Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

16 December 2013

Desolation and Dragons

Last year, my friend Caleb and I shared one of our really nerdy conversations about The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. (For the record, we have a lot of incredibly complex conversations about Tolkien lore, and we do this fairly often.) So, of course, we both have already seen the second installment of The Hobbit, which Jackson and co. are calling The Desolation of Smaug. Here is some of our conversation about Hobbit #2. I have tried to link anything that might demand more knowledge of Tolkien's books.

Caleb: We went opening night at midnight. Because I still had hope. But I feel the credits should've read based on characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien. I actually think Peter Jackson improved a lot of the story and closed up some of the gaps with Lord of the Rings. And brought the piece in line with the rest of the canon. But it's about 99.95% action and people kicking ass and about .05% story on screen.

Aaron: I agree with you that the plot of The Hobbit is actually improved by all of the stuff with Gandalf running around and trying to figure out what's happening with Sauron. The thing is, that the movie just sort of doesn't feel like anything. I mean, running, running, running. Escape the orcs, escape the wood-elves, escape the men, escape the dragon. In order to what? The idea that the dwarves are going to get back some kind of ancestral homeland just seems sort of preposterously unattainable, doesn't it? And the film never lets us hang out with the dwarves at home – there is that one moment where Glóin shows us portraits of his son and his wife. And they tried to do this a little with Bard and his three wee ones (did we hear the word "da" enough times?). But I want to see these worlds without duress! We get this a little whenever we're in Rivendell in Lord of the Rings and in the first Hobbit, and we get this when we see the Shire, but in Desolation of Smaug, there just isn't much of anything to root for.

Caleb: I do think that Jackson fixed the tone issues with The Hobbit. Bilbo singing and calling the spiders “attercop” has always been a little lame. Glad that was cut. Although Fran Walsh is failing in her research if she wrote “This sword is from Gondolin! My kin!” since Legolas is not of Noldorin ancestry. 

The tie-ins with Gandalf’s search for the necromancer are perfect. That helps us understand the rise of the Dark Lord. Although what was that terrible shot where we see Sauron’s silhouette fade into the eye over and over like a terrible music video. Does the audience really need a beating with the Obvious Bat there? I’m feeling bruised.

I did like that we see Dol Guldur. I’m confused about the hanging cages, though, since it’s always described as “pits”. I suspect that Gandalf will find Thráin II there in the pits since we know that he is missing and died in the pits “in madness and torment” when the last ring was taken from him. I would love to see that thread tied up. I really liked the tombs of the Nazgûl although I’m sure that the Witch King has never been entombed as he has never died. I really don’t know much about the other 8 other than they were living men so I assume they had bodies that could have been put in a tomb. But they are wraiths now and have no true physical form. So why are the iron bars bent? No idea.

Gandalf and Radagast confer
Aaron: I'm totally with you on Gandalf and the necromancer: the stuff with Gandalf figuring out that the evil in the south of the forest is more than he had thought it was. It is interesting and created a much darker, scarier tone for the film. Which was great. Except that Jackson makes those sections of the movie just as bland as the rest of the film. Gandalf looks around at stuff (that we don't recognize), he sees a sign on a tree (for which the viewer has no context), he goes to Dol Guldur and apparently sees things (that we don't see), and so there is nothing for us to figure out as an audience. No mystery, no clues, no puzzle. Gandalf doesn't quite know, and then – bang! – he knows. McKellen's delivery, too, has gotten more drawn out and ponderous as this series continues. "You'll neeeeeeddddd ittttt," he tells Bilbo. It's like Alan Rickman's delivery as Snape.

Caleb: I think the dialog is the worst part. It’s 80% action film cliches (“How do we know we can trust him? We have no choice!” “I thought you were an orc. If I were an orc, you would be dead.”) There’s just no ring of authenticity. Gandalf says "We must force his hand…”. Force his hand is an analogy from poker which makes no sense in the world of the piece. When you read the dialog from The Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Durin’s Folk, the dialog between Gandalf and Thorin in the Prancing Pony is actually pretty good. And I think Jackson knew the dialog was bad and so, like George Lucas before him, decided you might not notice how bad the dialog is if all of the dialog takes place in the middle of insane special effects. That scene between Bilbo and Smaug didn’t need to be set with Bilbo flying all around the crazy piles of gold. That could have been a scene of actual acting. I would have loved that. After tons of running around and jumping and shooting, we have a still, tense scene between those characters before we see the dragon’s full size. But nope, let’s just cover our dialog with green screens and the audience won’t notice that Smaug has no motivation anymore.

