Review: The Hobbit (movie trilogy)

Posted: January 1, 2015 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Media, Narrative
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This is a rant about review of Peter Jackson’s recently completed movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. My review of Tolkien’s novel is here.

Cinema and literature differ, the former being predominantly visual and the latter being textually descriptive. Oddly, the textual approach often yields better results when more is left to the reader’s imagination, sort of like simple darkness, the bogeyman in the closet, or the monster lurking under the bed but never seen. Tolkien’s Middle Earth inspired a rich tradition of illustration from the outset. Readers wanted to see what they imagined, and conceptual artists complied. I remember Middle Earth calendars from the 1970s featuring various characters, architectures, and landscapes, which now form the basis for the design aesthetic of Jackson’s endeavors. (Middle Earth calendars from the last decade often feature pictures of the actors, New Zealand, and/or the film sets, which are quite dissatisfying to me.)

Attempts to bring Middle Earth to life in cinema were exercises in failure before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) trilogy appeared (2001–2003). Until then, appealing as Tolkien’s characters and stories are, they were considered unfilmable in a film era where casts of thousands no longer exist. Technological innovation (i.e., CGI, the acronym for Computer-Generated Imagery) enabled Jackson to overcome many limitations. Casts and costumes could be abbreviated and sets could be made out of foam or rendered digitally. Sadly, those same innovations have returned us to an era when Tolkien is unfilmable precisely because the unbelievable image now overwhelms the characters and story. I suspect that the combination of attributes (e.g., studio oversight of an untried director, fidelity to source material, superior conceptual design, and narrative solution-finding) that functioned so well to make LoTR successful is undercut in The Hobbit trilogy, which is another exercise in failure on a number of levels.

The essence of the narrative arc in LoTR is a cast of disparate characters, some resistant and recalcitrant, struggling in seemingly hopeless defiance of a unspeakably destructive rising power. The fullness of the conflict is revealed slowly, gathering weight and momentum, and action scenes punctuate rather than dominate the story. Comparatively, The Hobbit is a nonstop adventure romp, proceeding breathlessly from one action scene or set piece to another. Human (and elf, dwarf, goblin, orc, dragon, etc.) elements are relatively undeveloped (read: caricatured) and/or lost amid the fray. This is not quite as true of the books as the movies. However, Tolkien’s bitter commentary on grasping for wealth, power, and glory is still present in The Hobbit as exemplified in the culminating Battle of the Five Armies for control of the dragon’s hoard, though it loses relevance because it’s obvious audiences really come to see elaborately staged gore. So it’s with some unavoidable irony that many have been critical of the decision to blow the book into yet another movie trilogy, ostensibly to make more money than a single movie would. One may have to admit that, just as we are now in the CGI movie-making era, we are now also in the trilogy era. Endless franchise sequels are arguably an extension of the same effect, as will be quadrilogies/tetrologies (Hunger Games) when they become standard.

Let me address, then, the problem of overkill. Jackson again makes good use of New Zealand landscapes, though it is hard to remember a scene that isn’t marred by having added elements imposed digitally. Note again that  imagined or off-screen opulence and horrors often exceed their cinematic depictions. So the elaborate ruined architecture of Dol Goldur, Dale, Laketown, and Erebor make manifest in far too great detail the faded glories of lost kingdoms, especially for the brief time allowed to process the moving image. Further, rank upon rank of human, elf, dwarf, and orc armies bouncing off each other — sometimes with a few named characters in front swinging swords, hammers, axes, and maces — create purely visual spectacle that loses effect in totality. The late arrival of the eagles (the fifth army) is by then largely irrelevant. These scenes are not the soul of the story we are waiting to enjoy. The same can be said of the showdown with Smaug, which is glossed over in favor of propelling the story forward. In the intervening decade, Jackson apparently never learned the simple lesson “too much of a good thing” but instead presses and piles on at each opportunity.

