The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ★★½

Oh is this the way they say the future's meant to feel? Or just 20,000 hobbits tramping through a field? It's not every day that the global filmgoing public is asked to evaluate an entirely new technology rather than simply the latest seasonal blockbuster's minor upgrades. The 48 fps of The Bobbitt: An Unexpected Gurney (thanks to Matt Singer for that one) is so compellingly different from anything I've ever seen it kept me occupied for the first two hours, before the crashing stupidity and boredom caught up with me.

Perhaps the structure of this film's been attenuated deliberately to allow for an adjustment period, slowly augmenting the number of effects to be processed. The opening prologue is both lavish and tacky (like "a special episode of 'Masterpiece Theater' directed by Benny Hill," says Matt), with any carelessly attached fake beard immediately discernible and hoards of unconvincing extras standing around, looking like nothing so much as alternate universe historical reenactors bad at their jobs. The bulk of the first section, though, is set in Bilbo Baggins' house, testing 48 fps' capacity to capture tangibly non-CGI detail (food, wood, candles).

Expanding outwards, The Hobbit slowly begins tossing more CGI at the viewer. Some of this stuff crosses the uncanny valley (the Orcs in particular), making it impossible to tell where concrete reality begins and ends, certainly much more so than Avatar (the last major release foregrounding its technology rather than its narrative). That's an improvement over the original Lord Of The Rings films, which — quite apart from the cross-cutting tedium of 9 mini-series-like hours, ceaselessly alt-tabbing between cliffhangers — had a heavy CGI murk floating over everything. Memories of those earlier films inevitably provide another basis of comparison for these effects, some of which still have an unnatural CGI halo (the Elvish kingdom) or have motion problems (those stupid gigantic birds at the end). Ian McKellan has visibly aged, while Cate Blanchett has not; this past is still the future, technologically and chronologically, creating an odd dissonance.

I'm not sure if I liked of 48 fps; given the visible expense and the sometimes thin "video" look, it's a bit like Chinese daytime TV dramas I've seen at my laundromat, in which masses of Chen Kaige extras move at disconcertingly digital speed. Still, it strips the visual darkness away from the movie and provides an effect all of its own to observe. We're watching technology, not a narrative, but it's a genuinely new perceptual experience. (As others have noted, 48 fps also appears to have cleaned up the darkness that normally comes part and parcel with 3D.)

As for the movie itself: though I appreciate the goofiness of the opening (so much singing and plate tossing!), the injection of comic timing courtesy of Martin Freeman and the somewhat more prevalent levity, there's only so many deux ex machina horseshit I can take. (Gandalf apparently can stomp his staff and cause everyone in the room to fall down — and that's it!) Those endless swirling helicopter shots of people crossing mountains have returned, and it's impossible for me not to giggle at (subtitled!) Orcs furious at "Elvish filth" and "Dwarf-ish scum." (About those dwarves: one of these days, a conservative blogger will write about how they allegorically represent the displaced wandering Jew and the quest for a homeland. Just wait and see.) It's ultimately patience testing and not nearly as thrilling as intended. So why is it silly when Lady In The Water ends with a gigantic fake CGI bird sweeping down but not when Peter Jackson does it? And why are these movies so damn portentous?