The rattle of false allusions
Having learned my lesson from the first two catastrophes (and confident no eu-catastrophe would be forthcoming), I didn’t bother to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when it came out almost two years ago. I finally got around to it when trapped on a transatlantic flight for seven hours with nothing better to do.
This time around the movie left me far too weary of the whole thing to examine its failings point-by-point. In part, perhaps, because there’s so little point to the whole thing; true to the title, the majority of the film is dedicated to a battle scene on which the book spends only a single chapter. That chapter, of course, looks at the battle from Bilbo’s perspective, a not-particularly heroic one (he wears the ring most of the combat and ends up getting knocked unconscious by a falling rock), so to keep up the audience’s interest for more than ten minutes, the movie has to invent characters and events with only the slimmest basis in Tolkien, and most of the action concerns itself with them. In a sense this isn’t really a film version of the Hobbit at all—it’s Tolkien fan fiction.
The most enjoyable scene of the movie, I thought, was also Tolkien fan fiction in a sense, but this time at least with some basis in the Legendarium (if not The Hobbit)—I mean the attack by the White Council on the lair of the Necromancer. Excerpted here, since it barely connects at all to what’s around it, this ought to be the only part of the movie you watch:
I mention this scene because, while I enjoyed it, I also thought there was something symptomatically wrong with it. What makes it enjoyable? Two things.
First, the action is exciting but still comprehensible. In fact, despite the fact that it’s wizards fighting ringwraiths, it’s more realistic than the other battle scenes in the films—the ringwraiths’ ability to teleport or move with superhuman speed or whatever it is they’re doing keeps things moving quickly enough that Peter Jackson doesn’t feel the need to insert the idiotic gymnastics and gravity-defying leaps that mar so much of the action in the rest of the film. Put differently, while this scene does still have a video-game quality to it, at least it’s a video game that I can imagine wanting to play.
But second, and more importantly, though the characters in the scene are all familiar to us from the Lord of the Rings movies, no longer are they inhabiting the “wise elder” archetype; now they get to enter the spotlight and show off their moves. The effect is much like that of Yoda’s battle scenes in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There’s something strangely exciting about seeing a character spring into action who heretofore had only held their head high and spoken words calm and wise. Their identity with their previous filmic incarnations is ensured not only through being played by the same actors, but also through frequent allusion to scenes from the previous films, the Fellowship in particular: Elrond wears much the same armor as in the Prologue with Isildur; Saruman wields his staff much as he did in the duel with Gandalf; and Galadriel turns dark and menacing just as in her conversation with Frodo by the Mirror.
If these features make the scene entertaining, they also make it meaningless—and not just meaningless, but in fact possessed of a sort of anti-meaning. Think for more than a few seconds about the setting of the scene, and it makes no sense, except by a video-game logic where everything comes down to a battle between, on the one hand, the player’s diverse quartet of Warrior (Elrond), Cleric (Galadriel), and two kinds of Wizard (Saruman and Gandalf); and on the other, the Big Bad’s nine Henchmen, then the Big Bad himself. Worse, think for more than a few seconds about the allusions to the Fellowship, and it quickly becomes apparent that Peter Jackson has not thought through what his allusions mean.
Consider the appearance of dark!Galadriel. In the original film, she turns dark! when contemplating Frodo’s offer of the One Ring, and it represents what she would become if she accepted it. What, then, are we to make of her taking on a similar appearance when fighting against the Necromancer? The best sense I can make of it is that Jackson associates dark!Galadriel with the elven ring she wears—indeed, right when she turns dark! we can see bright light emanating from the ring on her finger. But what sense does this make? Has Jackson assumed that the three elven rings, just like the nine for mortal men, have been corrupted by the one ring? To think so is entirely to misunderstand the backstory; as Tolkien tells it, anyway, the elven rings were the only ones kept safe from Sauron. And really, who could think that Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf would wear rings that had been subjected to Sauron’s will? That would make them no better than the Ringwraiths they fight. But if we want to be charitable and avoid this interpretation of the scene, there is only one alternative: Jackson has associated the use of the elven ring with dark!Galadriel, not because he thinks the ring corrupted, but because the ring is “cool,” and dark!Galadriel is “cool,” and the two ought to go together.
This is just the kind of confusion we would expect if Jackson were attempting, not to make a scene similar in quality to the original, but to make a scene that would remind its audience of the effect the original had on them, but in a concentrated dose—that would be the same, but more. In other words, the scene is mere wallowing in nostalgia. Which is better, I suppose, than wallowing in nonsense—but not by much.