Similarly, reprising tertiary characters again and again throughout the movie(s) appears to be an empty gesture of familiarity and unity, but considering how most characters are throwaways and mere plot devices to begin with, relying on prior knowledge of their biographies from others movies to avoid the clumsiness of introducing and reintroducing them each movie, their inappropriate reappearances do little to tie things together. For example, bringing Galadriel and Saruman into The Hobbit from LoTR (alongside Elrond and Gandalf, who actually belong there) to defeat and banish the Necromancer a/k/a Sauron from Mirkwood to Mordor is an obvious tie-in to later narrative. The scene with them all standing together, weapons in hand, ready to kick some supervillain ass, is straight out of The Avengers and is the stuff of a fanboy wet dream (“I wanna see Superman and Batman fight!”). Tolkien never even hinted at this in The Hobbit, whereas Jackson rethought that approach and determined to make the glaringly ham-fisted callbacks to the earlier trilogy (though occurring later in cinematic time, like the out-of-order Star Wars films).

Jackson also labors over moments of presumed emotional resonance, which I contend have none because their preconditions are not present. The preposterous multiple death of the orc commander Azog is a bullshit cinematic trick that has been used (and telegraphed) so many times its effectiveness is nil. It heightens nothing but openly offends thinking audiences, few as they may be. The same is true of soundless action occurring just outside the cinematic frame bursting unexpectedly (!) into view, such as when a bus demolishes someone crossing the street absent-mindedly or an elf army appears to stand down but then joins the battle. These are not the choices of a smart filmmaker or storyteller.

These examples all take me right out of the story, making me too awkwardly aware of my chain being yanked by the desperate-to-please himself man behind the lens curtain but usually to no effect. And please, for the love of god, give up on the bunny sled already! That was Peter Jackson doubling down on the worst imaginable concoction from the whole series of six films. He should win a George Lucas Award for that one asinine gesture shoved in our faces repeatedly.

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Despite seeing plenty of films and trailers, I rarely venture to theaters anymore. Home viewing has risen to a quality that makes onerous theater ticket prices less agreeable (to recoup onerous star salaries and production costs, no doubt), though I recognize I’m giving up the effect of participating in audience response, including sporadic applause at the end, the convention not yet being established clearly. Movies that might demand superior sound and image (i.e., IMAX presentation) no longer suffice to draw me into the theater for the first run. Spectacle is for mouth-breathers; always was. What’s also missing when viewing at home are the advertisements (thank goodness!) and what is now a series of goofy, audience-herding featurettes with animated characters (what else?) bouncing around like pinballs until they’re harangued like children into sitting still and being quiet. One instruction requiring repetition is to turn off the fucking smartphone. Personally, I have no problem turning away from or leaving behind distraction devices, but I recognize that many are hopelessly in their thrall, sorta like the One Ring.

What really amazed me going the theater at long last to see the final installment of The Hobbit, though, was the trailers. (I forgot to add, this includes a series of advertisement for video games.) Taken as a group, the hostility, fear-mongering, medievalism and (ironically) technophilia, dystopianism and eschatology, will to power and brutal domination, violence, and escape from reality was astonishing. True, movies are quintessentially flights into imagination, but as was argued by Fredric Jameson, literature (and more broadly, all narrative) is not created in a political or social vacuum. Like other artistic expressions (cinema being a rather base, profit-oriented, collaborative example), the Zeitgeist is present, distilled and reformulated. Take, for instance, the remake Mad Max: Fury Road (which Mad Max movie is being remade is arguable but unimportant as it’s the character more than any of the specific movies being rebooted). Set in an apocalyptic future of energy scarcity full of ruthless, insane, death-cult vultures preying on the weak, the film trailer shows over-the-top and beautified destruction and waste of life and (scarce! remember?) resources in an apparent last mad grasp at, well, what? It’s certainly doesn’t depict a life worth living for either villains or survivors. Yet this qualifies as entertainment and contributes to the memeplex surrounding us that survival justifies atrocity. It also handily dissolves the differences between villains and heroes (antihero, anyone?), killers and survivors, strength and weakness. Quite a statement of internal conflict, in keeping with the greatest empire on Earth making victors into monsters and thus eventual victims of everyone as we proceed along our own mad dash toward extinction.

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Comments
  1. Trey Willis says:

    “Spectacle is for mouth-breathers; always was.” That about sums it up. I enjoy the Hobbit movies, in much the same way as I enjoy the Marvel movies – a flashy way to pass the time being entertained without having to do things like think or pay attention.

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