January 10, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: A Review. / Or: The Hobbit: We've Been Here Before.

Hey everyone, Luke here with a longread concerning Peter Jackson's newest movie, The Hobbit.

Background: The Similarities 
In 1955, C.S. Lewis released a book named The Magician's Nephew, a prequel to his wildly popular The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Written, at first, due to a friend inquiring as to how some of the foreign elements in TLTWTW found their way into this magical world. It took him five years to complete it, all the while working on the other entries in his series, and it's said it was the hardest book for him to complete. I hate this book.

From 1999 to 2005, George Lucas released three prequels to his wildly popular Star Wars series. I don't really need to go into any detail on the release and reaction of these movies. I think it almost goes without saying that I hate these movies.

The core of my hatred of these stories is roughly the same. Instead of standing on their own two feet, the entire purpose of them is to point at the successful entries in the series and remind you of how good they were. The stories are weak, ridiculous, and annoying. It is as though they only exist to answer questions that are honestly better left unanswered.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first person through the wardrobe, Lucy, is introduced to the magical nature of Narnia when she finds a lamp-post, bright as day, flickering in the heart of an otherwise uncivilized wood. In The Magician's Nephew, Jadis, The White Witch, main antagonist for both books, breaks a rod off a lamp-post while in England, which ends up dropping to the ground once she arrives at the newly minted Narnia. The fresh magic of Narnia treats the rod as though it were an acorn, and up sprouts a lamp-post-tree-thing. And there you have it, lamp-post in the forest.

The Star Wars example is less complex. In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the big reveal is that Darth Vader is, in fact, Luke Skywalker's father. But if you were to watch the prequels first, specifically Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, you'd already know that, so when the reveal comes two episodes later, the effect is lost.

These bits of information, and all the other things "revealed" in the prequels would not be so terrible if the stories were meant to be enjoyed in the order in which they were released.  But with re-releases of the Narnia series putting The Magician's Nephew first, and Episode I being where human nature tells us to start, these "revealing" moments in the prequels ruining the later stories for future audiences is unavoidable.

Because of this, these prequels not only ruin the magic of the existing works, but how they fail to do anything other than needlessly fill in answers to questions no one really needed answered.

This is how I feel about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And the saddest thing of all is that this was completely avoidable.

The Review: An All Too Expected Journey
In 1997, the unlikely director that was Peter Jackson won the rights to film The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed, with no expectations and little public knowledge of the project, he went to work crafting what had the potential to be the biggest movie event in the history of movies.  As much as I like The Frighteners, at this point Jackson hadn't really done much to warrant public interest.  With modern film making techniques already tried and true, he was working within a medium that had long before abandoned its gimmicky reputation (I know, I know, it seems weird referencing the fact that when "movies" came out like 100 years ago people thought they were silly, but this comes into play later in the review).

Circumstance would have it that when the first movie was released, just a few short months after the greatest tragedy in recent American history, America was ready for something deep and real and adventurous and triumphant, something with an unknowable, faceless evil and a plucky few standing up to face it.  Now, I like to think the Harry Potter series also banked off this, but there was never a better time for a series like The Lord of the Rings to start.

And then 10 years passed.  Jackson put out a few movies, none of which particularly good, and, as fate would have it, the director's chair for the prequel to his wildly popular series was again open (seriously, if you don't know about the hell this movie went through to make it to the screen, just glance at the wiki page dedicated purely to its development).  Against what seemed to be his own better judgement, as he previously went on record claiming he didn't want to be the one do it because he wouldn't want it to have to be held up to his original trilogy, he took back his throne at the helm of another journey to Middle Earth.

Of the many things wrong with this movie, all the jokes falling flat, the needlessly gimmicky utilization of 3D technology, and the piss poor pacing, the thing ruffling my feathers most is how the final product feels not only inadequate, but purposeless. They took a stand alone story, which was by all rights the inspiration for the biggest story written in modern English, and made a referential, derivative, unintentional parody.

Throughout the movie, there are winks and nudges abound, as though the audience keeps forgetting that this whole thing leads up to LOTR.  It was degrading being pandered to instead of being told a story.  I found myself checking my watch 30 minutes in, then again 20 minutes later, noting that I'd just witnessed the longest dinner party scene filmed in the last 10 years since the "opening" of Melancholia, which clocked in at around 40 minutes.  And that was a movie about melancholia, not an Adventure movie.

