Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Road to nowhere

The first leg of the 'Hobbit' trilogy is a monotonous ordeal...that is, until Gollum pops in to finally liven things up

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt and Andy Serkis
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 49 minutes
(out of four)

Is it possible for one extended sequence to singlehandedly salvage a tiresome disappointment - to singlehandedly lift it from its tedious doldrums? If it is possible - and I'm not saying it is - then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the proof. For what had been two solid hours of meandering diversions (punctuated by expository mythology) instantly springs to life the instant Gollum shows up early in the third hour.

What commences is an extended tête-à-tête between Gollum (Andy Serkis) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), beginning with cautious introductions and culminating in a highly entertaining game of riddles that doubles as (easily) the most suspenseful segment of the movie. That this scene in particular is when the film begins to take dramatic shape is no coincidence; it is, after all, the moment at which The Hobbit actually starts being about, well, the hobbit. Up until that point, Bilbo had been little more than a bystander in a story that requires more standing by than any in recent memory.

His increased presence over the final third of the movie mirrors his character arc - from committed homebody to reluctant adventurer to courageous hero - and that's fine. The problem is that the first two hours of An Unexpected Journey are made up of too many self-contained, non-sequitorial sequences that don't even begin to justify their inclusion in what amounts to a three-hour preamble.

Now is the part where you say, "But Chris! All those scenes were in the booooook!" Which is, of course, irrelevant, seeing as how we're talking about a movie. This is what happens when you fall too deeply in love with your source material, and/or feel too much obligation to audience members that just want to see a slideshow version of a book they like. Sorry, but as much as one might love the scene with the Trolls in the book, it could easily have been excised from the movie without losing much of anything. (The one major result of the sequence is Bilbo coming into possession of an Elven sword. Surely someone as clever as Peter Jackson could have come up with another way to get that sword to Bilbo without wasting 20 minutes of our time on Trolls?)

The scene's inclusion - and the length of that scene and several others - speaks to an overriding lack of discipline. Splitting The Hobbit into three movies seemed like a dicey proposition from the beginning, but I always tried to keep an open mind. However, after seeing part one, I can't help but conclude the naysayers may well have been right all along. Here's the problem: the main accomplishment of this first installment is that it sets up the next two movies. On its own, there's virtually nothing to it. A lot of backstory and exposition, punctuated by action that always ends with Gandalf doing something wizardy to get everyone out of whatever pickle they've gotten themselves into. And that's pretty much it. Amid all the action and effects and background intrigue, precious little actually happens of any import.

Contrast that with The Fellowship of the Ring, which was only one-third of a story and had no real ending, but which still managed to stand on its own feet. An Unexpected Journey cannot make the same claim. On its own, it's a pointless series of diversions.

The titular journey, along which Bilbo is reluctantly dragged by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), involves a company of dwarves attempting to reclaim their stolen homeland of Erebor. That is as much as I'm willing to explain about the setup; I'm no Middle Earth expert, and most of the backstory details and political machinations just come across like white noise. (The movie is chock-full of MacGuffins, only the filmmakers are unaware that they are MacGuffins. I think we're supposed to think all the details are of great importance. Joke's on us, apparently.)

What we're left with is a movie without purpose. Or rather, with one purpose, which is simply to set up other movies. Its final hour comes close to giving the film a real identity, but even that just boils down to a really good sequence or two attached to something ultimately rather slight.

Jackson hasn't lost his gift for spectacle, but in this case it worked against him. It seems the only way to do The Hobbit, in his mind, was to do it just as big and epic as Rings. Turns out a little restraint may have gone a long way. What he ends up with is a movie that superficially resembles his previous trilogy but has little of the same dramatic vitality. It just sits there, taking up time, looking for an adventure that it never really finds.


On 48fps...

Much of the attention surrounding the release of An Unexpected Journey has centered around Jackson's decision to shoot the trilogy in 48 frames per second, rather than the customary 24. It was controversial from the start - and even more so when bits and pieces were screened a few months back, leading to a cacophony of [mostly] scorn throughout social media and the blogosphere.

I was fascinated to see the film in 48fps, if only to see what the fuss was about (pro or con), and even if it meant violating my typical M.O. to no longer see anything in 3D. The results of the high frame rate (HFR) format are strange and interesting and terrible and unique. Strange because our initial reaction to it is inevitably dictated by our own conditioning, after years and decades of being used to 24 fps. Interesting because there is a sharp divide between the new format's effectiveness in daytime scenes and those at night (or in darker lighting). Terrible because, at its worst, HFR seems to cheapen the entire experience. And unique because it has a genuinely distinctive quality that, for better or worse, truly sets it apart from what we've been seeing at theatres all our lives.

There's a disconcerting cheap-video quality (really cheap) that makes the daytime scenes in The Hobbit legitimately difficult to watch. Curiously, it plays more effectively at night - perhaps just because the darker lighting and lower contrast hides some of the more video-ish qualities. I can't be sure. Another curious side effect is that the CGI effects look noticeably better in 48 fps than what we're used to seeing in effects-driven films. Whereas we're often aware of large CG creations when we're looking at them, the animated characters in The Hobbit look much more like they're occupying physical space than usual. Now, in fairness, I haven't yet seen the movie in the standard 24 fps, so maybe what I saw was just the result of exemplary effects work all around, and not a result of the higher frame rate. But the difference was so sharp, I rather doubt it.

The improved physicality of the CGI hardly makes up for the format's more noticeable hangups. The commonly levied comparison to the video quality of a daytime soap opera is not unearned; too often, the film (at least to eyes only just now being trained on the new format) looks cheap and silly.

That being said, despite my strong reservations, even I'm wary of making a final judgment call on something so new. Not because I necessarily expect great improvement, but simply for the fact that it's so new, I can't dismiss the possibility that it's a matter of getting used to. I never want to be one of those moviegoers so hung up on what I'm used to that I automatically reject new methods as inherently inferior. Right now, 48 fps looks like a severe downgrade from 24 fps. But I believe the only reasonable response at this point is to say the jury is still out.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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