There and Back Again, Day 4 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
How does Peter Jackson's prequel fare next to The Lord of the Rings? RT's editors weigh in with their responses in the final instalment of our watching series..
So, did everyone see The Hobbit at the weekend? Our editors caught a screening of Peter Jackson's hugely-anticipated return to Middle-earth last week -- in the director's preferred 3D, 48-frames-per-second digital format -- and now, without further ado, weigh in with their reactions to the movie. What did you think?
Luke: Thinking about the much-debated visual style of this movie, I can't keep from hearing the immortal post-guitar-freakout words of one Marty McFly: "I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet... but your kids are gonna love it." Yeah, I had very conflicted feelings toward The Hobbit. Like those '50s squares puzzled by McFly's discordant futurism, I simply could not grapple with the look of this. Let me rephrase that: I think it looked horrifying. We all went to a screening in 3D 48fps, so I was prepared for some ocular recalibration, but nothing could ready me for just how jarring this looked. The Hobbit's clarity is astonishing. Too much so, in fact. While many of Weta's effects sequences looked outstanding, I felt like I was right there on set with the actors, which might be the kind of detail Peter Jackson was aiming for but, for me, just rendered everything too empty and everyday. I kept looking for boom mics or waiting for a make-up artist to roll up and touch up Gandalf. Call me a cinephile snob, but if I want high detail I'll take 70mm. The other issue visually was the weird jerkiness of the high frame rate. Admittedly, my eyes may not have evolved -- and, like the races of men in Middle-earth, my kind may soon be extinct -- but I had trouble dealing with the staccato movements of the actors. In even the most mundane situations, like Bilbo and Gandalf taking tea, motion looked strange, as though someone had left the "2x fast forward" speed button on the Blu-ray player. It was kinda embarrassing to watch. I'm not sure human vision is equipped for this. Yet.
Tim: I love the following things, in no particular order: cinema, video games, and BBC series. However, The Hobbit taught me an important lesson: I don't like it when my movies look alternately like video games and/or BBC series. There were moments in the film where I wasn't sure whether I was watching the making-of featurette or a cut scene (for a millisecond after Gandalf showed up to rescue the dwarves from the Great Goblin, my brain instinctively steeled itself for an intense boss battle). I really don't want to sound like the guy who walked out of The Jazz Singer and griped, "This talking picture business will kill the cinema!" (Presumably, such a sentiment would be pronounced in an old-timey mid-Atlantic accent.) But while 48fps may be the future of movies, it really doesn't feel like the present of movies.
That said, I still found The Hobbit to be a pretty involving yarn; story-wise, it's a cut below the original trilogy, but I didn't think it was the draggy mess that some people did. The set pieces are thrilling and vivid as always; I particularly liked the campfire scene with the oafish trolls, and the escape from the underground goblin lair is propulsive and tense. Plus, Gollum remains a marvel CGI technology -- name another digital creation that inspires as much revulsion and pathos. Overall, I thought The Hobbit was solid, but again, a word of advice: if you're planning on seeing it and you have all the time in the world, I recommend watching it in 24fps, and then going back to see it in 48fps to compare and contrast.
Ryan: I will agree that the visual style was too aggressive for my taste. I suspect that Jackson's aim was to draw the audience further into the picture, to make the experience more immersive, but it had the exact opposite effect on me. I don't like being reminded that I'm watching a movie, but it was hard not to feel that way when I found myself thinking, "Whoa, that looked bizarre" at regular intervals throughout the film. That said, I still don't think I hated it as much as you two did; every once in a while, just for kicks, I'll watch a movie at home with that motion-smoothing effect turned on, so I was somewhat prepared for it here, even if the final product did sort of look like an extended video game cut scene.
What's interesting for me is that, on paper, the film had a lot of narrative problems, but I still rather enjoyed it despite these problems, and despite the visual distractions. The whole movie is essentially one long chase sequence, with short breaks for some necessary exposition here and there, and chase movies tend to bore me. Bilbo and friends would escape narrowly from one life-threatening catastrophe only to find themselves in some other gargantuan peril, over and over and over again. What's more, each time it seemed they were helplessly screwed, Gandalf would appear and save the day. Whether threatened by mountain trolls, orcs in hot pursuit, or underground goblins, never fear, for Gandalf will appear. And you know, he did this a couple times in the LotR series, as well -- I'm starting to think Gandalf is just a stand-in for God, and he simply lets everyone get into trouble so they can learn valuable lessons from the experience. I don't know how much of this was in the book (I'm speaking from a novice's perspective again), but these are all things that would have bugged the hell out of me in any other movie. The bottom line is, though The Hobbit doesn't quite capture the same sense of majesty and epic wonder as the LotR did, it was still an entertaining little romp that somehow convinced me to put aside my storytelling pet peeves and go with the flow.
Luke: Right. Well in terms of the story, my major concern going into this, really, was the potential for bloating Tolkien's perfect little adventure yarn -- and, at least on this count, I was somewhat relieved. The Hobbit's epic dwarves-and-dragon prologue felt unnecessary (as did the Frodo and older Bilbo framing device), but I get why they're there: when you've fed audiences The Lord of the Rings, they're gonna demand something equal in scope. It's wrong for The Hobbit (I still wish it was a Guillermo-helmed single film) but it doesn't do fatal disservice. Despite these and other diversions (the portents of Sauron, etc.), I found that once the movie settled into the groove of the actual story it was pretty faithful -- and at times, really entertaining. Martin Freeman was a sound Bilbo Baggins, Andy Serkis was as good as he ever was, and the storytelling -- at least in the back stretch -- was well done. By the time the eagles arrive amid the final skirmish with the white Orc, I felt like I was at last deep in the real Hobbit again -- and actually couldn't wait for them to get on with the rest of it. But it still feels like a long way to The Lonely Mountain. And yeah, we gotta get there in high definition digital. But my corneal transplant should come through by this time 2013.