Almost as bad as simply being a painfully obvious stretched out appetizer course for LOTR, there wasn't even an ounce of tension for any amount of time.  Nothing ever felt like it was on the line. Admittedly, this may have been because I know that at least Gandalf and Bilbo make it out, and I vaguely remember from the book that there not being any dwarf deaths, but it was most likely the dispassionate or otherwise unbelievable performances from every character before, during, and after the blatantly masturbatory battle scenes.

Additionally, it was downright tragic to see Martin Freeman aka Bilbo Baggins aka John Watson directed so poorly that he constantly looked befuddled and confused as to why he was even there.  It was as though, between takes, he asked whether or not what he was doing was working, and Peter Jackson just said "yeah whatever."  That man can act.  If you need any convincing of that, watch even 10 minutes of any episode of the BBC Sherlock series.  Actually, just watch that because it's rad.

As for the visuals, while technically stunning, I just don't feel like directors and cinematographers know what to do with 3D technology, so they just have things shoot out at the screen, as though we need to be reminded that we're watching a 3D movie.  It ought to be used as a way to give depth, not as a stupid supplement for an amusement park ride. I think people will look back at these new early days of reinvented 3D movies and ask themselves why so many movie have things "Comin' At Ya!"  When there aren't thing flying toward you, removing tension and the viewer from the movie itself, I do have to say it did look good.  I couldn't compare it to movies not shown in 48fps, because I just don't have a memory that works that way, but I can say it did at least look pretty.

In The End: The Desolation of Gimmicks
So what happened?  Where did they go wrong?  We'll never really know, but it couldn't have helped that the cast and crew were cycling in and out over a period of too many years, that Peter Jackson had an immense amount of pressure because of his stunning previous Middle Earth films, and that they were working with not one but two gimmicky filming techniques which are neither tried nor true.  Now, I'm not saying Jackson should be faulted for attempting something new.  I like innovation as much as the next person.  It's just that this film highlights what it's like when a new technique is introduced.  It's risky.  I like risky movies.  I do not like pointless movies.

Did it need to be three films?  Absolutely not.  I haven't seen the others yet, but if this is any example, I don't feel like I need to in order to make that call.  Every scene is stretched to the very limit of endurability before transitioning.  Jackson himself said the reason the series was going to be three films instead of two is simply that they had filmed so much material that, hey, why not?

It sounds like what happened here was the same thing that happened with the Star Wars prequels.  George Lucas, when he made the first Star Wars movies wasn't really a nobody, having American Graffiti under his belt, but he still didn't have an aaaaawful lot of clout, much like pre-LOTR Jackson.  They both needed producers and editors and studio heads and other reasonable people around them to get them to focus on what mattered, and, through collaboration, brilliant movies were made.  When Lucas went and made the SW-prequels, he was given free reign.  And we all know what happened there.  I fear that's what has happened here with the Hobbit movies.  It's as discouraging as the only other option I see, which is simply that, instead of green lighting a movie or a series of movies that really worked, they just went ahead with it for the money.

All that said, I think if you're interested in it at all, you should see it.  But maybe wait until you can watch it at home with all of your friends, much like how a viewing of The Expendables II would go.  It's just such a disappointment that you'll need the the intoxicating effects of companionship to trudge along in this anything but Unexpected Journey.

---Luke Hunter James-Erickson

Afterthought: Back Here Again
I think there should be one and only one rule to follow when it comes to movie adaptations:  Make a good movie.  All the rest is superfluous.  Sub-rule: Ignore the fans.  There will always been a percentage of fans who will see your movie regardless of anything, simply because they're fans.  Conversely, there will always be fans who will not see your movie for anything, because they think you'll mess it up.

The thing is, the people you want to come and see the movie aren't fans, they're the every day folk, who want to see a good movie. You want them because they outnumber the fans by a margin of eleventy billion (approx.). They don't care if you "got it right." They just care if it rocks. So make it rock, Hollywood, Make It Rock.

I also feel compelled to mention how JRR Tolkien fits into all of this, more so than by providing the base material.

When JRR Tolkein wrote and published the original The Hobbit, there were a variety of differences. After releasing the original Lord of the Rings books, Tolkien wanted to revise The Hobbit so certain things made more sense. His publishers nixed the idea, but then later he found they'd went ahead and published his changes in the new editions. This spurred him into crafting a full on overhaul, much like what Lucas did with the original Star Wars trilogy. There's a great run down of that story over at Badass Digest, which I heavily recommend reading (Read More Here).

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