5/10
The frustration of the 144 minutes
14 December 2014
What a difference an Extended Edition makes. For the first part we got some jolly embellishment. For The Desolation of Smaug we got bags more depth and character. For The Battle of the Five Armies, it may - I hope - be transformative. Because right now this feels like An Unfinished Journey.

It's as if, after all the complaints about splitting a pamphlet of a novel into three parts, Peter Jackson is playing a joke on us: This is what you get when you ask for Middle-earth-lite. Characters we've come to love or loathe arc into nothing; others (e.g. Beorn and Radagast) are given literally seconds of screen time; and for the first time in this prequel trilogy, a whole chapter (The Return Journey) is pretty much elided entirely.

I'd like to be clear on my admiration for what Peter Jackson has done with The Hobbit so far. For all The Lord of the Rings' mythic grandeur and complex world-building, there's a warm geniality and brisk impetus to these lovingly crafted films. And those qualities are married to a thematic depth missing from its bedtime story source. Home and borders are themes that have run through this trilogy, from Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) heartfelt declaration of solidarity at the end of An Unexpected Journey, to Kili's (Aidan Turner) fevered speech to Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) as she heals his wounds in Desolation, when they realise reconciliation is possible. Heck, I even like the addition of Tauriel - though her unsatisfying conclusion is perhaps typical of a final chapter that too often fails to tie up its loose ends.

The movie kicks off from precisely where the second ended, with the dread dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) descending upon Laketown. The citizens flee but nothing can stop the cataclysm - until a certain someone finds an ingenious way to pierce the beast. Then there's nemesis #2: Sauron (also Cumberbatch). We get to see some familiar faces face-off with this faceless monstrosity.

The story then enters its most intriguing phase: a kind of psychodrama involving Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his sickening relationship with gold and power. It's the one time we really glimpse that signature Jackson oddness, in a wonderful hallucinatory sequence where Thorin imagines he's sinking in a lake of gold.

The narrative follows the book fairly closely. This was, after all, the stage of the story where Professor Tolkien finally foregrounded politics and ethics and the machinations of characters ahead of adventure. The film is at its most successful in the quieter moments, as Thranduil (a subtle Lee Pace) ponders the duty of the elves; as Bard (a brooding Luke Evans) comes to the gate of the mountain to plead for peace; and as Thorin struggles with his "dragon-sickness" (i.e. greed), while Bilbo wrestles with the dilemma of what to do with a certain stolen gemstone.

Thorin was presented at first as this trilogy's Aragorn. But over time we've learned of the dangerous pride that ruined his grandfather. Thorin's hubris and arrogance is in stark contrast to Bilbo's very relatable and achievable traits of decency and humility. The gulf between them is intriguing and wisely plundered for drama. Armitage and Bilbo provide the best performances of the film - mostly internal; mostly in the eyes - and their farewell is one of the more moving moments in a trilogy that has largely prioritised humour over pathos.

The battle itself is undoubtedly impressive - great roaring hordes punctuated with spectacular giants - but in a sense it compounds the problem of the relatively truncated runtime. What was already the shortest Middle-earth film is rendered artificially even shorter by the fact that there's 45 minutes of virtually wordless fighting. By now we should all be braced for Super Legolas and his physics-defying fighting style. That reaches new heights here; as he sprints up a crumbling bridge like he's on the wrong escalator, it's like some sort of visual satire on the weightlessness of CGI.

With its last bastion and swarming armies, the titular battle resembles The Return of the King's Pelennor finale - yet that movie took breath between its showdowns. Galadriel vs. Sauron; Legolas vs. Bolg; Thorin vs. Azog... it's like we're watching someone finish off a video game but we're powerless to stop them skipping the tension- or character-building cutscenes. Moreover, the dubious editing decisions create some strange and jolting juxtapositions and tonal lurches, and negate the sense of time passing or of great distances being crossed.

The result is a film that really earns its status of "theatrical cut", insofar as it resembles many a boisterous blockbuster. This is fairly damning criticism for a Middle-earth movie, usually so luxurious and layered in its sense of a unique world. There's plenty of meat here - but where are the bones that hold it all together? 11 months away, perhaps.
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