Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage). Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever ... Gollum (Andy Serkis). Here, alone with Gollum, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum's "precious" ring that holds unexpected and useful qualities ... a simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.
First, let’s acknowledge—shall we?—that despite the level of craft and application on display, and notwithstanding the fact that it will soon occupy every cinema from here to the outer suburbs of Ulan Bator, this is in fact less a movie than a Christmas-ready consumable, a seasonal must-have, suspended between two different but not-irreconcilable imperatives: one commercial, the other technological.
The former, at least, requires little imagination: like Oliver at the parish workhouse, New Line Pictures wants more —more of the almost three billion dollars in revenue it earned from its earlier, wildly successful franchise property. Thus, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a further manifestation of The Lord of the Rings Brand. And as such, it takes particular care to shoe-horn into the narrative some familiar faces—not least, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, whose character, though offstage for much of Tolkien’s novel, is well-nigh inescapable in this one. Likewise, Cate Blanchett, clad once more in purest white samite (and I can frankly no longer picture her any other way) as Galadriel, who has a handful of scenes here, despite appearing nowhere in the book. Or Christopher Lee as Saruman, here found chatting with Gandalf in Rivendell—though, again, quite absent from the original text. Apparently the next film will see Orlando Bloom return as Legolas, because, well, why not?
If this suggests liberties have been taken with the source novel, then you’re right. There’s much in the way of padding here. (And walking. My god, do they walk.) It opens with twenty full minutes of exposition, backstory-filling CGI montages accompanied by a reading-for-the-blind voiceover: 'Then the battle began’ (as, onscreen, a battle begins) '. . . Until finally a shadow fell’ [as, yes, we see a shadow, moving]. And that’s before the title even appears.
Given that not a whole lot happens in The Hobbit: the Book, one could be forgiven for expecting that the most that could be strained from it would be three rather attenuated ninety-minute movies. (Which would also suit the studio, since shorter films allow for more sessions per day.)
But this? A first instalment just shy of three hours? That still only takes us up to chapter seven? With songs?
You may not be entirely surprised to learn that the result is profoundly, almost determinedly boring. Scene after scene feels either padded, or perfunctory, or both. The dwarfs mug shamelessly, capering and pratfalling, while Gandalf smiles indulgently at their antics, his indulgence mirroring their director’s. Did we need an extended sequence in which a wizard tries to save his dying pet hedgehog? Or that song Thorin Oakenshield sings, a traditional Dwarf ballad which seems to go on longer than 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’?
When the plot does kick in, more than an hour into the film, it proceeds to lurch from one set-piece to the next, and too many of its cliff-hangers (most of them literal) are resolved deus ex machina—by the sudden arrival, say, of giant birds, or elves, or the abrupt reappearance of Gandalf.
But what’s most surprising here is the absence of emotion: for all their Rube Goldberg complexity, these action sequences lack tension or power; none commands anything like the awe occasioned by the Battle of Helm’s Deep, from The Two Towers. Only the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum works dramatically, and demonstrates the virtues of actual acting (in particular, from Andy Serkis, superb as ever). Meanwhile, a mere handful of images—Radagast’s first, terrifying glimpse of the Necromancer; a battle between stone giants—hint at the darker, more Gothic sensibility original director Guillermo del Toro might have bought to this material.
The second issue—the film’s technical provenance—is rather more troubling, both for this film and for the future of the medium. A geek at heart, Peter Jackson has hitched his wagon to the latest tech breakthrough: shooting on the Red Epic digital camera at a rate of 48 frames per second, exactly twice the standard rate. (James Cameron, meanwhile, has gone one better, and announced that the forthcoming Avatar sequel will be in 60fps, thank you very much. This, it seems, is what passes for a pissing contest between nerds.)
The result certainly looks different from any film you’ve ever seen. Different, but not better. Let me try to explain why . . .
Much of cinema’s power resides in the physical properties it invokes: the texture of still images exposed onto chemical film; the flicker and strobe of their projection, in succession, through space onto a screen; simple persistence of vision. We might cite lofty examples to support this case: that moment, in Cocteau’s Orphée, when Jean Marais passes through the mirror; or Atlanta burning in Gone With the Wind . . . but it holds equally true for commonplace things: Bridget Jones lying in track pants on her couch, or Billy Elliot dancing alone to The Jam. That poetry with which the medium, so dreamlike and allusive, imbues the mundane.
This, by contrast, is pure prose, all definite edges and visible joins, with every bit of magic drained. The hyperreal clarity of 48fps—and the over-bright lighting that it favours—ensures that the sets all look like sets, and the props like props. Makeup seems especially fake, because faces are so accurately rendered . . . and close, thanks to some (admittedly exemplary) 3D work. Physical movement looks like it’s happening right in front of you, in actual space, with no lens—no camera at all, in fact—to mediate your gaze. But that space seems false; for the first time, Middle-Earth looks an awful lot like a movie set.
For a fantasy, this is a catastrophic flaw. This new technology may or may not be worth pursuing (as you’ve probably guessed, it’s not at all to my taste), but one thing is clear: a film like The Hobbit, so dependant upon that suspension of disbelief which sustains the fantastic, is precisely the wrong vehicle upon which to deploy it. Whereas, something less artificial, more grounded in quotidian reality—Steve McQueen’s recent Shame, for instance—might actually have benefitted from the meticulously detailed textures it evokes, to create a spectacle of discomfiting intimacy and collusion. (Indeed, watching this film, with its you-are-there verisimilitude, and its ruthless flattening of the metaphysical, it occurred to me that the primary demand for 48fps will almost certainly come from the porn industry.)
Its makers, from Jackson right up to Toby Emmerich, President of New Line, might have paid less attention to Tolkien, and more to another, rather different cult classic: Ries & Trout’s 'The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing’—and specifically, to #12, 'The Law of Extension’, which notes that, while there is an irresistible temptation to extend the equity of a brand, to surrender to that impulse is almost always a mistake. Manufacturers believe that the power of one brand will help sell the other; instead, the newer product fails, and the brand itself is tarnished.
That, it seems to me, is what’s happened here. I actually loved the LoTR trilogy, which seemed to me the epitome of the post-CGI epic; and Peter Jackson’s journey from scrappy outsider (with Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles) to A-list box-office titan, represented one of the most unexpected and satisfying career-arcs in cinema history. But this one just bored and irritated me, and awoke in me the thought that Jackson was somehow becoming George Lucas—more in love with gadgets than people, remote from all but the most stereotypical human emotions, the broadest emotional beats.
Failure is of course a relative thing—sure enough, The Hobbit opened bigger than Jesus in the US last weekend, taking $84.8m in just two days—but considered purely as a film, rather than as a balance sheet item, this is a mess: bloated, cumbersome, superfluous. It might just be the future of cinema.
This is less a movie than a Christmas-ready consumable