Tuesday, January 14, 2014
A Deeper Look: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Heath: I had a pretty complicated reaction to my first viewing of Desolation of Smaug. It was not at all what I was expecting, having read the book, and it didn't feel like it was the story I knew, but it was still Peter Jackson's Middle-earth. What were your thoughts when you walked out of the theater?
Mike: I was scared entering into The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. When I saw Star Wars: Episode I (and this is well documented on the site), I was high from it. It was new Star Wars for Christ’s sake, and I think at that time in my life it was impossible for me to NOT like it. Fast forward to me sitting in the theater for Star Wars: Episode II. I don’t remember if there was a specific moment in the movie that this happened, but I know it was early on that all of a sudden I got a big splash of reality thrown into my face: these movies are not very good. It took the second prequel to show me this, and I feared H2 might do the same. I was aware right off the bat that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn’t as good as the LotR trilogy, but I was so happy to be back in Middle-earth that I didn’t care. I had fun. H2 was going to be the big test, and I’m happy to report it didn’t suck and it didn’t make me reevaluate the previous movie. Relief.
As for the movie itself, I think I like it more than the first movie. I’m sure we’ll get into specifics a little later, but I can say that I walked out of the theater thinking, “Boy, this movie has some real problems. I can’t wait to see it again.”
How about you gentlemen?
Patrick: Well, I'm not in the same spot as both of you. I am in as much as I didn't love The Desolation of Smaug -- I just mean that my relationship to these movies is different. I'm a big fan of Peter Jackson's original LotR trilogy, but I've never read any of the books (bookworms!) and just being back in Middle-earth wasn't enough for me to get on board with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I think there's a lot to be learned about Peter Jackson's decline as a filmmaker as evidenced by these movies (and I do kind of suspect that's what's happening), but my problem is that I just don't have the passion to really explore it. These two Hobbit movies have made it difficult for me to give enough of a shit to think about them at all.
I think I had an easier time getting through Smaug than Journey because there was some actual immediacy (though not much), but the two movies have a LOT of problems -- badly defined characters, stakes that I don't care about, meandering, shapeless storytelling, a disappointing reliance on CGI effects and "business" -- I could go on and on. Like, whose story is The Desolation of Smaug? Is it Thorin's? Am I supposed to give a shit if he reclaims his kingdom? I was happy to see Aragorn become King because I had spent three movies with him and watched him behave bravely and selflessly for the good of everyone in the face of unstoppable evil. Thorin, on the other hand, is a dick. Again, I haven't read the book, but if you told me he turned evil or pulled a Boromir in the last movie, I would TOTALLY BELIEVE YOU. He seems to be heading in that direction in Smaug.
Heath: I hate to say it, but I fear that maybe Peter Jackson HAS lost it. I really did not like King Kong, and so little of what I loved about his work on The Lord of the Rings is present in these movies. Look, I made a big defense for An Unexpected Journey last year, and I still really love a lot of that movie. I'm not backing down on my feelings about it and I still can't believe the drubbing it got from people (like Elizabeth Banks saying that Peter Jackson tricked people). Like they walked into the movie and it was two and a half hours of hobbits making cheese and pruning the shrubs (which I'd kind of be okay with...unless they were CGI cheeses and shrubs).
But what I appreciate about the first movie is the level of detail that I found in it and how much of that detail seemed to be grounded in the characters. I know Mike doesn't dig on dwarves, but I thought they were all really individual personalities. It wasn't like 13 little Gimlis running around. They were separate. They spent time establishing who each character was. They didn't go into great detail, but we spent enough time with them to say, okay, that dude's a mama's boy who doesn't like green food and that other dude with the long white beard seems really even tempered and should maybe run for president one day. I find NONE of that individuality in Desolation of Smaug. In fact, I don't find much of ANYTHING in it.
There's no story. It's nearly three hours of empty avatars running over hills and floating down rivers, punctuated by action scenes that I don't care about because none of it has anything to do with the (lack of) story. Where are the little touches that make us care? Where is the love of the characters themselves? I have no idea how this film can be the work of the same man. Wait! Do you guys think Guillermo del Toro secretly directed this movie, like Spielberg really directed Poltergeist? 'Cuz that would explain a lot.
I don't feel like Peter Jackson or Fran Walsh or Phillipa Boyens even like their characters in this movie because they invest almost nothing into any of them. Do they think they did enough of that in the last installment, so this one gets a pass on being interesting? The first movie was largely set up and establishment, but this movie is a bike going downhill with no brakes. And as it turns out, no seat either.
