The strangest thing about Peter Jackson's first Hobbit installation, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, was that it seemed like the kind of movie someone would make 15 to 20 years before making The Lord of the Rings.
All the ingredients from LOTR were there—the CGI, the epic battle sequences, the camera work, the epic plots—but where The Lord of the Rings was mature, focused, and straightforward, An Unexpected Journey was silly, immature, and meandering. It felt like the paper of a reasonably skilled college freshman in an English 101 class: full of potential and promise, but sloppily executed.
Which makes it so much weirder that An Unexpected Journey was made almost 11 years after the first Lord of the Rings movie was released. Fans of Lord of the Rings who disliked The Hobbit weren't angry that director Peter Jackson was failing to deliver on "the potential he'd shown earlier"—the Lord of the Rings films had delivered that potential.
All of this meant that expectations for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (which I'm calling Desolation for the rest of this review, both for length reasons and because it sounds cool) were, at best, confused. On the one hand, audiences were excited to see it because of course we want more Hobbit; we were, frankly, willing to take whatever small taste of Middle Earth we could get, whether or not it was as good as the first three times around.
But, on the other, the failures of An Unexpected Journey made people's guesses about how good Desolation would be to dip sharply. I don't think anyone expected this movie to be taut, a quality the Lord of the Rings movies had in spades. Maybe the biggest achievement of the Rings movies was that (except maybe for the first one) you were never conscious that you were watching a three (three!)-hour movie.
Desolation, for better or worse, is somewhere between the Rings films and An Unexpected Journey; it's an incremental improvement, but still leans more towards the Hobbit 1 side of things than the other.
Desolation picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off—Bilbo (the pitch-perfect Martin Freeman) and his company of dwarves, led by heir to the dwarven throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are headed towards Erebor—the sub-mountainous home that the dwarves used to call home. Standing problem: there is a giant dragon housed inside the mountain, named Smaug, who originally drove the dwarves out of Erebor (colloquially called The Lonely Mountain). The movie documents Bilbo and co.'s attempt to walk towards the mountain, and the problems they face while they walk towards the mountain.
I think that sentence betrays one of the movie's core problems: it is about people walking towards a place. Peter Jackson said of The Two Towers that the biggest problem was "that it had no beginning or end," and this is doubly true of Desolation. If I were to make a rough estimate, I'd say about 45 to 50 minutes of the movie features our heroes running from things that want to kill them. And that's not counting the in-chase conversations, the asides, the brief pauses, any of it—I mean it's almost an hour of people running towards places. Desolation may be much more taut than An Unexpected Journey, but it's still a bit of a slouch.
Desolation improves on almost everything about the first movie: it's less corny, more things happen (arguably not enough things to fill the movie's 161 minutes, but still), more locations, more characters. However, keeping so many characters in our minds means that none of them are given any compelling characteristics or subcutaneous complexity. There are Angry King Elves (Lee Pace) and Good Fighter Elves (Orlando Bloom) and Pretty Elves (Evangeline Lily); there are Lovable Underdog Humans (Luke Evans) and Angry Monarchical Humans (Stephen Fry) and Ugly Humans (Ryan Gage).
But the movie conflates quantity and quality—and, while it does a better job than the first of keeping us from realizing its own shallowness, it still doesn't fully succeed.
But it's about as illuminating to go through and compare the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as it is to compare the respective books; they're trying very hard to accomplish different things. So, sure, The Hobbit's tone is goofier, the characters aren't as fleshed out, the tension is less palpable than in Lord of the Rings—so what? Should we fault characters in summer comedies for lacking the inner existential angst that defines our indie darlings? It's not fair to fault something for not being what it never tried to be.
I say that, because I want to make it very clear: the problem I have with Desolation is not that it's not Lord of the Rings. Many of my favorite movies are not Lord of the Rings. My problem with it is that, in its constant over-the-top-ness, in its relentless pursuit of always being "turned up to 11," it actually totally fails to capture our imagination and belief.
Situation: one of our heroes is about to be killed by an orc. Oh no! The stakes are high! And right before aforementioned greasy, smelly orc brings his axe down on Hero—an arrow pierces the orc's head. Camera pans over, and there stands Other Hero, and the music swells dramatically, and we all clap on the inside. The first time this happens in Desolation, it's a neat trick for creating and paying off suspense. The second time, we think: "Hey, that's happened twice now." The third time, we think: "Man, three times? Everyone in Middle Earth must have fantastic timing." And the (I-kid-you-not) tenth time this happens, we think, "It's very interesting that Peter Jackson likes that specific example of deus ex machina so much."
We go to the movies to forget, really, that the only reason any of this stuff is happening is because a writer made it up. Nothing is necessary in fiction; no character is really doomed to die, or must die, or must anything—see Sherlock Holmes brought back from the dead by public demand, or Stephen King's Misery.
And so when we read a book, or see a movie, we (as the audience) enter into a little contract with the writer: "I can't care about this unless I think there are actual stakes, but I'm also aware (because I'm not stupid) that you made up the stakes, so let's do this: you craft a convincing set of fake stakes, and I'll allow what you made to matter to me."
This can be executed really well and not be kitschy. Prime examples include the following: John McClane walks on glass in Die Hard; Bruce Wayne's devastating injury in The Dark Knight Rises; Frodo abducted by a spider in The Return of the King; and the sequence immediately after Aslan's death in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. All these examples have something in common—we knew how it was going to work out, in a sort of cognitive "I know that Return of the King doesn't end with Frodo dead at the cusp of Mount Doom" way.
The genius of all these movies is making us forget that we knew, to make us really worried and make us bite our nails/knuckles over the possibility that all would be lost, that everything the heroes had worked for could all have been done in vain.
