Are We There Yet?
“What have we done?” mewls Bilbo Baggins when, at long last, The Desolation of Smaug deigns to end. As well he might, you may think. After a crushing five and a half hours of film, Peter Jackson and company have only managed to adapt a mere 216 pages of The Ooh Tray’s Tolkien: that’s 216 of a 263 page novel. Economic storytelling has gone the way of twenty four frames per second; this is a movie informed by obnoxious, brazen economics. Middle Earth fans, slack jawed at the sight of Smaug sleeping in a sea of Dwarf gold, may imagine they’re witness to some kind of digital wizardry, but this is mere location filming at Warner Bros. The suits wanted to triple their return on this beast and they were perfectly prepared to kill the average moviegoer to do it.
So if Peter Jackson doesn’t have a story to tell, what’s his strategy for filling a trilogy’s running time? Based on two movies we can now say that it’s one act of story per flick with two phantom acts added, each constituted of padding. Jackson’s substitutes for a tale well told are scale and stuff: the two working together in tandem to create the illusion of total immersion; languid pacing allowing wide eyed audience members to take in both. We luxuriate in Tolkien’s world unburdened by wearisome distractions like plot complications and character conflict.
As the long, long journey continues, the custodian of the sacred scroll may use his virtual camera to swoop in on a meandering procession of characters, as though tethered to a dragon’s nose, or wait for them to stumble, cutting to a wide shot of a vast edifice, panoramic ruin or Kiwi vista. ‘Look!’ cries Peter, ‘this is Middle Earth! Are you not entertained?’ and when, like the ungrateful bastards we are, the reply comes, ‘well it’s all very pretty but couldn’t this story have been told in a third of the time?’, the great beard shakes his head and bellows, ‘but look at all this stuff’, and indeed it’s a feast for the eyes; to story what methadone is to smack.
Indeed one hardly needs any momentum, any urgency at all, when you’ve got, and I quote the production, 14 tonnes of silicone for weapons and armor, 91 wigs, 263 beards, 100 hobbit feet, 400 costumes, 1,200 extras, 2000 hand-spun goblets and 170,000 punched aluminum gold plated coins. What, you may think, is the point of all that craft if you don’t have time, oodles of time, to sit back and breathe it in?
But Jackson and his co-conspirators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens know that good as scale and stuff is, some attempt must be made to placate those dinosaurs wedded to storytelling and that, in keeping with Warners’ decree that every last dollar, pound and florin be wrung from the world’s adolescents, any pretence must be demographically aware, because J.R.R. Tolkien, genius though he was, cared little for women or those of non-white origin; both being anathema to his vision of a new/old English myth. Consequently there’s a love triangle, featuring returnee Orlando Bloom, Aidan Turner and sexy bowstress and she-Elf, Evangeline Lilly and a couple of black faces awkwardly inserted into the crowd at Laketown. There’s also added violence and jeopardy to stop older kid’s heads dropping, the notion that this should remain a story for young children being for the birds when such vast sums of money are involved.
If one’s prepared to trawl though the mountain of fool’s gold on offer, The Desolation of Smaug does yield a few genuine nuggets of value. The setpieces may be there to fill time but when they’re well-orchestrated, as when Mirkwood’s spiders attack and the troop escape in barrels on a rushing river, they’re worthy sequences. It’s an impressive spectacle, effectively combining those vast locations with pixelated extensions, and all concerned are suitably earnest in their respective wigs and mo-cap suits; Ian McKellen providing the gravitas, Benedict Cumberbatch, the menace. Only Martin Freeman as Bilbo looks out of sorts; the star of the show whose role is almost peripheral, thanks to the lack of discipline in the editing suite.
Ultimately with one full movie remaining but just 47 pages of story to film, we’re left lamenting the Dwarf-like greed of those behind the scenes, wishing they’d consented to one great movie based on Tolkien’s short book, rather than three bloated blockbusters. The length of The Lord of the Rings forced Peter Jackson to cut back and privilege pace over tangential plotting; a decision that worked well cinematically. Here the reverse is true and the result is a movie that takes an age to watch while barely advancing the story. This maestro should use his wealth to buy himself a pair of scissors.