Skip to main content

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(2013)

(SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown.


Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbits. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creatures and The Lovely Bones. The former remains one of his best pictures. The latter, while not quite the disaster some claim, is guilty of the over-produced indulgence found when no one is prepared to say “No” to a talent. If the Jackson of the ‘90s had access to the full WETA box of CGI tricks would the uproarious physicality of those pictures have been displaced, and with it one of the keys to their appeal? It’s hard to tell. His transition movie, The Frighteners, is a largely successful blend of the director’s crazed energy and a more glossy Hollywood finish. By the time of The Return of the King, Jackson is indulging in uncomfortably obvious CGI action with virtual doubles (often involving Legolas, so it’s clearly an affliction for which there is no remedy), but in general the trilogy bears the weight of world-building physicality successfully; the exceptions are just that. 


So what happened? King Kong, his passion project, was finally made but it resolutely underwhelmed. It had the bloated running time of his Middle Earth ventures, but with no good reason. His casting was off; a strange assembly of actors who never quite gelled. And most significantly, the earlier warning-signs of off-the-leash CGI were now manifested in dumb dinosaur stampedes and general whackiness. He managed to continually undercut himself; with no limitations, he lost his bearings as to the kind of picture he was making. So the tragedy never takes hold the way it should, and the forays into comedy are ill advised.


He also seems unaware that slapstick humour works because it is physical; make it virtual and you’re lost (I’ll recant this in a few paragraphs time, but it’s most likely an exception that proves the rule). Jackson’s probably the guy who thought the sequence in Attack of the Clones where CGI C3PO’s head was welded to another CGI droid’s body amid a CGI landscape was hilarious. Certainly, it appears that in the period since LOTR he has picked up many of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels bad habits. Just in time for his trilogy of prequels. Perhaps it’s simply the difference between a 40-year-old filmmaker and a 50-year-old filmmaker. Jackson’s willingness to go the extra mile has gone; it’s just a shame it happened a decade earlier (in terms of comparative ages) than his buddy Steven Spielberg (at least he was in 60s when he drowned Indiana Jones in a quagmire of CGI).


Another warning sign with Jackson is the type of material he currently venerates. He’s a big fan of Steven Moffat’s Sherlock and Doctor Who (he was a Who aficionado anyway; above and beyond one might suggest, since he went to the unconscionable extreme of casting Sylvester McCoy). Moffat, of course, contributed to the first in a projected series of CGI Tintins for Spielberg and Jackson.  Moffat’ first TV successes (well, it’s a relative term) were in the comedy arena, and as a consequence his dramas are drenched in self-conscious show-off dialogue and waving at the audience. He’s a writer with a talent for an imaginative premise, but who appears uncomfortable and ill-equipped if he’s not undermining it with tired and repetitive gags every couple of minutes (most of which are interchangeable across the two shows). Unfortunately it means the same incessant one-voice self-reflexivity is found across all his characters. Not an isolated complaint by any means (Joss Whedon stands guilty), but it lessens the damage if the post-modern asides are actually funny. Maybe they were, the first time.


Moffat has also of late become enchanted by his own dense yet internally illogical Who continuity. It’s an indication of how the geeks now rule the media world that an area once avoided by the mainstream at all costs has now become the tail that wags the dog. Lucas’ Star Wars prequels were partly sunk by this predilection (everyone relates to everyone!) Jackson’s new trilogy takes such pains to make The Hobbit a direct lead-in to LOTR that it suffers as a film(s) in its own right. The director also evidences a Moffat-esque lack of restraint in respecting someone else’s property; he must make it “his own” even if that stamps all over the original tone. Jackson can’t trust himself to remain true to his environment. In LOTRNo one tosses a dwarf” was goofy exception (which he couldn’t resist reprising due to audience approval). The Hobbits are littered with cheap gags, toilet and sexual humour. I wouldn’t suggest that some of these aren’t funny, but there’s a cumulative effect of diluting the distinctiveness of Middle Earth; it debases Tolkien and renders the series increasingly indistinguishable from the competition.


The result of Jackson becoming a “That’ll do” filmmaker is that he’s started making only “okay” movies. I probably enjoyed An Unexpected Journey more than many, but I still found it severely wanting when stood alongside its predecessors. Most of the criticisms were valid; the indulgent lack of focus; the willingness to stretch a small story to “epic” breaking point. Most painful was the lapse into full-blown CGI fakery. It felt like a punch in the gut to witness the computer game gravity-defying action sequences in the goblin caves. It was almost as if the director was actively mocking anyone who actually wished once again to be captivated by the tangibility of this fantasy world. It seems like such an anti-intuitive move, one can only assume that Jackson, alone in his ivory tower, has lost the plot as Lucas did before him. That, and the whole 48 frames per second debacle, saw him swiftly plunge from fan darling to enemy number one.