But I also have to wonder how much freedom Peter Jackson had in making these films. There's such a massive amount of story fabrication here (I'm thinking about 60% of the running time is just completely made up for this movie-which is a problem), and it feels like big studio interference. You guys remember Kevin Smith's story about being told that Superman needed to fight a giant spider? So much of this movie feels like people sat at a table and said "Well...how about...hmmmm....a giant statue made of gold that turns back into molten ore as soon as the dragon gets all up on it. We've invested in these sets, we've got to use them. Bilbo can't just walk into Smaug's lair and it not turn into a ride at Disneyland. This is 3D! There's got to be hanging and jumping. How about a carousel? Can we work that in? And can Smaug be playing with a yo-yo? We'll get to the story in the last movie."
Mike: I'm not ready to declare just yet that Peter Jackson has lost it, but it's hard to argue that he isn't on his way. I actually really like King Kong, so his decline for me starts with The Lovely Bones. That was terrible and at the time I was hoping it was just a hiccup. A lot of great filmmakers have missteps and maybe TLB was his. Now after two subpar Hobbit movies, you have to wonder.
For me though, I'm torn on how to judge him based on these movies. I watched The Appendices Part 7 on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition Blu-ray special features, and in the making-of documentary Peter Jackson and company detail how the film came to be. After Guillermo del Toro had to leave the project, I got the impression that PJ felt he had to direct these movies to ensure that they got made and that all the time and money already spent of preproduction didn't go to waste. He had always said that he had no desire to return to Middle-earth and I feel that may have a lot to do with the problems. ANY movie would be difficult to make if you're not 100% onboard, let alone movies like The Hobbit trilogy. Now PJ says all the right things and that once he started working on the films he regained his passion for the story, but I can't help but think that his heart isn't totally in it.
As for The Desolation of Smaug itself, it's impossible to argue with anything you guys have said. The movie feels bloated and much of it unnecessary, especially the Legolas/Tauriel stuff. For everyone questioning why they would turn The Hobbit into three movies, I feel The Desolation of Smaug confirmed their doubts. All of the story that was added on to pad these movies FELT like story crowbarred into the trilogy and that's a big problem. And I agree with Patrick that it's difficult to care when we're on a journey to see someone get their home back. I know Bilbo's speech towards the end of An Unexpected Journey about why he wants to help the dwarves find their home is telling us exactly why we should care, but it doesn't quite work.
On New Year's Day, TNT ran all three LoTR movies, so naturally that was on in our house most of the day. I was once again reminded how much I love the entire Fellowship. From Pippin to Boromir, I have affection for them all. The dwarves in The Hobbit, not so much. I'm with you, Heath, that there is an attempt to separate the dwarves and to give them individual personalities. I feel they do as good a job as possible in that regard, but for whatever reason I never quite connect with them, save maybe Balin. He's great. I also feel Martin Freeman is fantastic as Bilbo, but he's unfortunately not given a ton to do in DoS. That may have been what I was most disappointed in.
Heath: I thought Smaug was really great. He may be my favorite digital creation, and I liked him even more than Gollum, who I struggle with due to the intensity of Andy Serkis' performance. It's good, but sometimes it wears me out. Smaug does not wear me out, and is completely realized and engaging to me, and I love how charismatic he is; he's a charming conversationalist, as dragons are, and Benny (we're mates) Cumberbatch really gave him a lot of personality. It's all there: the arrogance and laziness, but also the attractiveness and cunning that makes you think he's almost safe to be around. It's a remarkable creation. Every scene with Smaug captivates my attention completely. He just comes so late in the movie for such an integral part of this story.
I'm really hard pressed to think of anything else that really connected with me. At some point we're going to have to talk about the fact that Gandalf took on Sauron one on one. Because I can't get past that and the implications it has retroactively for Lord of the Rings.
Patrick, you've said that as much as you want to like it, you have to accept that The Hobbit is not Lord of the Rings. But everyone involved here in these new films have bent over backwards to make you think that it is. The book of The Hobbit was written years before The Lord of the Rings ever saw the light of day and was never meant to foreshadow anything at all, certainly not the rise of Sauron or the stage being set for what's to come. But that story has been completely reworked for these movies so that it serves as a direct prequel to Lord of the Rings in the same sense that the prequel trilogy tries to connect every single thread to Star Wars. They've rewritten Tolkien and added HOURS of their own material to create connections that never existed. I will not be surprised if we meet a young Aragorn in the final chapter. They already brought Frodo and Legolas in for no good reason other than to make people say "ah, look, it's that guy", so I expect them to continue this in the final film.
