Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Reviews: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


               Last year I was cautiously pleased with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was flawed and overblown, but it at least managed enough moments of imaginative power and transcendence to make it a worthwhile experience.
                Now, for the first time, I’m sorry to say that I am disappointed with one of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies. The Desolation of Smaug takes everything that was wrong with An Unexpected Journey and amplifies it, while minimizing its qualities. The blatant non-necessity of dragging the story out to a trilogy of three-hour films, already clear in the first film, is here painfully emphasized. Time and again sequences go on and on and on AND ON to no purpose except to drag out the running time, and as often as not the outcome makes the previous ten or twenty minutes completely pointless.
                Take the sequence of the dwarves sneaking into Lake Town. They go through about (no kidding) three or four gambits; first being shipped in barrels of fish by Bard, then passing through customs (seriously), then having to sneak into Bard’s house via the toilet, then trying to sneak out, and then getting caught…and welcomed by the Master of the town. They literally could have just walked in and saved us almost a half-hour of meandering, pointless ‘suspense,’ which isn’t at all suspenseful because we know that they’ll end up at the Mountain sooner or later.
                Whole sequences and plot lines have no point at all. Why does Gandalf go to search for the graves of the Nazgul? No reason. Why does he confront Sauron on his own? No reason. Why are Legolas and newcomer Tauriel in this movie at all? NO BLOODY REASON!
                Can I say something that’s bound to be controversial? I am sick, sick, SICK of every female character in every foxtrot fantasy story being a badass warrior lady. Female soldiers, in case you were unaware, are an almost entirely modern phenomenon. A preindustrial society, like Middle-Earth, wouldn’t have them, and especially Middle-Earth wouldn’t have them. It’s one thing for a rare woman, like Eowyn, to take up arms, or for an ancient being of magic, like Galadriel, to engage in battle. It’s quite another thing for the Elves to have female soldiers as a matter of course. The latter indicates a cultural context that is jarringly unsuited to Tolkien’s world.  
                Moreover, this whole thing is emblematic of a really rather nasty attitude; one that says that women, in order to be ‘strong,’ must act exactly like men; be soldiers and statesmen or “tough girls” and all the rest. The idea that women can have their own unique kind of strength and dignity, that the battlefield is not the only place one can show courage and honor, that women going to battle is at best unusual, at worst a shame on the men who failed to protect them from the horrors of war, or that the sexes each contribute something unique to the human race and aren’t simply interchangeable is regarded as somehow ‘oppressive’ or ‘backwards.’ Tolkien, obviously, subscribed to this latter view, as his female characters demonstrate (even Galadriel, one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth, is less an active warrior and more a pillar of strength that her opponents break themselves against).
                If they really needed Tauriel, they could have kept her in a more ‘Tolkienesque’ fashion. She might have been an elf who stood up for the dwarves’ rights, who tended their injuries, or who perhaps even became a confidant of Bilbo. Making her a cliché ‘warrior-elf-babe’ just feels lazy and distinctly un-Tolkien (and no, they don’t get props for ‘feminism;’ there’s nothing laudable about doing what virtually every other movie, book, TV show, and video-game for the past twenty years or so has already done a hundred times: “What oft was thought, and frequently better expressed”).
But really, they didn’t need to have her. She’s obviously just there because they thought they needed a female character. They didn’t. This isn’t kindergarten, where everyone has to participate, it’s a story. Some stories need female characters, some don’t. The Hobbit doesn’t. There isn’t a single female character in the book, and I’ve never heard of anyone – male or female – who finds this to be a flaw.
On a similar note, here’s another annoying point; they have the master of Lake Town complain about the fact that the people want ‘an election.’ That’s flatly the opposite of the book, where the master was an elected official who was contrasted unfavorably with Bard, who revived the monarchy. It’s not a big deal, but it’s annoying (as is the stereotypical ‘bad conservative’ nonsense they have him spew), especially when compared with Tolkien’s own romantically monarchical views and skepticism of modern governments (which was, of course, part of the reason the Master exists in the first place).
Basically, with Tauriel and the revised Lake Town situation we have something that was largely avoided in the earlier films: a quiet, snobbish contempt for Tolkien’s worldview. This is something much more serious and unpleasant than any simple miscalculation would have been, and on its own would have been enough to drag the film down a point.
