Friday, 10 January 2014

The Desecration Of Smaug?

Freeman considers the BBC's opening offer RE
staying on for Sherlock season 4.
It's not just a decent film; Desolation of Smaug is an interesting test case.

Fliss and I waited until after Christmas to see the second installment of The Hobbit Trilogy: More Money Please, partially because we prefer to see films in uncrowded cinemas, and partially because our time before the annual pilgrimage to our respective homesteads is precious to us, and we didn't want to spend three hours of it looking at Martin Freeman pretending to be nervous.

Therefore, by the time I handed over my precious coinage for the right to spend three hours in an uncomfortable chair and uncomfortable glasses, I'd had plenty of chance to absorb what others had said about the film.  To call reviews mixed doesn't really do it justice. "Mixed" is usually just a euphamism for "mediocre mean, small variance". Reviews for DoS were all over the place, with the interquartile range starting at "rollicking action-adventure" and ending at "pissing on Tolkien's grave".

What was really interesting here, though, was the high correlation between arguing the film sucked orc-balls (which, of course, were once elf-scrote before being ruined by Morgoth, possibly using a vise) and insisting the the film is hobbled by all the material that bears no resemblence to anything in the original book.

Each to their own, of course. Every fan of every book ever made into a film has their own lists of scenes that should never be cut or changed, and how much new material can be rammed into place before the whole endeavour becomes unrecognisable.  I'm not going to make the mistake of slamming people who, on this occasion, have a greater desire to see faithfulness to the original than I do.  My time will come (in about two months, in fact, when Game of Thrones starts up again). All that said, though, the idea that this film is worse than An Unexpected Journey because it's bolstered by new material, as oppose to irrelevant fluff from the Silmarillion/Lost Tales, is a hard idea for me to get my head around.

An Unexpected Journey was a classic case of a film that needed a better editor. There's a rather nice 110 minute adventure story in there, blown up to an utterly inexcusable 169 minutes.  Everyone who complains adapting The Hobbit shouldn't take three films is absolutely right, of course, but the problem here isn't so much the decision to try another trilogy as it is to try another nine hour trilogy.  Jackson found himself groping for extra material almost immediately, and it shows, as he rifles through the entirety of Tolkien's back catalogue so he can find one more obscure reference to throw in [1].  As a result, ...Journey feels meandering and fractured and horribly, horribly long.

(Spoilers below the fold)

Desolation..., in contrast, justifies its running time far better, for the simple reason that it chucks a whole lot of new material into the mix and, more importantly, does it well.  Tauriel is a problematic character, but her problems are basically improved iterations of those suffered by Arwen and Eowyn in Jackson's previous trilogy.  Like Arwen and Eowyn, Tauriel is ostensibly a woman of action who is ultimately defined by her relationship to a more important male character, but at least here the ratio is headed the right way, with Evangeline Lilly getting to spend much more time slapping around Dol Goldur mooks than she does making kitten-eyes at Aidan Turner.  There's even a scene in which two female character both get lines!  Of course, they don't get to speak to each other, but at least we're approaching a Bechdel success - and it only took fourteen-odd hours of cinema to do it!

(For the record, I should note that as I get older I find I have less and less time for the argument that says members of two different fictional races falling in love is somehow ridiculous. Mainly this is because any attitude towards, say, a Dwarf/Elf pairing is made up of two elements; stuff we infer from a writer's vision of a fictional universe, and baggage we're bringing with us from our own world.  The former is almost always difficult to get a handle on, because all we can work from is inferences and scraps of data, and the latter tends to involve a degree of ugliness we would never - or should never - accept were it to be used in reference to actual people. Stating an Elf could never love a Dwarf is to subscribe to a holistic view of peoples we should resist with all our being.

That said, it is ridiculous to think an Elf would fall for a Dwarf in the space of three fucking minutes.)

