“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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Honey, I think I flushed a fiver down the toilet – “The Hobbit – An unexpected journey”

It took me much longer that I would like to admit to actually sit down and write a few words about “The Hobbit”. I’d like to think it’s because I had been otherwise preoccupied with important tasks and what-not, but truth be told I just couldn’t think of anything nice to say on the subject. And one of the rules I carried on from my childhood was “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, you’d better shut your pie-hole altogether”, or something to that effect. But then again, I’ve been waiting for so long to see it, it almost seemed inappropriate not to write a few words about it.

I shall begin by noting that I was/am a big fan of “Lord of the Rings” (the book) and actually loved how Peter Jackson adapted one of Tolkien’s biggest achievements for the big screen. Even though the hard-core nerd community would have a different view on the subject, I found Jackson’s trilogy amazingly good and most importantly capable of conveying the spirit of the book. Of course, many things here and there just did not add up (and several things were brutally changed to fit better on a silver screen, much to everyone’s dismay), but hey, you couldn’t have it all. The overall impact of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” was good enough to make me turn a blind eye on gaping discrepancies, missing details and scenes and raging plot holes. It was just that good an entertainment. Also, that’s what the director’s cut is for when it comes to missing bits and bobs, so I can’t really complain. I wouldn’t imagine having to sit through nearly 4 hours of Two Towers in the cinema even if I were paid to do this.

(Note: I recently learned, as brought to light by Comic Book Movie Blog here, that Christopher Tolkien – author’s son – utterly despises what Jackson did to his father’s legacy)

So, the minute I learned of the impending adaptation of “The Hobbit”, I have to say, I got a bit excited. I got even more excited when I learned that Jackson was taking over the steering wheel (I believe Guillermo Del Toro was the first to sit in the director’s chair) because at that moment it meant I would be granted a second chance to enter the fantastic world of Tolkien’s imagination through the eyes of Peter Jackson. It came to me as a shock when the news of Jackson making “The Hobbit” was followed with disturbing “oh, and by the way, it’s going to be a trilogy”.  <Slowly takes glasses off> Mother of God… really? I mean, really? Boy, I gotta see that, because not every day you can see a 250 pages worth of a novel stretched into three (knowing who’s making it – rather long) films.

So there I was going to the cinema on a slow Wednesday evening, looking cool and slick on the outside but waging internal war between my inner boyhood nostalgia and my adult cynicism that I developed over the years. I bought the ticket – Higher Frame Rate and 3D, because that’s how the authors would want you to see it and apparently its ‘terrific’, bought some diet coke and went on to watch it.

And this is the hard part: because in a nutshell, “The Hobbit” was just exceptionally weak. I left the cinema with my buns completely numb and I felt nothing, nothing at all. My inner nostalgia-tinted glasses got crushed by an onslaught of CGI, plot holes and mind-numbing action sequences that more often than not, were dragged ad infinitum for the sake of the so-called entertainment and/or simply out of place.

First of all, the HFR 3D is an utter disappointment. Sure, I may see everything a bit more clearly and the details are crisper, but do I really mind at all? And the 3D? My god, that’s just there to annoy you, especially when you wear prescription glasses, then it’s a regular torture. And to add insult to injury, the fact they were shooting in 3D gave the film-makers the perfect excuse to include some completely irrelevant sequences that were there to elevate the three-dee-ness of the film, i.e. a close-up of a butterfly flying about, a bird, a rabbit-sled or what-have-you. Those things contributed nothing to the overall impact of the film, if anything they kept me slightly annoyed. On top of that, the general feel of the film was as if the third dimension was sort of forced and didn’t belong there at all. Had I been granted a chance to go back in time to make a choice once more, I’d rather go for the normal, 2D, regular frame rate version – assuming I would have gone to see this film again at all.

Now that’s off my chest, I can move on. So, for those who don’t know, “The Hobbit” is about a young hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who gets tricked by a wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into hosting a dinner party for a bunch of dwarves, who then convince him to join their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom (that has been taken over by a dragon Smaug). Despite Bilbo’s initial reluctance to the idea of risking his life for people whom he barely knew, he decides to join the party. So the team marches on to face myriad of foes. During their adventures Bilbo comes across Smeagol/Gollum, from whom he steals a ring (the ring). In summary, “The Hobbit” is a prequel to “Lord of the Rings”, however it was written earlier. So, in reality, “Lord of the Rings” is a sequel itself.

That’s more or less it. The film doesn’t even go halfway through the book and it takes Jackson almost three hours to get there. Somehow I’m not surprised because in order to get through the film we are treated with excruciatingly long sequences of running from orcs, then running from goblins, then orcs again. It’s just a constant stream of action which after a while becomes irrelevant. I just sat there going “oh, now they’re being chased again, that’s nice” literally every 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, the CGI is perfect and from a technical perspective the action sequences are executed well, but being exposed to that volume of action for that long would make anyone indifferent.

Things I genuinely liked in the film were the scarce moments when the action slowed down for us to meet the characters. I loved the long feasting sequence at Bilbo’s house, the singing and dancing and everything. I loved Thorin’s tales of his past. These are the gems I crave in a fantasy film, because they allow us to see past the shallow waters of the actual film and discover the depth of the story, thus decorating it with the proper epic feel. Sadly, these sequences were few and far between. It actually felt like they were there specifically to allow the viewers to take a bathroom break and while I really tried to savour them, I truly couldn’t because deep inside I felt that yet another mindless CGI-ridden action sequence was in store.

Overall, this was not what I thought I’d see. “The Hobbit” clearly failed to live up to the expectations, but the bar was pretty high, I’d have to say in Jackson’s defense. I was promised an epic adventure into the stunning world of Tolkien’s fantasy, but in return I was given only a mediocre action flick that focused more on “how cool a three-dimensional butterfly is” instead of what is the most important in a fantasy film – the story. In that regard, “The Hobbit” is an ocean of ankle-deep water. But who am I kidding? You cannot have an immersive story with proper character development while throwing plagues at your characters the whole damn time. The net result is as follows: it’s not what it could have been, the story is ruined, but the children are happy. Did the producers really think we’d get bored if the adrenaline rush stopped for more than a few minutes?

Because of that decision of putting action before the story, “The Hobbit” is just a sad show. I can really live with stretching it to two (hell, have the trilogy, I’ll live) films, but instead of listening to the producers so much, why not try to pay due homage to the great mind that brought us all this. I do realize that big budget productions need to bring revenue in the box office, but let’s be clear here: this is not Die Hard we’re talking about. However you think about it, Tolkien’s work has got one of the biggest (if not the biggest) fan base in the world. Build it and they will come. For once, don’t cater to the masses that need constant action to keep their ADHD under control.

But this is not a perfect world and “The Hobbit” is not a perfect film, far from it. It’s a mediocre, self-indulgent, shallow, action-packed film that did not live up to the promise. Instead of showing contemporary youngsters how phenomenal high fantasy can be, “The Hobbit” by Peter Jackson did just the opposite. You can’t just take a classic off the shelf, cut the boring parts, smear it with CGI, slap a 3D sticker on the box and expect to get away with it. If it was any other film, I could live with what I was presented in the cinema, it would be ok at best. When you take a material of that magnitude and turn it into a brain-dead mush, I think I have to look for my torch and a pitchfork.