Why The Desolation of Smaug Is Peter Jackson's Phantom Menace
By Emir Pasanovic
I have been angry for the past week and the following extensive review of the second installation of the Hobbit trilogy reflects that anger. I won't talk about the high frame rate but there will be LOTS OF SPOILERS for whoever has not seen the film, read the book, or been alive in the past 50 years. If you worry about any of these things, then you might as well close the tab right now and move on with your life.
To begin with, for everyone who's stuck around, I will promise this: there are two things good about this film, and they are not worth the price of your 3D-iMax-cinema ticket. So if you take anything from this review before you decide to buy the ticket, it's that you should NOT buy it. If I can get one person not to waste their money on this crap load of CGI-abomination without a hint of internal logic to the story and characters… it will be worth it.
Instead of talking about the story itself, in the beginning I would like to address where it came from. When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, there was no indication he was ever get to write, let alone publish anything like The Lord of the Rings. I guess Sauron was somewhere in the back of his mind, as were the rest of the wizards and Galadriel, because he spent most of the time writing the ancient legends of Middle Earth, about the beginning of the world, travels of the Elves and Morgoth. When LOTR was almost finished, he retroactively edited Hobbit to make it fit into the broader story of the Silmarillion and LOTR, but he kept it, in its essence, a children's story. That's why I understand reasons behind making this broader film version more in line with what was done with LOTR, and even some of the attempts to introduce action to keep today's kids thrilled with the prospect of more Bilbo Baggins as children of 70 years ago were thrilled when the book came out.
Now that I've shown I'm being more than reasonable here and that I know my Tolkien, let's get to the heart of the matter, which is the lack of inner logic and the inconsistency in the story telling. I will try to illustrate this by concrete examples from the film and I apologize in advance if there are some things not completely clarified.
In The Hobbit the story spans a long amount of time and this allowed Tolkien to do the retroactive editing I mentioned before, so that Gandalf gets to do all sorts of things behind the scenes with the White Council and in Dol Guldur while the Dwarves and Bilbo are on the road without him. I was very excited about this broader storytelling that sometimes diverges from the books, mistakenly thinking that it would be handled with care and tact, like so many things were in the LOTR (Saruman's murder by Wormtongue, for example). How sorely I was mistaken.
I start with Gandalf because no one is more a video game version of himself from the LOTR films than he is. This wizard, who held the cards of the whole of LOTR in his hands, directing thousands of people around Middle Earth like chess pieces, becomes a blundering moron who jumps into the enemy's lair and waits to be rescued by the White Council instead of leading their attack. For no apparent reason, jumping over the longest of distances in a matter of hours, he creates a plot to get himself imprisoned, in a position where he is utterly helpless, after reminding us of his two wizard staff moves from the first trilogy, without which we couldn't possibly know it was the same character: slamming it into the ground, sending a big ball of light around him, and pushing things away using a forcefield. Just to bring home the fact that this is the same character from the LOTR and remind us what he's known for, he stays in an iron cage overlooking armies of Orcs saddle their Wargs and get ready to march on Erebor. Because, why the hell not?
Lets put to the side that what would take the Wargs and their riders weeks to cover in the books they will have to do in days for the last film (hell, it took the Dwarves and Bilbo only a few hours to cross Mirkwood with the help of the spiders and Elves who captured them, what's a day or two for the Wargs to ride around it?). Let us forget the fact that the Orcs are not Uruk Hai and they do not travel by daylight (which is talked about even in the LOTR films) and take it as a given that the months of travelling through Middle Earth that worked in the books were necessarily cut in the film. But the story development is now carried by constant and utterly meaningless action. All those shots and making-of-videos Peter Jackson has been showing on FB and around the internet are just misrepresentation. Yes, misrepresentation, because all we EVER see of those beautiful rivers and canyons and mountains is covered by CGI Goblins and Elves (or bloody Bombur at one point) jumping around the screen like Mexican jumping beans, their insulting-to-the-eye-CGI-arrows filling in the gaps. Between that and the complete irrelevance of characters for the plot, there was literally nothing from real life to enjoy.
I was terribly disappointed with the despicable CGI marathon through the Goblin tunnels in the first Hobbit film as well, but it was short (yes, I know it felt like it went for ages when you watched it, but compared to the second Hobbit? It's as brief as taking a piss in the neighbour's pool while he's on holiday) and it came in the middle of the film. The film itself gave a semblance of respite to the characters after and we got a chance to understand the effects of going through an ordeal like that. The bond between Bilbo and Thorin grew stronger, we got to know Bilbo and how he grew as a character from a boring old sit-in-the-house-eat-and-drink-and-be-merry Hobbit to a brave warrior, and yet also a surprisingly generous and forgiving man. It was very little, left a lot to be desired, but it was there.
There is nothing close to that in the second pissing film. Bilbo is no longer a hero of this story, he's like an ant scurrying around the legs of giants. The most heroic deeds of the story he still does of course (he is the titular character, he has to save everyone from spiders and Elves, and go into the freaking dragon lair) but it's all swept away (quite literally, by water and molten gold) by what comes next and there is no time for retrospect and any sense of achievement.
