Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

I take no joy in trashing the Hobbit movies. Peter Jackson gave us an amazing trilogy with Lord of the Rings, and like Ridley Scott or George Lucas, no modern day sin can undo my respect for those accomplishments. More importantly, the source material demands attention: the scope of Tolkien’s vision is unparalleled in fiction, period. A single Wikipedia entry or Quora question can still pull me into his universe out of nowhere, its tangled web of languages and civilizations and hazy mythologies keeping me spellbound for hours. If hand-wavey summaries written by strangers have that power over me, surely a competent film should elicit the same wonder.

It should and it does, sort of. There’s a certain joy in seeing mythic races clash and imagining the backstory Tolkien dreamt up for each meticulous detail, or with following Gandalf’s (anachronistic) journey and knowing the Google rabbit hole that will ensue, taking me from Sauron and the Maiar to Morgoth and the Valar, to Melkor and Eru and the most beautifully minimal creation fable. Bland CG and absurd plotting can’t take those associations away, even if it requires some digging to undistort them.

Ignoring sentimental associations, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies is just not good. At all. From the opening sequence that’s abundantly clear. It begins abruptly, squandering what may be its best scene before the audience has gotten a chance to calibrate to the story, or even remember what synthetic cliffhanger Desolation had left off on. Having gotten the biggest climax out of the way before our eyes could adjust, it then does everything it can to shoehorn Bilbo’s adventure into the sort of warfare epic that made Lord of the Rings feel so grand, without any of the story or characterizations which made that grandeur worth a damn. Tolkien’s cautionary tale about greed is buried under the rubble somewhere, but at no moment does it feel like a poignant arc: it’s just a thing that happens to a future Happy Meal action figure, who’ll snap back to his old CGI-decapitating self a few scenes later. Like Scott or Lucas’ worst pictures, the whole thing plays like a mindless video game trying to cash in on better films’ aesthetic, rather than a unique story with something to say. To use Chris’ analogy in the episode, it feels like the stockpile of Tolkien’s riches has gotten to Jackson’s head like dragon sickness, so in love with the brand he’s won that he’s unable to lead it anywhere. Like Thorin, he does come to his senses a bit by the very end, showing genuine love for the source material and enough warm-and-fuzzies to still make it essential viewing for any (unhappily resigned) completist. But the journey getting there is a tedious slog.

Mini ep 3/6 of the week at:

See my review on Letterboxd