So the knives were out for The Desolation of Smaug. I’d read as many reviews suggesting Jackson had addressed his earlier missteps as I did ones that accepted TDOS as a marginal improvement but still nothing to write home about. So perhaps my appreciation results from a case of continued low expectations (as with AUJ). Perhaps seeing this one in 3D (but not 48fps) made all the difference in immersive terms (a strike against the overall quality of storytelling, if true). But I’m pleased to say I really enjoyed TDOS. It may be as overworked as An Unexpected Journey but it is weighed down by none of its drag. It’s still blighted by the CGI curse of AUJ, but less criminally so. Most significantly, it has the benefit of a meaty plot to dig into and makes the most of each successive stage in the ongoing quest.


At least we know now that Jackson doesn’t know when to stop with the CGI, as if he's trying to match George Lucas for unnecessary CGI characters. Just because you can make all your Orcs CGI doesn't mean you should. Of course, a pertinent concern is what Orcs are doing in The Hobbit at all. If fidelity to the source material is your primary concern, however, you’ll have given up on these films long before Jackson decided to tackle Bilbo’s first adventure.


It is worth stressing that there’s a difference between holding off from vehemently opposing changes and recognising there are limits to how much a text should be bent out of shape or be grafted with extraneous incidents and details. While TDoS is shorn of the bloat of AUJ, it suffers at times from Jackson’s Lucasisations. Shouldn’t the permeating presence of Gandalf be enough to link trilogies? Do we really need the return of "young" Legolas? Especially since he never looks less than an uneasily rejuvenated waxwork. Since Jackson’s unable to disguise that Bloom is a fair bit beefier than he was before, it might have been better (if he really had to bring him back; it isn’t as if Legolas was the greatest character evah) to leave him be rather than substitute one distraction (he looks older) for another (he looks weird). The vertically labyrinthine realm of the Wood-elves is superbly realised, and Lee Pace (has he changed his agent? Suddenly he’s everywhere) is marvellously unswervable as the King of the Wood-elves. There’s no need for the intrusion of Bloom’s impassive (read: wooden) performance.


This passage of the film introduces another of Jackson’s major additions; Tauriel. It’s understandable that he felt the need to invent a lady Elf to up the quotient of female characters, much as he expanded Liv Tyler’s role in the originals. And credit to Evangelline Lilly, she is very good (much more confident in her performance than Bloom, and a much stronger presence than Tyler ever was). But Jackson inevitably shoots himself in the foot. He attempts to lend a semblance of balance to the male-centric proceedings, but he lazily defines his female character by not one but two love interests (his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens must take equal blame)! Of course, Tauriel is a kick-ass warrior too (because this is post-Buffy) and of course she is headstrong and rebellious too (because this is post-Buffy).  Most tenuous is her affection for Kili (pretty boy dwarf Aidan Turner), leading to randy sex talk somewhere between Benny Hill and Steven Moffat.  An exchange between them revolves around whether Kili has anything of value down his trousers. I’m sure Tolkien would have heartily approved.


These elves are also the main offenders for whizzing around like they're in a computer game; yes, we get it, they’re super ninja types. Don’t you think it would be more effective if there were actually a sense of peril though, Peter? It comes a great surprise in the closing stages, when Legolas is actually seen hurting a bit in his fight with Bolg (Lawrence Makoare). As much as a plastic-faced Elf can express any emotion, that is. There should have been more of this sort of thing. 


The escape from the Wood-elves barrel sequence starts out well; it’s involving, dramatic and well staged. It’s only when Legolas shows up and begins acrobatically shooting orcs while astride two barrels rushing down river that you remember this is a director who’d rather show off than engage the audience.  Once he starts, he just can’t stop, and the tail-end of the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in the goblin kingdom in AUJ; Bombur (Stephen Hunter) flies about the air taking down Orcs left right and centre before landing on his feet, the barrel now adorning body armour. It’s an incredibly silly bit of business that takes you out of engagement with the drama, but I have to admit to being carried along with the laughter of the rest of the audience (so there’s my admission; CGI can make LOLs).