 Aaron: You are exactly right. I haven't read this book in a dog's age, but Bilbo's titles – Underhill, barrel-rider, etc. – are meant to trick Smaug, yes? You don't give the dragon your real name because he will use it to destroy you. We know Bilbo can't die because he's in The Lord of the Rings, but at least the stakes could've been raised considerably.

Caleb: Yes! Without a true scene between Smaug and Bilbo, it's very unclear why the dragon decides to attack Laketown, especially when the dwarves, his true enemies, are within the mountain. In the book, Bilbo accidentally tricks Smaug into thinking he a man from Laketown. He's playing at riddles and calls himself "The barrel-rider" which makes Smaug think the Lakemen are trying to steal his gold. He has no idea that the dwarves have arrived. If he knew that the heir of Thráin had returned, Smaug would never have left the mountain until he was dead. In the film, it's as though he just gets distracted and decides to burn up a town... weak motivation which again, makes you lose faith in the characters. 

Aaron: I want to say, too, that the Steven Spielberg moves really started to piss me off this time. I know Jackson adores Spielberg and his many endings (we all laughed at how many times those first couple of movies ended). But, the dwarves all lose hope and then Bilbo shows up to save them from the spiders, then the dwarves all lose hope again in the prisons of the wood-elves, and then Bilbo shows up. The dwarves almost get caught sneaking into Laketown, then (surprise!) they don't get caught. There are no stakes here. Who cares if they get caught? When they did get caught the Master of Laketown threw them a party. But then the dwarves give up again. We can't find the keyhole to the door on the side of the mountain! Guess our quest's over! Who is falling for these little mini-cliffhangers? I'll tell you: exactly no one. So why is the film filled with this phony nonsense?

Caleb: I agree. They give up after 35 seconds of trying to open the hidden door: the characters lose all credibility. Would Thorin really come all this way, fight all of these ridiculous white orcs and then give up his life’s quest after a small setback like that? It makes no sense. It’s very hard to feel anything for a character who is so visible a slave to the writer’s emotional manipulation. And I don’t really want to talk about Thorin’s “plan” to fight the dragon by covering him in molten gold… I mean wow, even for a man with no plan, that was terrible. Maybe next time he’ll try to light the dragon on fire to kill it. Hot gold? Really? That just made him a total idiot. At least the book just made him blind and arrogant to dealing with the dragon.

Aaron: But... we got to see a dragon covered in molten gold! In truth (and you knew this would be the case) I loved absolutely every second of Smaug. The effects were wonderful, I loved when he breathed fire, I loved Benedict Cumberbatch's voice, and I loved Smaug's arrogant, smug, murderous attitude.

Caleb: I think that “Legolas Kicks Everyone’s Ass” just needs to be it’s own film. It’s a distracting plot line (if such long string of action sequences can be called a “plot line") from this movie. I’ve created a graph of Legolas’ screen time [to the right]. Also I’m pretty sure that Bilbo can’t swim or at least not very well. In the film though, he was the Michael Phelps of white-water free styling.

Aaron: It's the style of the movie that I just can't get past. He's filmed it with a hundred of these micro-cliffhangers – none of which we ever take seriously. I mean, did anyone in the film actually die? A real action movie kills off its cast members as the movie progresses. So that there are stakes to the fake action that is happening on screen. In Desolation, every single person in the film is basically as invulnerable as Gandalf.

Caleb: Not entirely true... Don't forget that touching moment when Legolas stems his bleeding nose and ponders the mortality of the Eldar in Middle Earth for at least 0.36 seconds. And then continues his one-elf quest to punch to death all of the orcs.

Aaron: Wow, you disliked this movie so much more than I. I just thought there was not much to it.

Caleb: No, I actually enjoyed watching the film. The pace is good and there's more than enough action to keep you entertained. I just wish there was a story.