Even Beorn is shoehorned into a kind of ‘oppressed minority’ role, here made into the last survivor of a race of skin-changers who were driven to extinction by the orcs (who nevertheless retain their intense fear of him from the book. Huh?). Beorn in general is a disappointment; he has none of the joviality or gruffness that he had in the book. Actually, he has pretty much no personality at all; he just kind of wanders around his inexplicably-too-small house (I mean, he built the damn thing; why does he have to duck to cross the room?). It’s not just that he’s different (or that he’s only in the movie for maybe five minutes), it’s that he’s boring. The book’s Beorn would eat this guy (he also would have done the same to the dwarves and Bilbo if they had snuck into his house while he was out; this guy doesn’t even bring it up).
Martin Freeman remains the ideal Bilbo, but he hardly gets to show any of it here. In fact, Bilbo is barely in the movie at all. He only really takes center stage three or four times; with the spiders (which, being one of the few scenes that actually works, is cut short by the arrival of the elves), the initial barrel escape (not the long, long action sequence that follows), at the hidden door, and the conversation with Smaug. The rest of the movie is dominated by Thorin, Legolas, and (for some reason) Kili, who’s been shoehorned into a tepid and wholly unnecessary romance with Tauriel. With all its flaws, the first film at least kept Bilbo in focus. This one seems to forget he’s even there half the time.
Worse, there is no sense of Bilbo’s growing stature among the dwarves; they never even thank him for saving them from the spiders (probably because the elves do most of the work) or getting them out of prison, let alone pledging him their service.  Bilbo’s cutting rebukes are all gone, including the vital moment where he tells Thorin off for simply expecting him to go into the Mountain as a matter of course (here he seems barely aware of what he’s supposed to do up until the last minute). Bilbo never once stands up for himself or puts Thorin in his place, and their friendship, which the first movie nicely foreshadowed, is almost entirely theoretical. Far from being “the real leader of the company,” Bilbo is almost irrelevant until the end (the dwarves don’t even go along with the barrel plan until Thorin orders them to), and even then his contribution is diminished by having Thorin and the other dwarves also confront Smaug (and by the fact that the dragon's one weak spot is apparently common knowledge in Lake Town! "Hey, here's our hero's main contribution to the climactic battle." "Eh, we can lose that"). This movie could just as easily have been renamed “the Dwarf” or even “the Legolas.”
Speaking of which, Legolas himself is not really a bad contribution. Or rather, he wouldn’t have been if he had been in the movie less. He at least gets an amusing moment early on foreshadowing his friendship with Gimli, and on the whole he goes down easier than some other additions (*cough*Tauriel*cough*). If they had just left him in Mirkwood after the dwarves left, I really wouldn’t have much to complain about. But no; he has to follow them to Lake Town and have another arrow-flying fight with the orcs (who also followed them to Lake Town for some reason. Don’t they have a battle they ought to be preparing for? Why this obsessive need to kill the dwarves now instead in about a week when they’ll have their whole army assembled?)
Thranduil, who is in the book and has a definite character, is another disappointment. He’s not the proud, yet kindly figure he’s supposed to be, but a greedy, narrow-minded aristocrat with very loose morals. My brother described him as a sort of Elven mob-boss, and that really is the vibe he gives off. By the way, can someone please inform Peter Jackson that good-guys do not cold-bloodedly murder their enemies? First we had Aragorn beheading the Mouth of Sauron in the middle of their parley, here Thranduil does the same to an orc after promising to set him free if he cooperated. I get the feeling that Jackson would have had Bilbo kill Gollum if it had been up to him.
Thorin and the other dwarves have pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses they had last time, except that Thorin evinces corrupting greed too early and too violently here, and is pretty much unremittingly grim and self-important throughout, with none of the courtesy or capacity for kindness that he had in the book. It gets so bad that Balin has to call him out for his callousness. Besides compromising Thorin’s character, this threatens to undermine the emotional power of the next film; if Thorin is already such a jerk, where’s the shock when his greed corrupts him?
