Friday, December 13, 2013

Desolation of Smaug

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Oh my, it is late. I'm not talking about the hour either. I'm talking about the crushing realization that I didn't do a nerdview of last year's An Unexpected Journey. Whatthefrak, nerd? Well, last year's failings aside, here's a toasty nerdview of the second film in The Hobbit trilogy.

Expectations 'Odor': I was not blown away by the first installment of The Hobbit. I didn't hate it, but the fact that I wasn't rushing to review it last year is really damning evidence that the movie just wasn't that spectacular. (Did I really not review it?! What planet is this? Am I just losing it after one midnight showing too many?) An Unexpected Journey didn't have the same heart as each movie of The Lord Of The Rings, and too much of the story felt compromised for flashy additions to the world and total BS action sequences. The skiing derrick down the rock face of the goblin caves was especially eyeroll-inducing. I didn't like the abundance of CG baddies--especially the George Lucas Goblin King that was just outright gross. And they didn't include "fifteen birds in five fir trees", which I had already said I really really wanted to see included.

But this next movie stands to include so much more that I'm excited about. Mirkwood and Thranduil's creepy elves. Laketown and Bard the badass the bowman. Erebor revealed. Mega Nibelungenlied imagery. The battle with Smaug over Laketown.

And, if I'm honest, I'm intrigued by the inclusion of an auburn-haired elf-maiden. And by intrigued I mean, intrigued…

But seriously, I expect Bard to really shine as a common man hero in this film, taking the spotlight completely from Thorin and maybe even Bilbo. I want Smaug to be intelligently scary. But I want them to tone-down the over-the-top BS of the first Hobbit film and stick closer to believable, visceral action. An Unexpected Journey had very few action sequences that weren't cartoonishly unbelievable. And while you could say that this is deliberate because the films are actually a recreation of Bilbo's book, that's not highlighted as a theme of the movie and is a poor excuse to make such ham-handed glittery special effects pieces instead of real hands-on fights like the ones that made The Lord of the Rings popular. Overall, I want a film guided by a more controlled and focused plot than last year's film.

Appreciation 'Beef': Well, frak that feldercarb.

No, seriously. Bad bad badness.

First let me begin with a non-spoiler spoiler alert. This movie is pointless. I am totally going to spoil the crap out of this movie in the course of this review because none of the so-called plot movements actually matter and there's no real dynamic--no change--to the characters or setting in this film. It is seriously just a long piece of exposition to get us to the third movie.

Before I really let into the movie, though, let me get the good stuff out of the way. The opening of the film is interesting, showing a scene based on Tolkien's notes that shows Gandalf was the one to strong-arm Thorin into starting his quest for the Lonely Mountain. That's followed by a nice bit with Beorn, a shape-shifting bear/Liam Neeson type. But the film starts to dip with the spiders of Mirkwood sequence--it's well-done, but it's too long compared to how rushed most of the film is, and the fighting begins to get implausible here. Characters repeatedly free-fall from hundred-foot tall trees only to be conveniently caught by spider webs, just-right branches, or outright plot protection.

Bard is cool, and is probably the only character in the film that is worthy of his depiction in the book. That's not to say that he's faithfully adapted from the book--not even close--but he is at least as cool as the literary Bard the bowman, and just what I'd hoped from him. I do think that Thorin, Bard, and Kili look way too much alike, though, and considering Thorin should have like at least one foot of beard this is just salt in the wound. Luke Evans plays Bard perfectly and he looks the part, but coming in alongside Thorin the visual similarities tend to wash him out as a tag-along.

Let me spell it out: Thorin Oakenshield uses his beard as a measurement of masculinity in the books. He wishes people well by saying stuff like "may your beard grow ever longer". We should have no clue what his cheeks look like because it should be underneath three pounds of beard.