The writers of these movies get that we can only celebrate triumph if we believe defeat is possible. The best example of someone who understands this—and, similarly, maybe the most maligned by Tolkien fans—would be George R.R. Martin, who writes the Game of Thrones novels, recently adapted into an HBO original series.
Martin is frequently seen by fans of traditional High Fantasy as, at best, almost a nihilist—and the content of his books would seem to underscore that point, which feature incest, graphic violence, detailed depictions of sexual perversions, human sacrifice to pagan gods, torture, abuse, abandonment, and a near-omnipresent denigration of women. (But here, I'm going to talk about Game of Thrones as a show rather than novel series because I'm more familiar with the former, and it makes sense to compare visual media to each other.)
The standout line comes from Eddard Stark as he talks to his young son, Bran. Eddard (called Ned) is one of the only men in the entire Game of Thrones universe with an ounce of honor, decency, or loyalty in him, which makes him (of course) a target for every other opportunist in the land. Ned is tasked to leave his homeland and serve the King in the capitol—a job that left his predecessor dead, and doesn't bode well for someone as principled (and thus disliked) as Ned. Before he leaves, Bran asks him, "Can a man still be brave, even when he's afraid?"
Ned says, "I think that's the only time a man can be brave."
Eddard Stark—played by the Thespian of Mortality, Sean Bean—well, you can guess what happens to him. He (and most like-minded people on the show) suffers huge losses and consequences for doing what he knows is right. Some interpret the suffering endured by "right" characters as evidence for Game of Thrones' nihilism, but I think it really just points to a kind of modern romanticism. A romanticism defined by the world around it, which is full of dark and evil things and people who never act good, but all-too-frequently embody evil itself.
But note this: in Game of Thrones, there is still good and evil, abstractly. It never posits that good and evil don't exist—only that good is rarely profitable and rarely the "smart" opportunist thing to do.
In fact, something may be good because it isn't profitable—because it isn't just selfish opportunism. "Earn your victories" is the Game of Thrones motto. If you want the happiness you think will stem from your loyalty or honor or whatever, you had better be prepared to work hard for it, to risk everything for it.
Compare that to the seemingly micro-managerial deus in Desolation's machine: what is ever risked? Do we ever really wonder how things are going to end up? Every time (I really do mean every time) an important character is in even mild danger, they're rescued by something immediately off-screen.
By failing to ever convince us that anything's at stake, Jackson makes everything this sort of bland theme-park ride of dispassionate safe-ness. Sure, spiders and bears and orcs jump out of the screen to scare chords, making you jump in your seat—but this is not a movie that'll have you leaving the theater with shorter nails than you arrived with.
This is more important than just "Did it work well in this movie?" The question of dynamic range—that is, not just where we live our lives, emotionally, but the distance between the highest and lowest points—is one that matters the most, and one that calls people of faith into conflict with their world the most. Not how you'd expect, since stereotypes seem to indicated that people of faith are the ones who say things like "Becoming a Christian means you'll never be lonely again," whereas world-weary cynics realize the difference between how good things can be and how bad they often are.
But it turns out that the modern secular world is frankly terrible at embracing this reality. People aren't willing to settle for being happy sometimes, and so every product is marketed towards filling that void in your life, every movie sold as a cure. Everything becomes either medicative or escapist, trying to make everything good all the time or trying to transport you (via "art") to somewhere where that's true.
Actually, religious tradition is steeped in this understanding of the true misery and loneliness we're capable of feeling, just by virtue of being human—think of Jesus crying alone in Gethsemane, or Paul's "thorn in the flesh." Our call to faith was issued from the lips of a man who would himself be crucified, saying "Take up your cross and follow me." No understanding of a Christian life would ever envision life as a place where everything is good all the time.
Peter Jackson's The Hobbit—both parts I and II, and, judging by what we've seen so far, the upcoming part III, as well—is pure escapism. Cameras swing over vast landscapes and characters tumble through trees and jokes are made and orcs are bloodlessly decapitated a couple of times, and it's all nothing more than riding a relatively good roller coaster. Maybe we're happy with that—maybe 2012's roller coaster was lacking, so this next iteration's incremental improvements are just fine.
But Desolation sometimes tries to be something more, to be "meaningful," and it isn't. It can't be unless it's willing to risk (or at least convince us it's willing to risk) real consequences for the characters.
Tim Grierson writes at Deadspin, "[The Desolation of Smaug] is a perfectly solid, diverting film. So was the last one. Go in with measured expectations and you'll have nothing to fear—or be disappointed by." And he's totally right about that. So go and see Desolation, take your family, have a great time. It is actually a really fun movie.
But let's not start thinking that just because there's nothing to be scared of, we can "get" all the meaningful parts without having to suffer through the scary bits. Maybe there's something about going through the scary bits—the parts where we're unsure who'll live and who'll die, what'll happen, where we grip our seat and grit our teeth—that makes us able to understand the meaningful parts that much better.
Good fun is all fun and good, but in a culture where "always feeling good" is frequently the goal, where safe emotional monotony is preferable to risky dynamic range, maybe "safety" isn't the route we need to be taking, either in life or in fiction.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a surprisingly violent movie whose blow is lessened by the slapstick nature of the violence. Orcs are shot with arrows and stabbed with swords and all kinds of stuff. They really do get messed up good. As soon as the elves show up, orc decapitations start happening, with the aftermath of at least three being shown (the action in all three circumstances is obscured, and there's not any viscera or anything that leaks out, so it's pretty sanitary).
And there's spiders, which could scare anyone who's scared of spiders.
Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. You can follow him on his semi-annually updated Twitter account: @jxscott
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