Fortunately, one key element in particular is done very well; Smaug himself. Enormous, awe-inspiring, and voiced to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is as ideally ‘cast’ (so to speak) as Bilbo. My one complain about his design is that he is yet another dragon employing the ‘bat-style-wing-walk’ design; a conceit that was interesting when it was first used in Reign of Fire, but which has grown more and more tiresome every time I see it (though even that is better realized here than it’s ever been before). Smaug is a marvel of imaginative power and special effects, to the point that when I re-read the book after seeing the movie, I found I was picturing him, just as I picture Martin Freeman as Bilbo. He’s easily one of the best dragons ever committed to screen. Even better, when he speaks it doesn’t look at all odd or silly; it seems completely natural that such a glorious creature should boast an equally great intellect…and cruelty. The one good thing that comes of the extended climax (more on that below) is a chance for Bilbo to beg Smaug to spare Lake Town, to which the dragon responds in a deliciously wicked manner.
If only they had left it there!        
Here we get to spoilers, I suppose. After the conversation with Smaug, I was all ready for the attack on Lake Town and the showdown with Bard. But it didn’t come. Instead, Smaug spent about twenty minutes chasing the dwarves all around the mountain, while they prepared to defeat him with a gambit that…
Put it this way; last year I said that at least nothing in Unexpected Journey was as silly and stupid as King Kong’s sauropod stampede. What happens here is worse. The sauropod stampede at least had a point to it, even if only to help establish the dangers of the island and kill off a few extraneous characters. What happens here has no point whatsoever to distract us from the sheer overthetop idiocy. Jackson has achieved his magnum opus of excess, and it is not pretty. Hell, the fridge-nuking scene from Crystal Skull was better than this!  
To add injury to insult, this overlong sequence diminishes Smaug unforgivably. If he can’t off even one dwarf in all this chasing and fire-breathing, then what good is he?
This, incidentally, has been an increasingly serious problem with the Middle-Earth films; non-important characters die off so easily, while important characters waltz through the most insane dangers without incident that it begins to kill the disbelief. Tolkien, by contrast, had faceless background characters fight skillfully and successfully and leads occasionally make mistakes or falter for weariness. There was, in Tolkien, a sense of parity between the heroes and the other characters that is distinctly lacking in Jackson’s version. And never has this been made more apparent than in the climax of Desolation of Smaug.
In the book, the dwarves were quite aware that they were no match for Smaug, and that if he ever even knew where they were or got a clear line of sight on them, they were dead where they stood. The one time the dwarves themselves actually see the dragon in the book is when they’re running for their lives back into the secret door, and they only survive because he doesn’t notice them.
Here, with Smaug chasing them around for long minutes and narrowly missing them at every turn, it makes you wonder how the heck he managed to conquer the mountain in the first place. I don’t mind their giving him more screen-time, or even an extra action sequence chasing the dwarves, but they needed to make it clear that he was the dominant force and that the dwarves were merely trying to survive. At one point, Thorin ends up standing right on Smaug’s nose, and the dragon just kind of sits there before slllllooooowlly opening his jaws and slllooooowlly preparing to breathe fire. If a dragon can’t even kill a dwarf from that position, he should think about retirement.
Whenever Bilbo or Smaug are allowed to take center stage, the movie works. If the whole movie were just a long confrontation between the hobbit and the dragon, it would have been quite fantastic. Unfortunately, that is emphatically not the case.
On the positive side, the sequence with the spiders, though frustratingly short, is also pretty excellent, especially the rather brilliant justification they came up with for why the spiders can speak. The spiders themselves are as gruesome and nasty as we could wish, and their thin little voices are perfect. There’s also a well-conceived bit where Bilbo ends up fighting a spider over the Ring, only to pause in shock at the violence of his own reaction.
The action, over the top as it is, is at least diverting and occasionally achieves a kind of mad brilliance which, if not really suited to the material, at least is entertaining in itself. I especially like the way that Bombur, the unfortunately fat dwarf of the party, becomes a light-footed badass whenever he has to fight.
