The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

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Yes, the final trip to Middle Earth is turgid and predictable, but it’s impossible for me to hate on this movie and series too much.

Blockbuster war films are great because they attempt to extract moral lessons when humanity is at its worst. While I commend the considerable effort, Jackson’s tiresome sops to the revolutionary spirit detract from from the traditional mindset that made LOTR click.

The LOTR series is already an anachronism in our age of globalization and multiculturalism. Jackson does indeed place emphasis on biracial love affairs and multicultural cooperation, but the world of Middle Earth is a world of racial and cultural distinction. The various nation states within Middle Earth are very proud of their cultural heritage, and are quite keen on seeing them continue. This entire prequel series was entirely dedicated to the dwarves reclaiming their homeland. Naturally, there is also great deference to elders, tradition, history and authority. In this respect, the LOTR series is deeply conservative.

Jackson exploits this veneration of authority to portray the various acts of defiance as virtuous. These individual acts of defiance occur very selectively and the agenda behind them isn’t difficult to discern. Remember, kids. Despite the fact that the societies of Middle Earth have built a robust heritage and culture over millennia, it’s the spirit of rebellion that wins the day.

Tolkien wrote these races as having rich and distinctive histories. Subsequently, they honor authorities and respect the hierarchical order of their respective monarchies, military leadership and aristocracy. Whether it’s dwarves, elves, orcs, or wizards, all action hinges on the commands of the leaders. The dwarves pay obeisance to Thorin, and the elves exhibit a militaristic discipline and paternalistic authoritarianism. Even Gandalf has some pretty bossy tendencies. The various races of Middle Earth do not make much allowance for the province of individual agency. In contrast to the respectful treatment Jackson gave these societies in the original LOTR, he puts authority in a less charitable light in this film. Obviously, people who hold positions of power can become corrupt, but Jackson seems to be making choices that conform to contemporary sensibilities.

The most libertarian moment comes from Bilbo in the film’s climactic battle. Bilbo insists on warning Thorin of an imminent attack and Gandalf demonstrates an uncharacteristic lack of faith in Bilbo.

Gandalf: It’s out of the question! I won’t allow it!

Bilbo Baggins: I’m not asking you to allow it, Gandalf.

Of course, Bilbo’s defiance ends up helping Thorin so we’re meant to see Gandalf as some shortsighted dolt. But when nearly every piece of pop culture promotes the same message around defying authority, it just turns this into humdrum pablum that blends with everything else.

The film places your sympathies squarely with the dwarves. They are the outsider race in Middle Earth and they’re the wandering Israelites seeking to reclaim their homeland. But they’re not without moral failings either. The film attributes Thorin’s moral lapse to greed. His obsession with Erebor’s existing treasure coupled with his weird obsession over the Arkenstone drove him over the edge. In place of one of the seven deadly sins, the “Dragon’s curse” is the great evil that befalls Thorin Oakenshield. Naturally, this provides an opening to administer a form of quasi-Marxist, crypto-religious preaching.

Thorin’s tightassery with Erebor’s wealth is indeed irrational. Granted, he’s a stubborn bastard who is pissed about the indignities he and his homeboys suffered in their period of exile. Covetousness does indeed have its downside, but flogging the old materialism fallacy is a little too convenient in an age where socialism is regaining purchase in the mind of the youth.

The most interesting stuff comes when it’s time to go to war. Fantasy gets off easy when it comes to rationalizing violence because the bad guys are so obviously bad. The underlying motivations deserve scrutiny because Jackson gets away with a full throated nationalism that would be scorned if seen as just white people. When the chips are down, what does Thorin do to stoke the troops? He invokes the blood connection to Durin and loyalty to the homeland! Erebor über alles, my dudes! Jackson inadvertently makes alt-right dwarves the sympathetic heroes.

The titular battle is actually waged over a contract dispute. Why Thorin didn’t just help the survivors from Laketown after Smaug had decimated the place boggles the imagination. Conversely, Thranduil’s quest for some ancient necklace seems wildly arbitrary yet strangely characteristic for a head of State.

Ironically, the destruction of Laketown brings out the best in the citizenry. The citizens of Laketown were helping one another in the absence of government authority and coordination. FEMA was not necessary. The moral reprobate was the Master of Laketown! He was the greedy fuck who absconded with the town treasury and was solely concerned with saving his own sorry ass.

The interracial love story between Tauriel and Kili felt like a forced and overwrought sop to multiculturalism. Instead of trusting their own individual instincts, they deferred to tradition and suffered. Jackson obviously wants you to see the downside of traditional norms and as a wedge of division.

It’s flawed, but entertaining enough. It suffers by not really having much more to say above and beyond what the LOTR series already said really well. Jackson feels like he’s coasting.

That said, Jackson clearly loves this material and it’s hard to gripe too much about such a towering achievement. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought this to life with as much vigor and passion.

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