Really, the only addition to the film that feels obviously done for the sake of padding is the arrival of the Master of Lake-town and his sneering servant Alfid, who apparently exist entirely to force delays in the process of getting to the Lonely Mountain, and - presumably, next film - the defeat of Smaug   [2]. Even here, though, we get a neat inversion, as the antagonistic politicians immediately take the side of our heroes, and the formerly friendly Bard tries in vain to stop the trek into Smaug's domain.

It's in this inversion that the theme of the film is revealed: hubris.  Gandalf ends the movie in a gibbet because he was certain he could survive a trap he knew was there.  Lake-town is about to get burned because its leaders were sure they had interpreted a prophecy correctly.  Bilbo relied on his magic ring without even stopping to think that a dragon might hunt through means other than sight. Thranduil spends pretty much every second in the movie radiating the belief that he's better than everyone else, and can outlast whatever stupid choices they make to do things any way other than his, and he ends the movie with his son missing and Orcs massacring his border guards, having already failed to do the sensible thing and summon outside help to deal with the giant spiders and the darkness at Dol Guldur.

These acts of hubris build upon each other and get ever more serious.  As does the precipitation.  It is of course a horrible movie cliche for the weather to take a turn for the worse at the same time as the fortunes of our heroes, but Desolation... buys into this so completely that we arrive somewhere new.  The rain outside Mirkwood becomes snow in the stinking canals of Laketown (by far the most realistic and evokative set these two films have managed) which are portentous enough, but by the film's conclusion we have first a rain of gold coins betraying a dragon on the move, and finally a rain of molten gold presaging the immolation of an entire town.  This is almost as nice a touch as the treasure-obsessed Dwarves trying to desperately improvise a method for defeating Smaug and choosing to literally throw money at the problem. Which is an act of hubris in itself, of course.  Thorin's entire arc to date has been about how furious he is that being a king hasn't done him as much good as it's supposed to.  Of course his first act upon finding his family's ancient treasure is to try using it to kill his enemies.

(Yes, it was probably stupid to expect a dragon couldn't survive being hit by liquid melted by flames it itself had produced, but I'm inclined to give the dwarves a break.  It's not like they had a huge abundance of options at that point.)

It's not a flawless film, of course. Thirteen Dwarves is still too many for the viewer to get a handle on. The CGI feels less intrusive this time, but it's still both bull and shit that Conan Stevens - having left the role of Gregor Clegane resulting in it being disastrously miscast - has been replaced here by a mediocre-at-best computer model for Bolg. The ridiculously hyperbolic action of the barrel slalom might be reminiscent of Jackson's earlier, more gonzo films, but it also fits in poorly with the general tone of the film (and where did that extra barrel appear from, anyway). The effort put into making Legolas look the same age as he did in the previous films is utterly wasted, in part because the effect looks terrible, but mainly because Bloom isn't playing the part even remotely similar.  I think he's going for impetuous, but what he's hit is a poor impersonation of Jason Momoa's Khal Drogo.  Legolas plus Drogo would be an awesome face-off, but it makes for a lousy performance.

But we're heading the right way.  Given the terrible disappointment of the Two Towers (now there was a film in which almost all the new stuff stunk; except the bits they nicked from Ralph Bakshi)following the excellent Fellowship of the Ring, it's pleasing to see such marked improvement in the middle installment.  Indeed, there are strong arguments to be made that Desolation... will end up second only to Fellowship... in the quality stakes.

Unless There And Back Again beats the crap out of it, of course.  We'll have to wait for next Durin's Day before we can be sure.

[1] I wonder, incidentally, just how many people they can be in the world who would simultaneously thrill to hear such esoteric nods to Tolkien's work and be thrilled by the hatchet Jackson has taken to the overall story. In other words, Jackson has put together two films guaranteed to please almost nobody.

[2] This really isn't helped by Fry's performance, in truth. The man is quite clearly very talented, and all, but as a comic and an entertainer rather than an actor. I haven't seen him in anything since Peter's Friends where he wasn't just playing himself putting on a show. Ryan Gage, on the other hand, is excellent as Alfrid.  His shit-eating grin when his Master declares a celebration is utter perfection.

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