequences to the unusual environment of the train, while at the same time evoking images of revolutionary and class warfare conflicts. This is the best part of the movie in my mind. Each fight tells a story. Each fight is part of a larger struggle and they all seamlessly blend together into a truly impressive whole. The use of light and dark, blood, the linear environment of the train, and shifting imagery really made an impression on me.

Go see it.

If you have seen it, think about what the movie says about systems.The train is a closed system. Those who benefit from the system, no matter what their class may be, act to defend the system during the rebellion. Some do so blindly, and when the system is revealed to be a manipulation they kind of go nuts. Those in charge take the more cynical, world-weary view that they are merely bringing order to the inevitable, no matter how monstrous their actions. Those who suffer most simply lash out blindly for the most part. The only solution is presented very starkly at the end: derailing the system.