Did you read what I said? I said that there is NO TIME in a 9 hour long trilogy of what is a very short children's book. Oh, but there's all the time in the world to make us understand just what the Dark Speech of Mordor sounds like. I think Sauron and the rest of his minions were heard more in these two films than in the whole of LOTR trilogy. Even excluding the controversies over who played which Orc and when, this also means that we get an awful lot of empty, cannon fodder CGI characters growling at the camera just because, why the hell not?
There is no time to better understand Beorn, his motivations and feelings, his little piece of paradise in the middle of the unholy wilderness east of the Misty Mountains, but oh yes, you will see Thranduil behead a pathetic goblin prisoner in cold blood while his son already had him immobilised. There is also time for Thorin to run around bloody Erebor like a miserable copy of Super Mario, telling everyone which lever to pull in order to exact revenge on the dragon by creating a sense of empty symbolism in what is turning out to be just another meaningless interpretation of a great and magical literary world.
And as they say in my home town, here comes the creamy puketastic ending, the point where Peter Jackson sprays his George-Lucas-inspired horsecrap all over my expectations. The greatest character of the Hobbit, other than Bilbo himself, was never any one of the Dwarves or Elves or Men. It was and always will be, Smaug the Dragon. Smaug the Tyrannical. Smaug the Stupendous who was also utterly destroyed by Peter Jackson and the rest of the team. It is completely irrelevant that visually that Serpent from the North is everything they've promised us. After only 10 minutes, literally after you've heard all the dialogue from the trailers, it becomes completely meaningless that Smaug is voiced by my man-crush Benedict Cumberbatch (for me right there at the top of the list of modern actors, just after Bryan Cranston) because he is turned to utter crap on screen by endless action and movement and jumping from tower to tower, bridge to bridge. Nowhere in the film does the inner logic of a character fall to ruin more than with what was supposed to be one of the great baddies in the history of cinema.
Smaug knows who Thorin is! Smaug, who hasn't left the mountain in a hundred years and couldn't care less about who ruled Erebor before him in the first place, has somehow heard (or mind read, who the hell cares about logic by this point, right?) that the Dwarves have come for the Arkenstone! Smaug actually cares about what Arkenstone is and what role the united Dwarves with one leader could play in the coming plans of Sauron, who he also knows about somehow! This grand and most evil of beings in Middle Earth, who's been around since before his and Sauron's master Morgoth fell, cares about these little creatures and their petty wars.
Instead of lying on his treasure mountain like a cat surrounded by inconsequential mice; hell, or instead of just swallowing the Arkenstone to screw with them, this film Smaug runs around the halls of Erebor like a headless chicken, being tricked by 9 Dwarves and a Hobbit when just a short while ago (in Dragon years) he ate and burned thousands of Dwarves and Men in and around that same mountain! Other than how he gets to actually see Bilbo and chase him through the gold for what felt like hours, the logical jump he makes from that to going to destroy Lake Town is just mind bogglingly retarded and insane, it was actually depressing. I really felt depressed at that point, but not for long! Because here comes Thorin, who is supposed to be even more insane by this point, to rain molten gold on the dim dragon before he flies out!
Speaking of Lake Town, finally we come to two things that worked. Here we see a town on the brink of ruin even without the Dragon, completely unprepared for the winter to come, with a corrupt and idiotic government lead by greedy men. The short time we spend with Stephen Fry's Mayor is enough to get the sense of all the pettiness and mistrust between him and the Bard, theirs are the only actions that keep a logical streak beginning to end (or not, it will be interesting to see if they ruin it in the third film). This was really well done, including spraying the contents of a night pot all over Mayor's windows which was, honest to god, the only funny bit in the whole 3 hours.
The other thing that did work, the only change to the books that actually hit home, were Tauriel and Kili. Don't get me wrong, I will agree with anyone who thinks that the love connection was forced, unnecessary and utterly contrary to everything we've ever learned about Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves. This could have been much better handled if there was no sense of attraction between the two, if all we ever saw was their common love of travel to distant lands, warriors' bravery and devotion to their cause, and protection of those in need. But we had to have a love triangle here, you know, like with Arwen, Eowyn and Aragorn in LOTR? It's Kili and Legolas here instead of two women, but the Elf Maiden has to betray her father figure again, that's the way of the world. I'll be damned if a female character can go through a fantasy story without being torn apart by her devotion to two men! That's just how Hollywood works and there's no way around it if you want to sell more figurines and video games and DVDs.
But I'll also be damned if Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lily could have done a better job. The chemistry is palpable even with the aloof captain of the Elven guard, and their brief time together has that more impact when you remember what will happen to Kili by the end of the films, the same destiny I am now convinced will be met by Tauriel as well. Even though forced, the romance rings true to that other piece of Tolkien's mythology, that of Beren and Luthien, bringing an interesting approach to what otherwise would probably have been boring and two dimensional characters.
Questions, comments? Bring them on because they're only going to keep the fire burning.
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