The Long Hello
To begin, I’m going to make no concessions. You’ll have read (and been comforted by) many reviews that open with, “I declare I’m not a fan of the fantasy genre” and “I haven’t read a lot of Tolkien”; the kind of weak critiques that announce their bias against or ignorance of a wider mythology, so you, the acolyte, might adjust for the same; your anger assuaged, your tastes unchallenged. Well, fuck that.
This review is concerned with filmic fundamentals – elements and architecture: the raw material that, if deftly handled and well respected, can stir a crowd regardless of genre. When a movie made for a mass audience works it’s because the filmmaker has invested in these fundaments; the incidental acts as shading. When this approach is reversed, the brain turns to mulch and the eyes are liquefied. What about avant-garde filmmaking, you say? Now you’re just being pedantic. You’re not a geek by any chance?
The question of whether Peter Jackson has diluted Tolkien’s thumb thick novel by adapting it into a prequel trilogy is comprehensively settled in this first instalment. This is hobbit cordial, one part juice to nine parts water. Did this movie need to be 169 minutes? Only if you employ the maxim that dialogue scenes should be long and lackadaisical, like a summer afternoon, and that a travelogue is preferable to tight plotting and pace. Jackson’s loved up on 3D, CG and 48fps but he’s neglected to use that archaic 19th century cinematic convention, the cut, to move his band of questing bores along. No one would wish to teach an Oscar winning maestro how to suck eggs, so let’s not. In any event it would be the wrong lesson; he needs to know how to cut movies.
It’s possible that Jackson and his retinue believed that dedicated Tolkienites would be so delighted to return to Middle Earth that they’d prefer a long sojourn to a sprint through its forests, caves and crags. An unexpectedly long journey allows him to flaunt the deftly blended real world and computer powered panoramas; one can revel in the swoops and long tracking shots – Peter’s camera is still an important character in this universe. What’s totally lacking are the elements that only a long and bloody weekend in the editing suite can provide: momentum, tension, a sense of jeopardy. Put simply, there’s a lot to take in and far too much time to do it.
Too many novel adaptations use the source material as a get out of Mordor free card. Characters flat and inert on screen, little better than a sketch? No problem, you’ll find the detail you seek within that browning text. Plot sparse or clunky? Relax, it’s all explained in the book. Well with apologies to all dwarves and buxom lady hobbits, any film must stand on its own, pretending to occupy a universe in which those precious pages do not exist. On that measure this first Hobbit flick doesn’t cut the Shire grain mustard.
As in Jackson’s first trilogy, the lead character, Boring of Bag End, is a blank: an audience surrogate adorned with just one characteristic: reticence. His band of brothers are equally grey. Thorin Oakenshield regurgitates a few fantasy warrior clichés but is none the more dimensional for it; his fellow Dwarves don’t even have that to work with. The most interesting people on this hike to the one-third line are Gandalf, a low key Ian McKellen, and Gollum, the schizophrenic, both of whom are largely peripheral. Jackson attempts to compensate for the threadbare troupe with a lightness of touch; something akin to a breezy tone that he hopes will allay our thirst for conflict and character. Only poor Sméagol was ever more deluded.
Those crushing defects aside, the movie’s successful in its chief aim: it transports you to another world and renders it vividly. But is the treatment too vivid? This is a landmark production that experiments with 48 frames of digital photography a second; that’s 48 more than one would wish and 24 more than we’re used to. Does it make a difference? Unquestionably. With this innovation, Jackson’s modernised the cinematic experience, liberating it from the shackle of being cinematic. Now the movies look like HD TV – high-end video that robs the image of any intrusive gloss and texture: the stuff that was so detrimental to the flicks in the past.
It’s no longer necessary to suspend your disbelief – now you could almost be there. Some will say that the great thing about the movies is that they used to realise the world in an artistic way, divorced from the matter-of-fact rendering of the human eye but these 20th century luddites are behind the curve when it comes to the new cinema. Photochemical’s dead and so too those unnecessary bolt-ons: concision, characterisation and suspense.
Wait, there is a degree of suspense at the close of An Unexpected Journey. There are questions to be answered. How is Jackson going to fill two more movies now his band are in sight of their destination? Is he going to rely on talk of hearth and home plus the odd chase, like this time? I can wait to find out.