Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 23, 2013

the desolation of Peter Jackson

My son and I went to see The Dissolution of Smog The Desecration of Snog The Desolation of Smaug today. I am infuriated.

Let me begin my talking about what I liked. The barrels-down-the-river scene was fun and funny. Laketown was delightfully shabby. Smaug looked really cool.

That’s it. The rest was utter dreck. As my son commented, the only thing that could possibly rescue this movie would be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of it. (And just so you know, I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies, and have frequently defended them against their detractors, especially Tolkien purists.) So let me just note a few of the many, many things I hated about this movie. Some semi-spoilers follow.

First of all, the video-game aesthetics that so afflicted the first Hobbit film are even worse here. When you combine the game-style action with the 48fps film rate, and then put 3D on top of that, watching this movie is like being slightly high on pot and playing a circa-2005 Xbox game while watching a 1970s sitcom marathon out of the corner of your eye. Its artifice shouts from the rooftops. The spiderwebs that looked so cool and gross when Frodo was wrapped in them in 2003 now look like cheap plastic doilies arranged on Martin Freeman’s head.

Second: speaking of Martin Freeman, who was the best thing in the first movie, he has nothing to do here. Almost no one in this movie does any real acting, but Freeman isn’t even given a chance. He has one briefly cute scene with Gandalf, and is given a few pleasant lines with Smaug, but that’s it. He’s completely wasted. Evangeline Lilly is given far more to do than Freeman — a choice that I cannot imagine any other director in the world making. The scene where Jackson has her pacing back and forth and woodenly declaiming her lines to an equally wooden Lee Pace as Thranduil would be painful in a high-school drama class.

Third: so, about Smaug. He’s awesome-looking and -sounding (Cumberbatched to the Nth degree) but seems to be highly inconsistent in his powers. For instance, whenever the dwarves and their hobbit mascot are conveniently hidden behind a wall he can blast massive shockwaves of fire in their general direction; but when they’re standing three feet away right in front of him he just chats with them. And it’s not like he alters in a discernible direction: his two moods alternate like cinematic clockwork. Chat, then blast; chat, then blast. He’s an absent-minded dragon, I guess, who can’t remember whom he wants to incinerate or why. I mean, even when people are standing right in front of him and taunting him he does nothing — but as soon as they scramble to safety he’s like the business end of a Saturn V.

Which leads me, fourth, to Gandalf. One of the problems with Jackson’s LOTR is the way Gandalf’s powers inexplicably wax and wane: in the first movie he can confront and defeat a Balrog — a Balrog, for heaven’s sake: have you seen those things? — but collapses in a heap before the leader of the Nazgul in the third one. And that was supposed to be the new and improved post-resurrection Gandalf. I guess you could argue that this movie’s pre-resurrection Gandalf is a less formidable figure, which doesn't fit the Tolkien character, but that’s okay, let’s grant PJ and his co-authors the right to do with Gandalf what they will. But, then, why does this pantywaist Gandalf stroll right into the fortress of the Necromancer as though he’s taking his daily constitutional in Wizard’s Park? Apparently he just wants to find out who the Necromancer is, but is that really the ideal way to do it? Walk into a creepy fortress saturated with black magic and shout “Who are you people?” Just because you’re a wizard, there’s no need to be a moron also, is there?

(Parenthetically: Peter Jackson seems to think that a wizard’s power resides wholly in his staff, so that when his staff is taken away he’s helpless — which, I mean, okay, but then why is Gandalf never able, in any of the Tolkien films, to do much more with his staff than shine a bright light? In this one he does poke ineffectually at some orcs, and elsewhere he smites a couple of nasties with it, but, if you look at all the Jackson Tolkien films in toto, basically it’s just a flashlight. An inconveniently enormous flashlight. )

Fifth: it’s only for a couple of seconds, but we get Radagast’s %$#@! buggy-bunny again. And Gandalf sends Radagast away to give a message to Galadriel, even though Galadriel and he can communicate telepathically.

Sixth and lastly (as Dogberry once said), I have no idea what is going on in the last few minutes as the dwarves confront Smaug. Somehow eight or nine dwarves are able to get all the mighty furnaces of their ancestors running again in two or three minutes, and the furnaces are so powerful that it takes them only another 30 seconds or so to create rivers of molten metal, and then they make a giant golden statue of a dwarf to mesmerize Smaug — or maybe they don't make it but just fill it with molten gold? — but whether they make it or pump it full of gold-syrup it doesn’t melt but rather shoots the gold-syrup out of its eyeballs — though Smaug has to conveniently stop and stare first at Thorin and then at the Great Idol long enough to make all the machinery work? I mean, the scene is completely nonsensical, in a way that no respectable video-game (the genre it’s trying to imitate) would ever allow to happen.

I could write a post three times as long as this one if I wanted to list all the absurdities and solecisms of this film. But I’ll spare you. It’s stupid and ugly, and you shouldn’t spend your money on it.