“Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson appears to have finally finished making film renditions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic epic novels. “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” the final installment in the film adaptations, focuses on real-world issues such as xenophobia, racism and capitalism through the lens of a medieval-esque fantasy.
“Five Armies” is a departure from Bilbo’s “Hero’s Journey” narrative. Instead, the last film pulls back to offer a macroscopic perspective, de-emphasizing Bilbo’s character (Martin Freeman) by shifting from scene to scene from elf and dwarf perspectives. Each different viewpoint offered in the film perpetuates a new layer of narrative within the larger frame of Bilbo’s journey, showing how all of the characters’ lives are interconnected and affected by the decisions of Bilbo and political leaders such as King Thorin. These interconnected plotlines emphasize the importance of just and informed leadership and sympathize with those on the sidelines — those who are not in power but are affected by the financial or ethical decisions of their leaders.
“Five Armies” further fixates upon the gold treasure hoarded in an ancient cave inhabited only by a menacing dragon, Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. While a menacing, beastly reptile is perhaps a strange choice for the charismatic Cumberbatch, Smaug takes on a significant speaking role in the beginning of the film, setting up the dragon as both a physical and intellectual force.
In a close-up shot, Smaug’s face fills the screen with his thin, razor blade teeth, speaking in a manner that conveys his cunning. At first, the dragon may seem little more than a physical antagonist or beast that must be tackled early in “Five Armies” — a simple trope so that the leading characters can battle in a political conflict among civilizations. But in “Five Armies,” Smaug is personified through the detailed facial expressions and anthropomorphized through his human desire for power in the form of capital. There is some poignancy to his character. The dragon is unconcerned about the welfare of others or of wealth distribution, and his capitalist outlook is coded as greed. The dragon’s old age and dusty castle suggest that the outlook that so consumes the creature is outdated and archaic.
The film also belabors the dwarf king Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) internal psychological struggle, portrayed beautifully in the film through close-up cinematography and character hallucinations. While some may find that “Five Armies” lingers too long on Thorin, his inner conflict offers a pleasing break among scenes of warfare and external conflict. This inner conflict of the “dragon sickness” — or being in the dragon’s state of mind — is manifested in the film through computer-generated visions of warping stone and gold, effectively both portraying a distortion of reality and suggesting what it might be like to see the world through the dragon’s skewed perspective.
The film does not shy away from underscoring the novel’s key themes: the dangers of corrupt political leadership and xenophobia. By showing masses of bodies of different sizes, colors, genders and species assembled to clash against one another, “Five Armies” clearly sets up a Middle Earth riddled with issues our world also struggles with: racism, territorial warfare and social inequality.
A key source of strife that “Five Armies” hinges upon is in its use of conflicts of cultural difference. The elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) is told by the elf king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), that she cannot feel love for the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Thranduil’s disapproval of Tauriel and Kili’s relationship reflects a white patriarchy’s anxiety toward the possibility of an interracial couple. Jackson’s latest spends a great deal of time fleshing out this relationship and Thranduil’s later acceptance of it, promoting a message of love as something that can transcend social and racial boundaries. While perhaps too oversimplified, such a resolution embraces romantic interracial relationships.
“Five Armies” effectively blends action with emotion, showing how psychological warfare and one’s internal battles are ultimately powerful and capable of bringing about change. Women such as Tauriel, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the refugee women from Bard’s (Luke Evans) burned community are strong fighters, using either magic, intellectual prowess or combat skills to fight against or alongside male characters.
The retraction from comedy and the emphasis on a somber, epic tone gives “Five Armies” more of the texture of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy films. While the end of “Five Armies” is abrupt, the film is a standalone piece with a complete story arc, effective through its range of character perspectives and faithfulness to Tolkien’s original work.
‘The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is now playing at UA Berkeley 7.
Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].