Patrick: If nothing else, I think these new Hobbit movies prove that the first LotR trilogy really was a case of catching lightning in a bottle. There is no formula for what made those movies so special -- no steps that can be easily repeated. Lord knows everyone seems to be trying. I don't want to say that Jackson has "lost it" either, but he does seem lost. I actually really liked King Kong (though I rarely want to revisit it), but between these Hobbit movies and the disaster that was The Lovely Bones, something is definitely wrong. I'm with Mike in that I can't help but feel that had Guillermo del Toro actually made these movies, we wouldn't be having a lot of these conversations. I'm not suggesting that they would have been great -- they might not have even been any better -- but at least they would have been different and felt like their own thing. One of the problems with Smaug is that it feels like a bad imitation of a previous success.
For one, it tries to elevate some way more minor stakes to the import of those in Lord of the Rings. Both plots are simple: take this ring, throw it in the mountain/get to this mountain and get this thing back. But the former matters because the fate of all Middle Earth is at stake. The latter matters because...the dwarves want respect? It's their right? Ok, that's fine. I'm ok with lesser stakes. From what I understand, that's the kind of book The Hobbit is. But then Jackson makes the movie into something EPIC and ACTION-PACKED and forgets the fact that it's meant to be smaller and lighter. And in trying to turn a small story into a huge epic, he hasn't actually bothered to fix the spine of the thing -- it's still "get to this mountain, get this thing back" -- so instead it just bounces around through a bunch of set pieces.
All of this sounds like I'm really down on The Hobbit. I'm not. It's fine. More than anything, it's forgettable, and that's its greatest sin. I don't love it, but I can't get worked up enough about it to dislike it because it's already out of my head. It's too bad.
Heath: As much as I've railed against the decisions made in this film, I still don't hate it, either. Mike, is there any redemption we can come up with for Desolation of Smaug? You tried to steer us into positive waters many paragraphs ago. I know movies are different from books (thank goodness), and I'm not taking my annotated copy of the book into the movie theater expecting word for word adaptations. I think this story was particularly hard to adapt, given the previous film history of the series and the expectations of audiences. In many ways, it's lose/lose.
One thing I should say is that I think that these movies do seem to preserve some of the themes of the book. It does feel like great care was taken to retain the overall ideas of the movie. The Tauriel/Legolas/Kili storyline, when you dig into it, represents the walls that the elves had erected between them and all other races crumbling down. That's a theme from the books, and popped up multiple times in Tolkien. The elite society that isolated themselves inevitably intermingled with more common people. This film seems to be using it as a metaphor for equality among races, genders, and social groups. I can absolutely get on board with the message of that even though I don't like the execution.
Also, ultimately I think we're going to see that Bilbo's adventure is going to have a profound impact on the lives around him. I've read ahead, so I know where the story is going. The decisions we make have far reaching implications and nothing that we do occurs in a vacuum.
Those are a few things I've had to dig for; honestly, the first image that comes to my mind when I think of the film is Legolas standing on two hobbit heads floating down a river while he shoots bad guys, and that may be how I remember it in the future. I wonder if things would have been any different if this had come before Lord of the Rings and not a decade after it. This territory is now well trod. Like Patrick, I wonder if a different director would have done things in a drastically different way. Perhaps then it wouldn't have been more of the same.
And furthermore, Tolkien's work is not perfect. Some of the limitations of the movie come from the limitations of the original story. Patrick talked about how it's yet another quest to go to a mountain and do a thing and then come back. He's right, and I don't think I've ever looked at it quite that way before. Lord of the Rings seems to repeat many of the events of The Hobbit on a grander scale. We go to a lot of the same places and do a lot of the same things. The reason that the book feels different for me is because the tone is aimed at children and you can read the whole thing in an afternoon. It's a breezy, whimsical adventure with a ton of humor in it. But when you try to make that same story fall in line with the more adult tone of it's successor, it loses a lot of the whimsy and feels like a lot more of the same.
Sorry it took me so long to find some more positives, Mike. Those are some things in addition to Smaug that I like. What else really works for you? Let's put this thing to bed on a hopeful note. After all, we're not done and this story isn't over. We still have the conclusion coming at the end of the year, and I have a feeling that the last installment will having us looking back at the first two to see what seeds were planted along the way.
