Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Hobbit - The End of an Era

This past Monday I decided to take a half-day off work, walk a few blocks to the AMC Metreon in Downtown San Francisco, and sit my butt down for nine hours in a comfy, assigned seat and watch The Hobbit trilogy in IMAX 3D.

And let me tell you, in its entirety, it was pretty glorious. Some minor spoilers to follow.

We all got posters and matching badges.  I've gotta remember to see if the Metreon has extras!

The amount of camaraderie from just being surrounded by fellow Tolkien fans was truly heart-warming.  We had all come together one last time to experience what will likely be the last of Jackson's portrayals of Middle Earth.

Prior to Desolation's showing during the marathon, audience members were given a sneak peek and behind-the-scenes look at The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies premiere in the UK just a week prior.  After the second intermission but before Battle was queued up for its run, audiences were also treated to a special message from Peter Jackson himself.  He thanked us for being there, challenged us to watch both trilogies in a row, and stated that Battle was his favorite in the Hobbit trilogy despite the fact that it was the most difficult to make.

And he's definitely not wrong.  Battle had to tie up loose ends from the first two installments, it had to be a sturdy bridge for The Lord of the Rings, and it also had to be entertaining.  The pedestal was set high, and I think for the most part Jackson has delivered.


The Desolation of Smaug ended with the monstrous and paranoid Smaug leaving Erebor in a hurry to go and decimate Lake-town.  Battle picks up right in Lake-town with the citizens beginning to worry about the cacophony coming from the mountain.  Bard the Bowman, having been knocked out by Alfrid and Lake-town's Master in the previous feature, was locked in a prison cell and abandoned by the guards once the fire drake was flying overhead.  Most of the dwarves were still at the Lonely Mountain and could only watch in horror as Lake-town was being incinerated; the remaining dwarves (and Tauriel) were tending to Kili's wound from the Morgul arrow.  Gandalf had been captured while forcing Sauron's hand at Dol Guldur and was seemingly losing on this faraway front.

This opening sequence of Battle from start to end took about 20 minutes and felt more like the conclusion of Desolation than it did the beginning of a new chapter.   Smaug took a final dramatic plunge and then the title of the film was revealed without much grandeur.  Although I can understand leaving Desolation on a cliffhanger so viewers are more compelled to see the third movie, Smaug's brief arc in Battle feels disconnected from the rest of the story.  The amount of screen time the dragon receives in Battle leaves us a bit unsatisfied with his ultimate demise because the tension has been lost in the gap between the two films.

After the survivors of Laketown make their way to shore, and Bard steps into a more prominent leadership role, Tauriel parts ways with the dwarves and joins Legolas in a side-quest.  We cut back to Gandalf in Dol Guldur who had summoned aid from Galadriel, Elrond and Sarumon.  A spectacular fight breaks out between the White Council (although not expressly called that in the film) against the former human ring-bearers, and the clash forces Sauron to reveal himself.  Galadriel, although too weak to send Sauron back to the depths from whence he came, was at least able to send him eastward toward Mordor.

This exchange was particularly enjoyable for our theater audience.  We got to see Elrond in full battle attire kicking some major Nazgûl butt along side Sarumon, who was surprisingly lithe and spry for an old white wizard.  The crowd literally cheered when the Lady of Lothlórien dropped some Turn Undead on the ringwraiths and applauded when Sauron was (albeit temporarily) incapacitated.

The story turns to the ruins of Dale, where the citizens of Lake-town had sought out refuge for the time being.  We end up pulling back from the small one on one interactions and get an opportunity to see what is occurring on a macro playing field: elves in golden armor have appeared, dwarves with weighty shields and battle boars come overtop the hills, and hundreds of orcs begin rallying for the upcoming battle.  Even the population of Lake-town begins to train and take up arms for the impending fight.

But why the fight to begin with?  The short answer is because Thorin is plagued by the same illness that his grandfather had succumbed to; he isn't willing to part with the treasure like he had previously promised he would.  Thorin's obsession with the treasure in Erebor is second only to his obsession with finding the Arkenstone.  Richard Armitage's portrayal of Thorin truly recognizes the shift in Thorin's character from a stoic leader to a maddened king.  There are a few instances where you can even hear Smaug's words seeping in through Thorin's bold and paranoid statements.

Bilbo (whom we haven't seen too much of in this installment so far) finally comes back into play.  As always, Martin Freeman perfectly characterizes Bilbo Baggins with his witty expressions and modest demeanor.  After seeking counsel from Balin regarding Thorin's state of mind, the hobbit decides that the best way to attempt to diffuse the tension and prevent a war is to give the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil as leverage against Thorin.  This ends up not going according to plan and the pressure only escalates from there.

The big fight finally rolls around when the orcs make their entrance.  Jackson did an amazing job in The Lord of the Rings trilogy staging large-scale combats, and has proven himself again with the choreography in this finale.  Many people were dissuaded or became cautiously optimistic when Jackson announced that there would be a 45-minute fight sequence in Battle.  If you enjoyed the combat in previous movies, you'll be sure to relish in the war presented in Battle; if you aren't a big fan of combat, there are still other opportunities spaced throughout the fighting for you to look forward to.  The long fight sequence isn't constant combat.  The parties split, resulting in different points of views from the various fronts during this skirmish.  However, there are a few fights that will leave you staring at the screen going "that's really not how that works, there's only so much belief I can suspend" (*cough*Legolas*cough*).

Several of the characters that we've grown attached to over the past three years didn't make it through to the end of this movie.  This was mostly to be expected, because even if you haven't read the books you've seen the future in The Lord of The Rings.  In most cases these deaths were tragic, and some were even heartbreaking to the point of tears.

There were a few points that didn't quite make their mark.  Bilbo, although the star of the first two films, takes a backseat to Thorin (and arguably to Bard) in this final installment.  The original working title of the film was to be "There and Back Again", but for one reason or another the focus had shifted to a single chapter from the original tale and only barely touched on the return to The Shire.  It was also sometimes difficult figuring out who the five armies actually were - elves, men, dwarves, orcs...and more orcs?  The eagles?  What?  Lastly, the showing that I viewed was in IMAX 3D at 48 frames per second, which made some of the animated characters and scenes look like extremely high-quality video game cut scenes.

All in all, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies set out on a mission to be an entertaining finale and bridge and I think it did a decent job of it.  There are still some questions that were left unanswered (Why did the orcs side with Sauron? What happened to Tauriel after Thranduil found her?  Where do Elrond and Galadriel go after their fight with Sauron?), and there are definitely some tie-ins that fans can appreciate (We finally get to see Belladonna Took Baggins stealing Bilbo's spoons as mentioned early on in Unexpected Journey).  Although I'm sad because it's over, I'm elated to see the series complete and I'm sincerely glad that it happened.

If your question is whether or not to go see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies - go see it.  And invite me too, because I'd love to see it again. And now I leave you with the final number of the Middle Earth movies - Billy Boyd's The Last Goodbye.

Stephanie Cala is an avid board, tabletop, and video gamer, who streams regularly on her Twitch channel. She's the Ace of Geeks' Empress of Events.

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