Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

We went to see this on Saturday, in company with two friends of ours. The screening we attended was in 2D, in the standard frame rate, and at the VUE cinema in Stirling. I must note that I was impressed with the cinema, which was markedly better than the Cineworld we have next door, and the seats were much more comfortable than in the Grosvenor where we saw the first part of this trilogy.

The rest of this post will be hugely spoilerific, so I recommend not reading it until after you've seen the film. My short-form, non-spoiler review: this is very much the "Attack of the Clones" of this series - it has some absolutely stunning visuals, but is deeply flawed in a number of other ways. Oh, and like AotC those flaws include a cringe-inducing romantic subplot, only without even the justification that the subplot was necessary (as in AotC).

So, on with the spoilers.

You have been warned.

No, really. Go watch the film first. Honestly, it's better that way...

The film opens well enough - we have a quick flashback scene to remind us how we got where we are, then the dwarves on the run, then the dwarves meet Beorn, then on to Mirkwood, and then Galdalf runs off on a mysterious errand. All so good, so far.

Just one thing, though: it's all a bit of a rush. Like with "Hunger Games: Catching Fire", the film seems to be rushing through the plot - hit the plot point, move on, repeat. Only where HG:CF had an awful lot of plot to fit into a fairly small running time, "The Hobbit" has three movies, each longer than HG:CF. There's just no need to rush.

Then we have the spiders, and this is really good. Bilbo again shows his resourcefulness, the Ring shows the ability to translate the spiders' 'voices', Bilbo rescues the dwarves, they start to fight back, the tide turns...

And then, suddenly, the whole thing goes utterly, horribly wrong.

The music swells triumphantly, and in comes Legolas! in a wondrous display of Elf Awesomeness. He surfs in on a spider, bow going, then switches to his blades, hacking, slaying... and totally stealing the thunder of the stars of our films.

Now, I understand that Tolkien's elves were basically angels, were clearly superhuman, and were in every way superior to the lesser folks. So, while it rankled more than a bit, it was not unreasonable when Legolas! totally overshadowed Gimli in each and every regard. After all, they were but two of nine companions, were very much in the second rank of characters in Lord of the Rings, and so... fair enough, I guess.

But "The Hobbit" is about (well, Bilbo, yes, but also...) the dwarves and their quest to reclaim Erebor. This was their film, their chance to shine. And, behold, Jackson just has to bring in his favourite Legolas! to steal the show. Yay.

So, we get stage directions courtesy of "The Complete Book of Elves", and we have the introduction of the pet NPC to save our heroes. Suddenly, I understand how every "Forgotten Realms" player who has ever complained about Drizzt knows.

But worse was to come, because here comes Tauriel - the female elf.

Now, it is a fair criticism of "The Hobbit" that is has no female characters to speak of. However, believe it or not, that doesn't actually imply that you should add some - it's not unreasonable to instead just accept that it is what it is, and move on. After all "Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World" somehow managed not to bother, and it was okay. (Ironically, the Patrick O'Brian books actually do include some very significant women, but that's another rant.)

But, okay, fair enough - Jackson felt it was necessary to add a female character, and she was to be an elf called Tauriel. I don't actually have a problem with doing that - in principle.

But in practice...

In films, female characters in action movies must be strong. That's the key characteristic - if you're a woman in an action movie, you must, above all, be strong (or fiesty, or independent, or whatever - they're all the same thing). So, Tauriel is an elven ranger, a peer of Legolas!, a powerful and brave warrior. So...

The scene is contrived so Legolas! suddenly finds himself in trouble. The music swells triumphantly, and in comes Tauriel, hacking and slashing, and battering spiders left and right with her bow, and casually saving Legolas!, and generally be AWESOME.


And so, we have Tauriel upstaging Legolas!, who has just upstaged the heroes of our piece, Bilbo and the dwarves. Great.

So, it's off to the elven kingdom, and now comes then next big mistake with Tauriel.

See, it's important in films that while the female character must be strong, her other major purpose is to be the love interest of one or more of the heroes. She can't actually be independent; she necessarily must be the prize for one of our heroes - if she's very, very lucky, she gets to choose, but most often not.

So, we are treated to Tauriel and Kili flirting. And then to Legolas! smugly declaring his rival to be "no less ugly" than any other dwarf. And then to Tauriel and Thranduil commenting on how the king wouldn't let his son marry a commoner. (Now, if Tauriel were really independent, I think she might say something like, "who said anything about marriage..." but that's an aside.)

Basically, that whole section just sucks.

(I find it hard to express just how annoyed I am at Tauriel. See, there actually are other female characters in these films - the elf maids in Rivendell, the women in Laketown, and there was opportunity to include some in Bree or in the Shire. But to qualify for a voice, it seems, she has to be 'strong'. Effectively, she has to just be one of the lads. Except that she has to also look like Evangeline Lilly and do double duty as the love interest for a Man. Now, I'm not 100% sure of my definitions, but I think that while that might look a bit like feminism, I don't think it actually qualifies.)

(Oh, and it's important to note: absolutely none of this is Evengeline Lilly's fault. Actually, the whole cast does a very good job with the material that they are given. It's just that that material is... lacking.)

