“The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” – a victim of its own story…

It almost looks serendipitously poetic to me and not at all accidental that I’m back to blogging with none other, than my take on “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug”. Even though it doesn’t really feel that long, though, almost exactly one year ago, shortly after starting this blog I reviewed “The Unexpected Journey”. I wasn’t exactly blown away by it (the title of my review alone gives it away immediately), but now in hindsight I have nothing but fond memories associated with that particular film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not great (however upon a re-watch I grew to like it a bit more), but it is kind of special to me… Again, not because of its content…

Having drawn from my previous horrible experience with “An Unexpected Journey”, I decided this time round to willingly see “The Desolation of Smaug” in your bog standard mundane and unexciting 2D in spite of all that nonsense Peter Jackson seems to be forcing down people’s throats about how the HFR 3D is the future of cinema, and how it is merely a matter of time before the boring flat pictures will become a thing of the past. Somehow I don’t think so… If my own experiences are anything to go by, I can only say that – especially with “The Hobbit” – regular 2D is the way to go, even though in low light situations the backdrops look a bit grainy and blurry at times (as if purposefully crappified to make the HFR 3D look better in comparison). Could it be because the film was shot natively in 3D and needed to be ‘converted’ to normality? I don’t know.

“The Desolation of Smaug” picks up almost exactly where the previous one left off, and after some expositional flashbacks that reiterate the crucial plot points, we are back on the road with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the remaining 12 dwarves, who are still a long way away from The Lonely Mountain. In order to finish their quest, they will have to flee the hunting party of orcs, make their way through the spider-infested Mirkwood, and jump through a whole number of hoops before they could face off against the titular dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who most assuredly would not give up his cosy new home under The Lonely Mountain without a fight. Meanwhile, in a seemingly abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, sinister forces are brewing, as a mysterious necromancer has apparently made it his home. In order to find out the necromancer’s identity, Gandalf will have to split from the party of the small-sized adventurers and put everybody’s lives at risk…

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Now, reviewing “The Desolation of Smaug” as if it was a stand-alone feature seems a bit silly, due to its structure and the story arc progression, so it can only be seen in context of the previous instalment (and possibly of what is yet to come in the final act). Having said all that, this film is undoubtedly better than “An Unexpected Journey”… on all levels. Still, it doesn’t mean this one is superb, because it isn’t. However, it doesn’t seem to be overflowing with the prolonged inconsequential gimmicky action sequences (there’s still quite a lot of action), but most importantly, with its story development and a quite risky split into two storylines, “The Desolation of Smaug” cleared some of my doubts with regard to the validity of stretching “The Hobbit” into a trilogy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to jump on the wagon with the lot raving about how awesome this film is, because as a whole it fell beneath my expectations quite considerably. Why my expectations were that high, you might ask, and to that I’d say it’s because I always make an effort not to approach a film with biased views. “The Desolation of Smaug” is still very similar in style with the self-indulgent stretchy expositions and the artificial tension created by the fact, that our adventurers never catch a break. The only difference here that works in favour of “The Desolation…” is the fact that everything about it is simply more violent and darker. There’s quite a lot of beheadings and scenes of dismemberment, which makes all the action sequences a bit more relevant and less forgetful. Still, everybody knows that whatever happens, the main characters will always get away unscathed, regardless of the gravity of the situation they’re in, but at least the film doesn’t play out as a Disney cartoon.

That brings me to the main problem with “The Hobbit” in general. Now, I am willing to turn the blind eye on the discrepancies from the source material, just as I did with “The Lord of the Rings”, because in the context of the films, Peter Jackson has created a world of his own, and – for better or worse – it is logical to assume “The Hobbit” would adhere to the films, and not the books. However, simply because “The Hobbit” has been adapted to the screen after “The Lord…”, there’s no power in this world that would make its story seem relevant at all. With no global threat, there’s no actual gravity to whatever the characters do in “The Hobbit”. If they don’t succeed, the world won’t end and no-one’s lives would be affected… Apart from the handful of greedy dwarves who will remain homeless. And that’s a serious issue…

This is where I grew to appreciate the very controversial move to stretch this little children’s book into a massive trilogy. Initially, I too couldn’t possibly fathom, how and why anybody would do that, but if you look at it in the context of “The Lord of the Rings”, everything seems a bit clearer. In order to ramp up the pressure and raise the stakes, “The Desolation of Smaug” with the split storyline devotes a considerable chunk of its running time to develop a sub-plot that will directly tie into the previous trilogy. This way, “The Hobbit” will no longer be a stand-alone story within the Tolkien’s universe, but rather a prequel trilogy that leads into the events described in “The Lord of the Rings”.

I can finally understand the choice to include Frodo in the opening scenes of “An Unexpected Journey”, as well as Galadriel later on, and many other characters that should not have been in the story at all, because from the very outset, these films were supposed to be what the prequel trilogy was to the original Star Wars. We need those characters to establish the connection, just as much as we need the sub-plot that develops in the background, so that “The Hobbit” makes more sense in the context of the previous films. Sure, it is by far the bullet magnet for all the nay-sayers (that used to include yours truly) and it took nearly a year to finally establish the importance of this move.

As a result – and it only works in favour of the film – “The Desolation of Smaug” feels a lot more grim and ominous than its predecessor. In fact, the artistic choices of introducing the necromancer, the back-story to the orcs, all the way up to the confrontation with Smaug, serve perfectly to elevate the film’s ‘trilogy cred’. Without venturing deeper into spoiler territory, I can only add that “The Desolation of Smaug” is written like a textbook example of the middle chapter to a properly assembled trilogy, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” did. Now, sit back down and don’t get all pumped, because it is not my intention to compare the two in any way, but in terms of story progression, how everything plays out, and what it leaves the viewer with at the end, “The Desolation of Smaug” ticks all the boxes needed to lift its credibility, hence the comparison.

To my utmost chagrin, the fact “Desolation…” is a good middle chapter to the whole story does not make it a good film at all. Let’s not forget, this is not a TV show, where we can have a handful of filler episodes before the plot thickens, and every chapter of the story, while remembering its place in the grand scheme of things, should in fact bring something to the table. And this is where everything falls apart, because – yet again – apart from the abundance of action sequences, the surfing elves, beheaded orcs, and the mesmerising dragon, there’s not much to differentiate this film from the crowd of CG-ridden modern fantasy. It’s all been done before (and with a better outcome) in “The Lord of the Rings”, where we already saw the stunning vistas, adrenaline-pumping chase sequences, giant creepy spiders, or epic battles. Besides the titular dragon, everything about “The Desolation of Smaug” can be easily dismissed as forgettable entertainment and the end result does not feel epic at all, but rather tiresome and boring… And the running time of nearly 3 hours does not help in that regard either…

In summary, “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” is actually not that god-awful, especially in comparison to the first one. However, it lacks on all fronts, therefore I find it impossible to tick it off as a ‘good watch’, even though Peter Jackson made an effort to use this film to tie all of his previous work together. Well, if you are willing to overlook the excruciating running rime, indulgent lulls, a multitude of inconsequential characters, less than charismatic protagonists, and the gimmicky CG effects – then you’re in for a ride. Other than that, “The Desolation of Smaug” is merely a middle-chapter with no soul of its own, and that’s by far the only thing that still makes me want to show up for the final act. By the way, I reckon that Joss Whedon is not going to like this film either, especially with the gloomy cliff-hanger ending…

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