Of course, Bard is also mired in the middle of one of the dumbest settings in the movie: Laketown. Rather than being a hardy bastion of men living in the wet blindspot of Smaug, the Laketown of the movie is a frigid derrick of the same Tudor-style buildings we saw in Bree except suspended over water. The culture is soulless and the people accordingly bland to the point where no one even seems to register that they're living under the tyranny of the most toothlessly impotent mayor ever. I might consider this a dramatic criticism of society if the police state imagery was consistently realized, but the town guards only come out to prolong the plot of a film that is mostly filler. Bard makes a big deal out of needing to smuggle the dwarves into Laketown--which was no problem in the book--and the sequence of him bringing them in is good for a little tension. But later in the movie, a band of thirty orcs in armor and two elves just show up in Laketown without any mention of how they did so or any recognition from the rest of the town at all. Seriously, with orcs jumping across the rooftops of the town for like twenty minutes in the middle of the night, no one seemed to notice. When I'm in my basement and my toddler's running around in his room, I hear it above me like a sack of potatoes being bounced around a port-a-potty. I think thirty armored orcs would be slightly less stealthy than my two year-old son, as hard as that may be to imagine.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is hot without showing any skin. Here endeth the nice part about her character. Tauriel is the dumbest, least articulate, reactionary, over-powered Mary Sue sleaze I can recall from any movie ever. An "original" character forced into the plot of the movie, they decide that in order to make us like her she should be better than everyone at everything. She out-BSes Legolas in terms of absurdly super-powered shots and moves. Like shooting an Orc's arrow out of the air to save Legolas. She also heals Kili from a Morgul wound with so much ease that it makes Elrond look like a stuttering poseur rather than a three thousand year-old sage. And when she meets Kili, she immediately puts on the googly-eyes at him and proceeds down a clumsy romance sub-plot that ends with her being the worst person ever.

Before I explain that, though, let me spell out another gem of truth from Tolkien's Middle-Earth: elves and dwarves do not get along. Gimli and Legolas' friendship is supposed to be a historic exception by a wide margin. Let alone romantic compatibility--labradors do not mate with spaniels, so to speak, in Tolkien's books. Heck, human-elf pairings are so rare in the setting that every one of them is well-known and eminently proven to be a bad idea. That's the whole subtext of the tension in Aragorn and Arwen's relationship--which was a century-long courtship that was still awkward for them.

Anyways, back to how Tauriel's randiness ends up making her the worst person ever. So after getting all oo-lala over Kili, Tauriel meets with Thranduil, Legolas' d-bag lush of a father. Thranduil, tells Tauriel that Legolas wants her bad, but he won't let his son get his elf on because Tauriel is a common elf. She acts hurt by this even though she was just checking out the dwarf meat she tossed in the dungeon. Later, when Kili is wounded while escaping Mirkwood, she abandons her home to try to catch up to him and help him. When Legolas, too dumb to know better, follows her she immediately smirks and wiggles her nose at him, saying she knew he'd follow her and help. Yeah--she leads on the prince of the elves to get him to commit treason all in an effort to save the dwarf hunk she met one day before. Then, when they finally catch up to the dwarves, Tauriel ditches Legolas in the middle of a fight to go play doctor with her favorite beardy-boy.

Worst. Person. Ever. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh included her as a tack-on character to try to give the film some grrrl power, and instead they made a cliched slander against the entire female sex.

There are more BS moments throughout the film, but one of the biggest is molten gold apparently having a melting temperature of Hershey's chocolate. First, century-old kilns full of gold are melted faster than defrosting a Thanksgiving turkey. Then Thorin rides a river of molten gold on a metal bucket with his bare hands inches from the molten ore. Finally, Smaug gets completely submerged in it and hops out as easily as a kid getting out of a hot-tub.

What began as a hopeful improvement on the first film quickly slides down into every mistake made by the first movie. The drama is drowned out by over-the-top posturing and wide angle shots, ensuring that you can't even see the actor's expressions during the most tense moments. There is no close up face-twitching drama of Denethor's hall in this flick, just shouting in front of beautiful backdrops. The fight sequences are dazzling displays of special effects with no practical integration to make it feel real or plausible. It's so bad that Gandalf's encounter with the Necromancer is literally him standing still, staff upraised while putting out a Sue Storm shield of white light while a shadow shrinks his personal bubble.


Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Oh man, I think you can guess I did not enjoy this flick too much. Amongst its many flaws, this film indulges in way too many Byrne holds for any one plot to bear. A Byrne hold, named after comic artist John Byrne, is when a character holds another aloft by the throat. It's a moment of abject helplessness, where the victim is spared from death only by the capriciousness of the one holding their throat. And usually the only reason the villain doesn't snap their neck then and there is because of bad writing--the writer needs the victim to survive, so the victor hesitates for no good reason.

In this movie, we have 13 dwarves, Bilbo, Gandalf, Tauriel, and Legolas who all directly fight bad guys throughout the movie. The antagonists have Azog (the white orc), Bolg (his strapping son), Smaug the dragon, and the Necromancer. All of them engage in personal combat at least once in the movie. Bolg several times. None of these characters die in the course of the film. Twenty-one principal characters all actively fighting and trying to kill each other in a three hour film: no one succeeds. And when you remember that most of these characters were in An Unexpected Journey, you have the worst kill ratio of all storytelling time. And that's not for being able to. For fully one half of the movie, Azog and the Necromancer could easily execute Gandalf but don't because of the Byrne hold effect. The dwarves dump a dwarven statue of liberty's worth of molten gold on Smaug, and he not only isn't wounded by the attack but he also doesn't kill them as he so easily could at that point. Smaug's entire conversation with Bilbo is twisted from the casual biplay of the book to be "I am totally going to kill you, but I won't just yet…cuz." It's infuriatingly stupid and I can't comprehend how we're supposed to be engrossed in this action when every character is plot-protected anyways. Heck, a mortally-wounded Kili falls down a circular staircase with an armload of swords and axes and he even makes it to the ending credits. It's an absurd lantern hanging on the fact that these characters are invulnerable to stupid flashy plot twists until the third movie, at which point two-thirds of them will die. The only character they could have been killed off in this movie, but wasn't, was Tauriel. And she's never in any peril in the film because she's superwoman.

I've got a lot of other issues with this film, many of them relating to comparisons between the book and the film, but these ones are just issues of a clumsy movie itself. The film has no natural arc--no beginning, middle, and end, no development of the characters. Though we did get some of that in the previous film, this one just throws "action" and scenery at us until it ends in the most unforgivable manner possible--in the middle of a fight.

This movie was supposed to be about Smaug, yet he wasn't in half of it and he survived the non-climax of the film. Not to be dramatic, but I wouldn't blame anyone wanting their money back.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese'This film stretches my goal as a reviewer--I'm not sure someone reading my words would decide to see the movie. Unless their mind was already made up, of course. And I think I'm happy about that. This is the sort of big-budget clusterfudge that I use to weed out bad reviewers in my own reading. See someone who liked this film? Idiot. Complimented its pacing? Hack.

Now, I'm not saying you can't enjoy this film. I'm really not. I think people with no love for the book and a sort of Harry Potter expectation of events could enjoy what they see. But for people who love the first trilogy and even merely like the books, I don't see how they could enjoy it. And I don't see how anyone at all could honestly look at this movie and say it was really necessary for anything more than introducing a few elements that could have been elegantly fit into the other two movies.

Then again, Peter Jackson doesn't seem to know about elegance anymore. Like Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim or George Lucas when making his prequel trilogy, he seems lost in a sea of funding and yes-men glad-handing along his bad ideas.

So not worth an all-nighter.

Yeah, desolate is right


  1. Could have easily been cut-down by about 20 minutes or so, but for what it was, it was fine. Just not as good to where I can fully say I'm on-board to see what Jackson has in store for us next. Good review Ben.

    1. When you look at how much they inflated the section from Mirkwood to Laketown, and the fact that the Necromancer stuff was so labored for very little payoff or lore, I'd say a sane person could have trimmed this down to two hours. Or, you know, included the battle over Laketown--which was supposed to be the whole point of this movie. They will now have a third movie that features the battle over Laketown, the defeat(ish) of the Necromancer, and the battle of Five Armies. That is way too much to give any justice to any of these moments. And don't get me started on the whole mayor of Laketown thing.

      I really think that this movie introduces changes that are going to destroy the integrity of the final act of The Hobbit to the point where it won't even be trying to accomplish the same things as the book. I might do a post in the next month or so elaborating on the thematic destruction of the literature. Filmatleven.