In a country at the bottom of the world lived a director. The director once made small little movies that not a lot of people saw, but then one day a big movie studio asked him to make three big movies. Those movies were really big and everyone liked them. Then the small director went off and had adventures with other bigger movies – some of them were good and some of them were bad. Soon he grew tired and wanted to return to those big movies that everyone liked. “I’d like to make more of them!” said the director. And so the director made another one and let everyone see what he’d done. “These are just like the other ones, and better!” the director exclaimed. “Oh no, this is not as good as the first ones were,” said everybody else. And they were right.
Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is frustrating and utterly disappointing. I wanted to root for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey so bad, and it ended up being a huge mess despite some bright spots dotted throughout the muck. Yes Martin Freeman is pretty great as Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen continues to kill it as Gandalf, Gollum is back and better than ever, and man doesn’t it feel great to be back in Middle Earth again? Well, it may feel that way, but it sure doesn’t look like it.
Let’s get the 48fps discussion out of the way first. If this is the future of cinema, then we’re in deep trouble ladies and gents. Some reviewers have said that it only takes a little while for you to get used to the high frame rate, but I was continually distracted and irritated throughout the entire movie. All the complaints about it are correct – it looks like an old BBC show from the 70s, it looks like the poorly calibrated HD-TVs along the wall at Best Buy, or it looks like a bad mid-afternoon soap opera.
The irony is almost too much – how can technology that touts itself as the highest of definitions end up looking like forty-year-old television shows? Your guess is as good as mine because somehow it does. I don’t know whether the true technology just isn’t ready yet or whether this is the best they’ve got. It’s as if long set pieces, meant to be dramatic or adventurous moments in the film, were merely crystal clear looking cut scenes from a video game. The action at this frame rate is too quick for the eye to process, making the look of it sped up and incomprehensible. Jackson’s camera has always been all over the place and it doesn’t change here, yet this time around the numerous camera movements slide like the ugly pan-and-scan on old fullscreen DVDs; that is unless his camera is framed so pushed up into the action that it incoherently streaks back and forth across the frame.
The big sweeping shots that made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so cinematic are relegated to overly polished and recognizably artificial movements swinging through the equally artificial scenery. There are no practical “bigatures” that gave the LotR trilogy an air of tangibility this time around, and it suffers from the CG-itis that plagued the similarly fake looking Star Wars prequels. A movie is ultimately meant to transport you by suspending reality with its own version of it and bringing you into the frame. Even with the added annoyance of 3D, this distracting bit of high frame rate technology only functions to take you out of the action at every turn, also putting a burden on the CGI which looks absolutely horrible at times during action but downright gorgeous during the still shots where nothing is moving.
Aside from the technical shortcomings, the movie suffers badly from wildly uneven pacing. It was nice to be back in Hobbiton again, but after 45 minutes you’d expect something to happen to move the story along. Again and again the movie will hurry up and wait for far too long, to then pick things back up again in a fit of confusing action. The story beats are clumsy in that it follows a “this happens, then this happens, then this happens” flow when it should have adhered to the “this happens, because this happens, because this happens” mentality that The Fellowship of the Ring — a movie that An Unexpected Journey should rightfully be compared to – followed so well.
Other scenes, such as the amazing “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Bilbo and Gollum, are unfortunately interrupted by stagnant scenes like the one with the captive dwarves arguing with the Goblin King. The prolonging and the inter-cutting mistakes make me think Jackson and company should have kept the original two-film plan in place instead of stretching the story into a trilogy. They have extended cuts on DVD for a reason, and Jackson is no stranger to those.
I did mention how good Martin Freeman is – his interpretation of Bilbo fits very nicely along with Ian Holm’s older and wiser Bilbo who also makes an appearance here, and McKellen continues to be the one constantly good through-line as Gandalf in these movies so far, but I can’t help but be annoyed by the dwarves. I get the joke that there are too many of them and their names sound alike, but they function as one whole so much so that I don’t really care about any individually. There’s the old one, the fat one, the silly one, the Irish one, and the strong one to name a few – but they never manifest themselves into coherent identities like the members of the Fellowship did. One of them says they are wanderers without a home, but that’s about the only barely meaningful character motivations we get besides those stereotypes. Even Thorin Oakenshield, or ersatz Aragorn as I like to say, has his one motivation to avenge Erebor and then basically acts like a dick throughout the entire movie because he is the angsty leader. Aragorn had issues too but at least he actually used his heroics to work them out.
In all, An Unexpected Journey comes across as a weaker film with less at stake than The Fellowship of the Ring. When that film ended everything was in chaos, but here everything seems to be exactly the same and they just need to keep going further. I may be foolish to stick with Jackson for the second and third Hobbit movies – why do I feel memories of a couple movies called Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith all of a sudden – but I just want to feel that there are better things to come. It’s a noble failure, and it pains me to say that we have our first fairly bad Middle Earth movie on our hands.