Rarely can you call a 144-minute war saga that pits elves and dwarves and orcs and men and savage bat creatures anything other than “epic.” Yet in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” director Peter Jackson closes his second Middle-Earth trilogy with so much digital warfare that the plot mostly just drops in every so often to check on things, like a mother poking her head out the back door to make sure the kids haven’t burned down the shed. In the case of “Five Armies,” though, everything is being broken: smashed with battle hammers, incinerated by a dragon, trampled by monsters, beheaded by elven steel, pulverized by boulders, blown apart by “Dune”-sized land worms, smashed by falling ramparts, on and on and on. It’s not an epic so much as it’s merely a third of one, overstuffed with rock ’em and sock ’em.
Somehow the film manages to keep its energy through this dead sprint. When Jackson originally envisioned adapting John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s relatively slender classic “The Hobbit,” the director aimed for two movies; that we have here a third means we pick up in media res from the cliffhanger of the predecessor. The wicked dragon Smaug (voiced and acted, in digital rendering, by Benedict Cumberbatch) sets upon the waterbound fishing village within sight of the ancient dwarf fortress in Lonely Mountain. The bowman Bard (Luke Evans) hits a million-to-one shot to slay the beast, and what seems like a proper climax becomes instead the spark for a full-on world war. The great force that held the world in stasis is now vanquished — and like nature and cats, Middle-Earth hates a vacuum.
Over in the mountain keep, the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) has gone from the heir to a fortune to the inheritor. Smaug’s riches now his to command, Thorin comes down with a single-minded greed that observers diagnose ominously as “dragon sickness.” Drunk with power, high on gold fumes, Thorin turns into a teapot tyrant in short order. His is the only intriguing character arc in the film, perhaps: As his wealth yanks him into madness, he must confront the truth that the richer you get, the more likely you are to become a contemptible malcontent.
Some of “Five Armies” is given to setting up the “Lord of the Rings” movies that, in sequence, follow the events of “The Hobbit” films. We get a glimpse of Sauron; we hear the name Strider for the first time; we set up the larger war for the realm. In fact, as a bridge to the next (that is, the previous) trilogy, Jackson could have done much worse. But as a capstone to the full series, this feels too frantic, too militant to provide a satisfying rest to one of the greatest film undertakings in the history of the medium. This plays as if Jackson assigned a special effects platoon to envision what a couple of little boys would dream up with unlimited action figures. First, they fight. Then they fight some more. They talk for a minute. Then they fight. Look out! Dead dragon falling!
At least “Five Armies” does fighting and dragon-arson wonderfully well. It sprinkles enough heart throughout to make you at least care about the characters. And in contrast to the earlier films in this series, it drives home the danger by killing off a smattering of good guys, lending some drama to the more intimate sequences of combat and carnage. With the stakes raised, you get to feel all the hoped-for emotions: fear, excitement, sympathy, a soupcon of grief. In the absence of proper story, that counts for plenty.
Maybe this is the dim rush we were meandering toward from the beginning, when peaceful little Hobbitses wandered off in search of adventure. We know Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, with pluck) will make it home to the shire; we know Gandalf (Ian McKellen, now with six LOTR and five X-Men movies to his name, a septuagenarian action superstar) will survive to wizard his way to more scrapes. It’s all fizzy and busy enough. It won’t fill your belly, perhaps, but it will leave your head ringing.