Sunday, December 22, 2013

"The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug"

Well, it has happened. After the the masterful “Lord Of The Rings” film trilogy and the flawed but pleasant An Unexpected Journey”, Peter Jackson has finally delivered the first bad film of the franchise. “The Desolation Of Smaug” falls prey to the vices that plagued the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequels and worsens its case by combining them with esthetic faults that Jackson had already hinted at in his disappointing adaptation of The Lovely Bones and some scenes of his otherwise solid “King Kong” remake, but are aggravated here in a way that almost reaches George Lucas-like proportions.

When we last left Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and their dwarven companions, they were half-way on their way to the Misty Mountains, where the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) devastated their kingdom and cast them from their homes. Amidst the mountain of gold Smaug rests upon, the steely dwarven leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) seeks one gem – the Arkenstone, the stone of his forefathers that shall restore his power to unite all dwarf tribes under his command and reclaim their land.

Although I have not read any of Tolkien’s books, I do know that Jackson and his co-screenwriters made the ambitious choice of not only faithfully adapting “The Hobbit” but of making a full prequel trilogy that would attach the dwarves’ quest to the slow yet imminent return of Sauron and the gathering of evil at his service. An ambitious and very risky decision that was met with justified fear and puzzlement from fans. “An Unexpected Journey” – in spite of its occasionally slow pace, particularly in its beginning – did a very good job of balancing the hopefulness of the dwarves’ daring quest with a sense of impending doom ignored by all but Gandalf and Galadriel. In addition, the fate of the old dwarven kingdom and Thorin’s backstory were woven in to give a greater sense of meaning to their quest, as well as a recurring antagonist in the form of Thorin’s old nemesis Azog (Manu Bennett), an Orc now in the service of Sauron.

Leaving An Unexpected Journey, I was hoping that the screenwriting team could stay as even-handed for the duration of the trilogy. Alas, it was not to be. The problem starts as soon as the dwarves are rescued from a spider attack by wood-elves of Mirkwood who then capture them as trespassers. Among these elves is none other than Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the least interesting member of the Fellowship of the Ring, discovered here to be the son of Mirkwood’s king, Thranduil (Lee Pace). He is accompanied by Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character created specifically for the film in order to provide a prominent female character in what would otherwise be an all-male film. While I respect the sentiment behind that decision and Evangeline Lilly herself does a serviceable job, Tauriel unfortunately becomes one of the many elements that end up drowning the story in subplots.

You see, Tauriel is given exactly two purposes: To help the Hobbits kill Orcs with Legolas and pad the film with a love triangle comprised of herself, Legolas and a dwarf named Kili whom she rescued from a spider.

While none of films in the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy are exceptionally romantic, the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen, and particularly Eowyn’s unrequited love for Aragorn, was handled in a way that evoked courtly love without excessive sentimentalism or purple prose, and served the characters without weighing down the plot. Aragorn and Arwen’s love not only deepened their characters, it represented the future imperiled by Sauron’s forces. A future in which, as Elrond showed in his sublime speech in “The Two Towers”, life and happiness would still be outrun in time by death and grief, but a future nevertheless worth fighting for, on the mere basis of its existence.

The romance in this film however, without inducing Padmé/Anakin levels of cringes, is quite bad. Kili and Tauriel share only two scenes together and chemistry in neither of them. Their lines do not help either. Here’s an actual dialogue sample, as the dwarves are each searched and locked into cells after their capture:

-          Kili: Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers.
-          Tauriel: Or nothing.

Upon hearing that exchange, my heart sank. Never would I have expected the Middle-Earth film franchise to contain sexual double-entendres that even Roger Moore’s James Bond would have dismissed.

But more importantly, the Kili/Tauriel/Legolas love triangle has none of the subtext that gave Arwen and Aragorn’s relationship weight. Whereas Aragorn was Thorin’s equal as a destined leader of men, Kili is but one of his many followers, a character with no particularly outstanding trait, whose name I would not have remembered if it weren’t for this subplot. There is no justification for the inclusion of this subplot whatsoever and thus, as their role is sadly defined by its inclusion, none for the inclusion of Tauriel or Legolas either.

Had Tauriel and Legolas been left out altogether, the film would run more smoothly and would be improved for it. Chief among the improvements would be the subsequent scenes involving Laketown, and the character of Bard (Luke Evans), descendant of Girion, the man who defended Dale in vain against Smaug during his devastation of the place. The character has much potential, but it is undone by his submission to the avalanche of subplots caused by Kili’s injury, the pursuit of the orcs and Tauriel and Legolas’s pursuit of them. Also a collateral damage in this rush of events is the setting of Laketown itself, whose culture – and greedy Master played by a somewhat incongruous Stephen Fry – we only have fleeting glimpses of.

As if that wasn’t enough, Gandalf decides early in the film to leave the party in order to go to Dol Guldur to distract Sauron’s forces and delay his inevitable return. Had Kili, Tauriel and the orcs been out of the picture, this subplot would command more attention and its ominousness would be better perceivd. As it stands, mired between far less relevant side-stories, one feels deprived of a much better film.

The screenplay is sadly not the only thing that bogs down the viewer’s experience. In “An Unexpected Journey”, I had felt reservation towards Peter Jackson’s decisions to brighten the lighting and colour scheme and motion-capture his orcs and goblins with CGI rather than apply heavy make-up on his actors and extras. The result sometimes felt like watching a spectacular video game rather than a film, quite different from the visceral experience provided by real actors and stuntspeople in the original trilogy. “The Desolation Of Smaug” turns my reservation into outright rejection.

Never has the world of Middle-Earth looked so artificial, thanks partly to a 48fps format that accelerates every movement and every scene to the point of making them hard to spatialize, and partly to gaudy bright lighting and an overreliance on CGI over practical effects that makes the film resemble a Frankensteinian mixture of soap opera, video game and Lolita Lempicka perfume commercial.

When they’re not artificial and cartoonish, the fight scenes are shot closely and edited in a manner that, in an 48fps format, makes them blur past the eyes from shot to shot without any time to pause and admire. The 3D worsens it by clogging the foreground with constant objects and people. Only too rarely can you take in New Zealand’s gorgeous scenery, as you are either blinded by the bright orange sun or trying to figure out the scene’s topography.

Peter Jackson overkills his action scenes by making his characters jump from one scenery element to the next without the grace and seamlessness Steven Spielberg displayed in “The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn”. This is most evident in the final action scene involving Smaug chasing Bilbo and the dwarves. The unceasing overflow of movement prevents immersion in favour of sensory overload. By the time the film was over, I had a headache.

It’s all the more of a shame since that particular scene comes right after the best one in the film, in which Bilbo tries to sneak into Smaug’s chamber to steal the Arkenstone but accidentally wakes the sleeping dragon and tries to distract him with flattery and pretense of stupidity. It’s an interesting battle of wits compounded by the contrast between the size and demeanour of the two characters. David against Goliath, with his wits as a substitute for a sling.

I can only hope that after this particularly long and uncomfortable bridge, the “Hobbit” trilogy can come to a close with a film that recaptures both “An Unexpected Journey”’s balance of plot threads and the original trilogy’s esthetic authenticity. I hope Peter Jackson watches his previous films – not just the “Lord Of The Rings” but also his marvellous zombie comedy “Braindead” – and realizes how real they felt in comparison to the increasing academicism he has been displaying for the past seven years or so. Above all, I sincerely hope the 48fps fad does not leave this trilogy’s gates and that 3D be used only to enhance the senses rather than numb them. Cinema deserve better than to become just another soldier taking part in the daily assault on the senses we experience.

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