Then we have Bilbo once again rescuing the dwarves, followed by the barrel ride. This is one of the iconic scenes in the book, and something it's pretty hard to get wrong - it's just some dwarves, some barrels, and some very dangerous waters. How could that go wrong?


Apparently, George Lucas' directing technique was to say that everything should be "faster, more intense". It would appear that Peter Jackson has been taking lessons from this school.

Rather than just sticking with the book, Jackson decided that what we really need is the introduction an orc attack, then a rather confusing intervention by Legolas! and the elves (whose motivations are far from clear... weren't they supposed to be recapturing the dwarves? Why then help them escape?). Add in some really ill-considered humour, involving Bombur as bolwing ball, or dwarves as literal stepping stones to greatness for Legolas!, and then run the whole thing for way too long. Awesome!

And so, it's on to Laketown, for a much-needed holiday in something vaguely resembling the book.

Meanwhile, Gandalf is investigating signs of an ancient evil returned. Behold, for he has found nine empty tombs that once housed ancient evils. Behold, he has found a powerful concealment magic over Dol Guldur. Behold, he knows "it's most certainly a trap".

So, what does Gandalf, the ancient and wise wizard do, when faced with a trap, when faced with powerful magic, when not knowing what might await him, but when he does know it probably include the Witch King of Angmar (who he cannot defeat), and suspects it might include Sauron himself?

Why, he sends away his only ally, and then walks into the trap.


There are certain Hollywood-isms that you just get used to. One is the "villain gets captured in order to cunningly escape" as seen in "Skyfall", "The Avengers", "The Dark Knight", and others. Another is the "it's a trap! Next step? Spring the trap!"

Yeah, it's lovely. I do actually like to see such things... if done well.

But there's a huge problem here: it isn't done well. Tell me: what does Gandalf hope to achieve in Dol Guldur? What could possibly entice him to go in there and risk his life, rather than just posting a good watch, assembling a great and mighty host, and laying waste to the enemy. I mean, I know that's a crazy thought, but I didn't think he was a complete idiot. Maybe Saruman is right - perhaps his love of the halfling leaf truly has addled his wits.

Anyway, Gandalf goes in, and we have what is actually a really well done scene as he faces some orcs, and then the necromancer, and then realises who he truly is (hint: Gandalf was right all along), and then he gets himself captured.

And here's the next problem: why exactly did he get captured? Shouldn't he just be killed outright? Or has Scott Evil taught us nothing?

Right, back to Laketown. We get a whole bunch of padding here, but eventually some of the dwarves are off to the Lonely Mountain. Cool. They get there, they get in (thanks to Bilbo), and all seems well with the world.

So, Bilbo goes into Erebor in search of the Arkenstone, and accidentally wakes the dragon, and then they trade barbs for a bit, and then Bilbo runs for it.

And all this is fantastic. Really, really well done.

And then here come the dwarves to ruin it.

See, in the book the dwarves stay outside the place while Bilbo goes in, and then when the dragon is woken they take refuge inside, and since the dragon can't get them he goes off to destroy Laketown.

The reason the dwarves do this? Because Smaug is a bloody great dragon! He's absolutely, unbearably terrifying. If they go in, and they get detected, they die. It is, really, that simple - the last time they faced Smaug, he took down their kingdom, effortlessly.

Here, the dwarves go in, and we get about 40 minutes of them running around in Erebor, hiding from the dragon, and generally trying desperately not to die.

Well, that's just as good, isn't it? After all, the dwarves cowering in utter terror isn't very cinematic, but dwarves running for their lives is essentially the same thing, so why not have that?

The answer is much as above, though: that's fine, as long as it's done well. What happens instead is that the dragon has plenty of opportunities to kill some or all of the dwarves, but fails to take them... and does so for no good reason. Effectively, what we have is a Great Wyrm Red Dragon (CR 26), a bunch of low-level PCs (that is, no more than 5th level or so), and a DM who absolutely, steadfastly, refuses to kill a PC. And so he'll fudge every dice roll to achieve this, and when that still isn't enough he'll have his super-genius monster suddenly turn stupid.

Finally, the dwarves turn the tables on the dragon. They think they have it beaten... but no. And so Smaug... flies off the Laketown. The end.

No, really. This film doesn't so much have an ending as it... just stops. Which wasn't unexpected, but it does suck mightily. (And, it's an inherent flaw of splitting one book into more than one film. Beginning - middle - end doesn't really lend itself to beginning - middle - end - beginning - middle - end. Not that I'd expect professional storytellers to understand that... no, wait...)

So, this really is the "Attack of the Clones" of the series. It has some spectacular visuals. It has some good bits, even some really good bits. And the music is excellent. But, as a whole, it was terribly, crushingly disappointing. And, unlike every other one of Jackson's "Middle Earth" films, I can't imagine going to see this again in the cinema, nor indeed buying the 'regular' blu-ray when it comes out. I will probably get the extended edition... but mostly for completeness of the appendices than for any great desire to see the film itself again.

My final impression was pretty strong: wouldn't it be great if someone were to make a film of "The Hobbit"? Because this certainly wasn't it.

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