I also like that they establish Bard and give him a relationship with the dwarves early on. Depicting him as a widower with three children is also a nice touch. Making him a smuggler and ‘man of the people’ feared by the master is not. Also, why does he smuggle the dwarves into Lake Town and then do everything he can to stop their going to the mountain? Where did he think they were heading? The revised concept of the black arrow is another misfire (pardon the pun) and robs it of its symbolic potency.
Meanwhile, the scene where Gandalf goes to Dol Guldor would probably have been the nadir of the film if it hadn’t been for the climactic action sequence with Smaug. It’s pointless, it makes Gandalf look like an idiot (for going into what he knows is a trap to no apparent purpose and just after he sent Radagast to get backup), and ends in exactly the kind of magical light-show that was so brilliantly avoided in the wizard duel in Fellowship. Having Gandalf explicitly discover the Necromancer to be Sauron and confront him face-to-face also undermines the beginning of Fellowship; if Gandalf knew Sauron was back, why is he so surprised sixty years later to learn that he’s gathering strength or that that Nine are abroad again? And what is with Peter Jackson's habit of shattering Gandalf’s staff?
That’s another problem; one of the better lines of the movie comes when Tauriel asks Legolas “When did we decide that evil was stronger than us?” But in Jackson’s version, evil is stronger. Pretty much whenever they’re confronted face to face with anything stronger than an orc, the representatives of good get their asses kicked and only win by a kind of surprise gambit. It’s true the books are explicit about not being able to make a final end to Sauron by military or magical means, but Jackson constantly robs them of any military or magical victories at all, which is not the same thing. It’s one thing to know that Gandalf can’t fight Sauron one-on-one (another reason the fight here is so infuriating), it’s quite another to have the Witch-King shatter his staff without breaking a sweat.
As this indicates, I find that Desolation of Smaug doesn’t just disappoint, but serves as a kind of magnifying glass in which all the flaws of the previous films, which could be passed over there, are brought into painful relief. I was constantly reminded “you know, this annoyed me in the Rings films as well…” It’s not often that a movie is not only bad in itself, but bad in a way that lowers your opinion of better films.
Despite all this, I’m sure I’ll go see the third movie, though I anticipate it with a certain level of dread. The events it will depict are the most emotionally and morally charged scenes of the book, featuring Thorin’s terrible fall from grace and costly redemption, Bilbo’s selfless efforts to buy peace whatever the cost to him or his relationship with his friends, the tense debates over gold and honor, and especially his tearful farewell and reconciliation with the dwarf. Even from the events of this film, I know they won’t be as powerful as they ought to be; gone are Thorin’s repeated pledges of service and friendship with the hobbit, and so gone will be Bilbo’s sad rebuke reminding him of them (“the time was you had thought I had been of some service to you”). Gone is Thorin’s promise that Bilbo could pick his own share of the treasure, and so gone will be Bilbo’s tenuous – though just – claim to the Arkenstone (which, judging by how it’s set up here, he has no claim to at all and so will be blatantly stealing). Gone, I’m sure, will be the pleas of honor and charity, met by the elves and denied by the dwarves. Gone too, I’m suspect, will be the almost-invocation Bard speaks before shooting the dragon (“if ever you came from the forges of the True King Under the Mountain…”), and the poetic last words of Thorin.
What will we have left? I’m sure a lot of new ways to kill orcs in the Battle of Five Armies. More light-shows of magic, probably between Galadriel and Sauron (perhaps turning Galadriel into a magical action-girl in the process). Most likely an entirely too-blatant foreshadowing of Sarumon’s fall from grace. An action sequence where Thorin swordfights Bilbo all around the mountain, I shouldn’t wonder. Maybe Bard will reject the idea of being king in favor of an elected position?

Final Rating: 2.5/5. If you aren’t a fan of the book, you might find a decent action-fantasy movie. I wouldn’t know. As an adaptation of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug is just shy of a travesty. And I’d much rather have The Hobbit than a decent action-fantasy movie. The only reason it rates this highly is that Bilbo and Smaug both seem to have walked right out of the book. Those two, and they alone, make the movie worth seeing.

1 comment:

Scott T said...

I just saw this movie last night and I have to say that I completely agree. You wrote a fantastic review that really nailed everything that is wrong with this film. What a disappointment. I hope Jackson wises up for the final film.

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