The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The "Lord of the Rings" films, adapted by Peter Jackson from J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels, were more than a triumph. They kick-started an entire era of filmmaking. We’re living in it: it’s one where trilogies are meticulously planned out before a meter of film is shot, where franchises deliberately stretch shallow narratives into multi-film arcs, and where studios mine all things "geek" in search of ’the next big series.’
"Lord of the Rings" started all that brand-name mongering, and it managed to maintain its prestige at the same time. For better or worse, it laid the groundwork for an entire generation of American cinema. The ’New Hollywood’ had "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch"; millennials have Peter Jackson.
And so it goes that ten years after "The Two Towers", we come full circle back to Middle Earth. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of (yet again) three films set to release over three Christmases. But where "Rings" brought wonder and exhilaration (to most,) this latest "epic" just reminds us of all the terrible lessons those first three movies taught Hollywood about how to craft blockbusters.
Like Jackson’s last two pictures ("King Kong" and "The Lovely Bones"), this "Hobbit" is stretched paper-thin in terms of narrative and crafted with a much lesser elegance than the "Ring" pictures. It also, as mentioned, embodies everything terrible about Hollywood’s "house-style" franchise filmmaking. Sacrificing pace for exposition and sequel set-ups? Theme-park style aesthetics, complete with "state of the art" technological intrusions? Slavish fidelity to source materials; to the detriment of any narrative propulsion?
Check, check, check. All too familiar, and all too prevalent in here.
Odds are, if you’re bothering to read this review, you know the story already: young house-hobbit Bilbo Baggins (British actor Martin Freeman) journeys off "for an adventure" with a group of dwarves to help them reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug (unseen for 99% of the film.) He, along the way, comes along the ’One Ring’ by way of a game of riddles with the iconic CGI creation Gollum (Andy Serkis), and gets to know series hallmark Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who comes and goes throughout. The less said about all this, the better, because to be frank, not a lot happens in this movie, and I want to make sure you get your $14 (or whatever a 3-D surcharge costs nowadays) worth.
There’s some battles with Orcs, including a particularly vengeful one Jackson created from scratch to give Tolkien’s light yarn ("Journey" represents a mere 6 chapters of the source novel; a little over 100 pages), a more tangible antagonist. But by the end of the film, the dwarves are barely out the front door; their journey hardly begun. Even "Fellowship of the Ring" felt like an epic in of itself, but this feels like a prologue.
In fact, this feels more like a Tolkien-branded Disneyland ride than an actual film. We must spend a good 30 minutes drifting along Bilbo’s home with the dwarves in tow; causing a ruckus, mugging ingratiatingly to the camera’s crass close-ups, and eventually even singing. Hell, the films ’finale’ (if you can call an anticlimactic battle scene that wraps up nothing a finale) feels like a videogame, scrolling from the side as our characters run up a narrow bridge, stylishly knocking off enemies with their signature weapons as if this were "Super Mario Brothers: Wizard Edition." This is cinema by way of a theme park ride.
Maybe I’m saying that, however, because of Peter Jackson’s latest new toy. I saw the film in new-fangled "High Frame Rate", aka 48 frames-per-second. Not all theaters will be playing the film in this format, but by the time this film ends in 2014, odds are they will be. It creates a much ’smoother’ sense of motion, not unlike what you might find on pre-calibrated HDTV’s (it’s often called "TruMotion"). Unfortunately, it also erases any "wiggle room" that the texture that film gave to unconvincing costumes, CGI, and sets. Everything here indeed looks real, and unfortunately, real looks pretty cheap.
I’ve no doubt there’s a future in 48fps - I’m a celluloid purist at heart, but even I shudder to imagine the way men like Fincher, Soderbergh, and Scorsese could exploit such a tool. But all Jackson sees fit to use his innovation for is loving shots of butterflies, waterfalls, and green vistas. Never once is it actually used to enhance the storytelling, to provide insight into the characters, or even as the center of a set piece. It’s all very pretty to look at, but it feels less like a cinematic achievement than it does an impressive tech demo running in the electronics section of a Wal-Mart.
It’s all spectacle, no heart. And before I forget, those susceptible to nausea are to be warned: everyone at the screening I attended confessed it took at least a few minutes to shake off the headaches. This is a "new look" as striking as the shift from celluloid film to digital cameras, and it definitely takes some getting used to.
Now don’t get me wrong: fans who have been waiting with baited breath to return to Middle Earth will find a lot to love in "The Hobbit", and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I said, it devotes a half-hour to dwarves hanging out in the hero’s home, laughing and partying, with the focus not even on character so much as on atmosphere. This may be the first ’fantasy hang-out’ movie: "Dungeons + Dragons" by way of "Dazed and Confused".
So no doubt, those in love with the source material (that is, those who are familiar with the dwarves’ personalities past the nonexistent characterizations Jackson offers), will have no qualms seeing their favorite universe explored for another 9 hours. Still, the first trilogy offered three epic, densely plotted pictures, with individual distinctions. Now we’re being offered one-third of a children’s story without any concessions made to allow it to work as a self-contained film. Even for super-fans, I imagine a hollow feeling will arise. But who knows. Maybe it’s just the motion sickness.