Review: The Battle of the Five Armies - Style Over Substance
2.0Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

There’s a scene near the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, both the film and the titular battle, where Thranduil looks down in horror at the dead elves who have lost their lives in the battle. It’s supposed to be a sobering moment for the heretofore haughty elven king, where he realizes his hubris has caused so much senseless death.

Except it hasn’t. Despite this movie’s preoccupation with epic battles—let’s be honest, this movie exists for the sake of epic battles—Thranduil didn’t have any part in starting this war. He brought along his elven army to scare the shit out of twelve renegade dwarves, nothing more. And the elves and the deus ex machina dwarf army never actually trade blows over treasure; before they can get into it an Orc army shows up and the two immediately band together. The elves at Thranduil’s feet died to prevent an unambiguously evil enemy from gaining a strategic foothold in the North. Not over treasure and hubris.
Sure, the scene has the air of tragedy–from the beautiful set pieces to the tremulous music to Lee Pace’s expressive eyebrows. But the more you think about it, the worse it gets. That’s The Hobbit Part 3: The Battle of the Five Armies in a nutshell: the film really, really wants to have its epic battle, and it is willing to take shortcuts on characters, themes, and context in order to get it.

The Hobbit Part 3: The Battle of the Five Armies opens with Smaug’s attack upon Lake-town. Visually, the scene is a digital masterwork, from Smaug’s menacing, fluid grin to the flames and destruction he wreaks. Even the 3D effects, usually tedious or cheap in other films, are expertly worked into the scene; every shot is framed to allow its actors and effects to pop out of the screen.

After this intense opening battle, the characters now settle into about forty minutes of prep for the titular final battle. I expected this to be the boring part, honestly–but every actor commits so thoroughly to every scene that it’s a delight to watch, from Pace’s preening Thranduil to Richard Armitage’s doe-eyed, obsessive Thorin, to Aidan Turner’s passionate Kili, or, as he’s better known, “the sexy dwarf.”

Hot Dwarf

Bilbo and Gandalf in particular stand out as characters worth rooting for, largely on the strength of Martin Freeman’s performance as the adorable everyhobbit who injects some actual tenderness into a cast full of grim-faced badasses, and the sheer joy that is watching Ian McKellen frown and harrumph and eye-twinkle at the rest of them.

Each moment is entertaining and finely-crafted, like a beautiful bead, but as The Hobbit continues to string moments together it becomes clear that the threads are frayed and disconnected, and the beads themselves don’t all match.

If Battle of the Five Armies has a theme, it might be hubris, but at every turn it gives its characters every excuse for their behavior. Bilbo’s decision to steal the Arkenstone is validated after the fact by Thorin’s sudden madness, which is itself simply a case of “dragon sickness.” Thranduil bringing his entire army actually saved everyone’s lives. And Gandalf’s “I told you so” attitude is always entirely justified, because he’s always right.

Without any actual character flaws or culpability, Battle of the Five Armies has the color of tragedy, but none of the substance. The characters may cut tragic figures, and they may mope about honor, treasure, dead mothers, unrequited love, and their beloved country life, but each one’s success or failure to resolve his one-note issues depends on one thing only: whether he kicks enough Orc ass to survive the battle.

The few female characters in Battle of the Five Armies are also wholly dependent on a male’s ass-kickery. The movie clearly didn’t intend to end up this way — The Hobbit film trilogy is aware of its source material’s gender issues — but Battle of the Five Armies in particular proves itself totally inept at addressing them in any interesting way. It’s particularly mind-blowing when you consider none of the women were present in the original book, so the film’s creators could have portrayed them any way they wanted to.

The clearest example of this is Tauriel, an original character and the only significant woman in the cast. Since the first movie, Tauriel has been shoehorned into what the creators clearly envision as a “romance” between her and Kili, but which amounts to little more than a crush on his side and stiff curiosity on hers. And like everyone else in the movie, Tauriel and Kili’s relationship, such as it is, lives and dies by the sword.

Tauriel spends the film jumping into fights, even when she’s not playing love interest to Kili, only to immediately require a man’s rescue. The same goes for the film’s only two other named female characters, Galadriel and Bard’s daughter Sigrun (whose name we only know because he repeatedly screams it as he saves her from orcs).

Galadriel’s brief appearance early in the film is just as frustrating as Tauriel’s: the creators clearly started off intending to showcase Galadriel’s power–she faces off against Sauron and survives! But the scenario they ultimately created demands that Galadriel’s every action is insufficient to solve the problem at hand–or else there would be no need for the Lord of the Rings trilogy — and each one renders her weakened and in need of rescue from a man.

The last female-centric scene in the film is a moment during the battle, where we return to the human women of Lake-town huddled in a safe house while the men fight outside. The women decide they should “stand by our men,” and leave their safehouse armed with pitchforks and farm implements. On the surface, it looks like a more feminist version of a similar scene in The Two Towers, where we see Eowyn with the women of Rohan inside Helm’s Deep while the battle rages outside. But even though the Lake-town women actually join the fight, the Two Towers scene is more effective because audiences are there with Eowyn, a character with an actual name and a backstory, and invited to feel her frustration as her culture’s gender roles prevent her from fighting alongside her family. And the film continues Eowyn’s story after that, as Eowyn’s frustration leads her to cross-dress and fight in the Battle of Minas Tirith. In Battle of the Five Armies, by comparison, the women are all nameless, and never seen in the film again. Any feminist promise the Five Armies scene has disappears almost as soon as it appears.

Instead, the brief scene is only used to set up a cheap, sexist punchline about how greedy comic relief character Alfrid is even more cowardly than they are–because, you know, they’re women, and women are weaker than men. So funny. Soon after, the gag topples into transphobic territory when the audience is invited to laugh at Alfrid’s drag disguise and his ample, gold-stuffed bosom. The result is a film that somehow feels less progressive than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that is a bleak picture indeed.

But its treatment of women is just one more example of Five Armies’ predilection for style over substance. The film has the look of tragedy, the look of “strong female characters,” and of course its visual appearance is nothing short of stunning. But beneath it all is a narrative that has been stretched far too thin to bear any narrative or thematic weight. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a children’s book about adventure and the joys of going home again. The Hobbit trilogy, and Battle of the Five Armies in particular, is a celebration of the glory of war, where even death and loss are romanticized. If there’s any true hubris in the tragedy of The Hobbit trilogy, perhaps that’s it.