If the attempts to link everything to LOTR didn't generally mar my enjoyment, they do have the unfortunate side effect of highlighting that this isn’t a life or death drama on the same scale. The fate of Middle Earth isn’t at stake, and torrents of (virtual) Orcs and glimpses of Saruman’s eye won’t change that. Ian McKellen was reportedly less than impressed at the quantity of green screen required for this trilogy, a turnaround from LOTR where he actually got to act with real actors, so he’s clearly with Joe Public there (does Jackson listen to critics, or does he Lucas-like keep his fingers in his ears?) It’s ironic then that Gandalf's quest feels like it’s more about giving McKellen something to do than anything really essential. All this detective work is repetitive (preemptive?) of what will come in LOTR. It’s unnecessary but admittedly well executed. 


We also re-encounter Sylvester McCoy covered in bird shit. This time out McCoy is called on to do some proper acting, so Radagast the Brown is a less successful screen presence (I was surprised as anyone that McCoy was okay in AUJ). There’s also the problem that it’s impossible to see McCoy and McKellen sharing a scene and not think of the latter’s brutal takedown of the former in The Five(ish) Doctors.


Leading in to the encounter with the Wood-elves, the Mirkwood spiders sequence is suitably tense and features some enjoyably trippy visuals. Speaking of which, Jackson must be on something or really stoked with 3D as Gandalf’s encounter with Sauron verges momentarily on 2001’s stargate sequence (unsurprisingly, the director is fond of the occasional in-your-face use of the technology; while I love the buzzing bees, I was less enamoured of the pointy objects flying at me).  


Later, Lake-town has a nice physicality to it and feels consequently much closer to the world of the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. The new additions to the cast here are dependable if unremarkable; Luke Evans supplies a variation on the brooding hero (pre-Aragorn with a troubled history; see also Thorin for another take on this) while Stephen Fry plays Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town. His right-hand man, Alfrid (Ryan Gage) is a tepid version of Brad Douriff’s twisted man behind the throne in The Two Towers.


The luxury of an increased running time hasn’t afforded increased identification with the numerous dwarves. Richard Armitage’s Thorin continues to receive the lion’s share of the attention, and his is by far the most rounded character of this new trilogy (much more so than Bilbo). Conflicted by the impulses of honour and greed, quick-tempered and prickly, he makes for an effective anti-hero throughout. Ken Stott’s considered Balin, Bilbo’s chief advocate, is second most in screen presence, but aside from belligerent bald Bifur (Graham McTavish), Armitage, and a barely present James Nesbitt, the rest merge into one.


Martin Freeman continues to deliver a deceptively at-ease performance as Bilbo. His tone and manner isn’t so different to any number of previous roles; it’s only when the pull of the One Ring comes into play that he broadcasts how good he is.


So far I haven’t mentioned the film’s major selling point, the confrontation with Smaug. It’s a resounding success, and any early concerns over whether or not the dragon should be seen to speak (there was doubt it could be pulled off convincingly) prove groundless. Cumberbatch’s vocals (and motion capture movements) lend the beast a playful malevolence, and Jackson builds the scene with an expertise that gives way to excess elsewhere. Bilbo’s realisation that he is staring at a huge closed eyelid is a wonderful moment, and his tumbling, falling, running attempts to escape the twisting, turning, pursuing dragon down the vast mountain of gold is as impressive as anything the director has staged in his career. True, I didn’t Smaugasm over Cumberbatch they way we all did at Andy Serkis’ Gollum. But it also says something that this movie suffers not-at-all from being the first Middle Earth movie without even a glimpse of the one-time owner of “Precious”.


The heftiest addition to this encounter is the dwarves’ attempt to bury Smaug beneath a torrent of molten gold. The frenetic reactivation of the mine by the company as Smaug gives chase, followed by yet more of Jackson’s keynote gravity-defying antics, should really have been a huge turn off. But I was engaged throughout, even when Thorin stands atop Smaug’s snout. Perhaps it’s because, on this occasion, Jackson never loses sight of his narrative goal amid the excess (no doubt he was inspired by Terminator 2 and Alien 3); I wouldn’t compliment him on such intemperance, but he didn’t lose me this time (and again, I may redress this view when I revisit the film in the harsh light of 2D rather than 3D).


Jackson leaves us in a place where it isn’t difficult to guess what will happen next, even without having read the novel. I’m dubious whether he can make There and Back Again sufficiently engaging, since it looks as if it will consist of one long protracted battle. The Return of the King just about got away with such extensive sequences of warfare because we were invested in the characters; Jackson will have his work cut out for him to achieve the same this time. It’s perhaps inevitable that I’ve given more attention to what doesn’t work than what does, since Jackson has adopted certain abrasive filmmaking techniques since LOTR, but for the majority of its running time The Desolation of Smaug more than satisfies. At least one part of this trilogy has proved fit to stand in the company of The Lord of the Rings.


****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.