Mike: I admit that a lot of what works for me, or what puts a smile on my face, is stuff that reminds me that we're in the same world created by Peter Jackson and company for The Lord of the Rings movies. Between familiar faces and revisiting places like Bag End and Rivendell, it felt like home. You wrote about this feeling in your original piece about An Unexpected Journey, Heath, and I couldn't agree more. That feeling continued for me in The Desolation of Smaug. Maybe not as much as An Unexpected Journey, but as long as the films have Ian McKellan and Howard Shore's score, I'll be at peace.
Like I said before, I thought the Smaug scenes were great. I've always been a little cold towards the book version of Smaug, so I wasn't looking forward to seeing him in DoS that much. Maybe my lack of enthusiasm for the character had a lot to do with my surprise by how much he worked. You both described him perfectly, so I won't repeat that here. I'll just say that he's worth the build-up.
One of the things that I enjoy most about DoS, and really all of the Middle-earth movies, are the creature, clothes, environment and weapons designs by Weta. The amount of thought and detail that goes into every stitch of clothing and every sword handle is remarkable. For anyone interested, you can purchase books published by Weta filled with sketches and design philosophies (like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Chronicles: Art & Design). They are some of my favorite books on the subject and despite how you may feel about the movies as a whole, they should help you appreciate the artistry behind the world they visually created.
Heath: I know what you mean about being back in that world. New Zealand, man! It's amazing. It's just breathtakingly beautiful, and now that you mention it, Evangeline Lilly/Tauriel is, too. I never thought much about her when she was on Lost, but she sure makes an attractive elf. I could say the same about most of the lady elves in these movies: Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler are attractive in real life, but put pointy ears on them and whoa. I did really like the character of Tauriel, come to think of it. She's an interesting character, and it's a shame that her storyline is so shoehorned in. Most people aren't complaining, though.
Speaking of not complaining, I have to tell you that my wife has many of the same complaints as I do about this movie, and she's a fan of the book as well. But one thing she does NOT have a problem with is the addition of Legolas to the story. So if nothing else good comes from this Legolas/Tauriel thing, we each get an elf to look at. Is elf fetishism a thing? I might have that.
Also, I'm glad that you brought up the work of WETA workshop. There's a lot of publicity for the CGI in the movie, and we've talked about how cool you and I thought Smaug turned out, but you're also dead on with your comments about the clothes, weapons, and environments of Middle Earth. Those are all made by hand, and that's one of the things I love seeing the most when I watch the appendices. I know that even though I didn't really care for much of this movie, I will have a tremendous time poring over the hours of special features showing how they created Lake Town on a sound stage, or mechanical spiders, or carefully sculpted Beorn's bear buttocks. WETA still does tons of practical effects, and as much as Desolation of Smaug feels like a video game at times, there's a ton of practical model work and things that were hand-crafted.
Patrick: I'll just add that I'm still on board for There and Back Again, even if I have to concede that my heart really isn't in seeing how this all wraps up. The wait between The Two Towers and Return of the King seemed like FOREVER. I know this wait won't. It's going to be more like "Oh, right, it's December. That new Hobbit movie is coming out this week." Maybe it's just because I'm busier now and time goes faster. I suspect that it's not. I'm ok with this new trilogy being just "fine." It doesn't take away from Lord of the Rings and it's not going to have any larger effect on movies in general -- unless, of course, 48fps catches on (it won't). So really I'm excited for Peter Jackson to put Middle Earth behind him and to go back to making original movies. Maybe even smaller movies -- something like Heavenly Creatures. He needs to get back in touch with that guy, and he's never going to get there while fighting the dragon.
Mike: F, Marry, Kill: Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) or Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)? I'd F Tauriel, Marry Arwyn and ATTEMPT to kill Galadriel, however I'm sure I'd be the one to wind up dead.
Patrick: Kill Tauriel (sorry), marry Arwen and definitely F Galadriel. She's, like, elf queen for crying out loud.
Mike: I would have gone the same way if ELils and I didn't have a history.
Heath: I'd F Arwen ("If you want it, come and claim it" is what I'd say, and she totally would), marry Tauriel and kill Galadriel, because she's got issues with power and calls herself great and terrible. Plus, she's like, thousands of years old, so she'd probably just want to watch Murder She Wrote and talk about the good old days before men and dwarfs moved in and made all the Lothlorien property values go down.