“You are a fool, Bilbo Baggins, and you made a great mess of that business with the stone; and there was a battle, in spite of all your efforts to buy peace and quiet, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for that.”
No good reason…but plenty of bad ones, that’s for sure. Most of them personal…and some straddle the line between personal and professional in the least fun way anything can straddle anything. But the fandom-rending controversies of 2014 seem so fucking stupid now…it drives me to drink even more than usual. Future Geek Historians will look back upon these times and declare each and every one of us idiots. And they’ll have amble evidence. If there’s a Lord of the Rings forum on the internet that escaped the Great Hobbit Flame Wars unscathed, I haven’t found it. Even I got caught up in the spirit of the times, and my old reviews testify to that. I was pissed – and in my ignorance I placed my anger at the feet of writer/director Peter Jackson. Consider this a belated apology. Sorry, Pete. There’s a reason I don’t review these things the weekend after they come out anymore.
You gotta understand, though, some of us have been with Jackson since we found Bad Taste in a neglected corner of the Horror section of hometown video stores (back when there were such things). We placed faith in him – and for the three dark years that began this awful century, we were (more or less) rewarded. But that naive faith required several necessary illusions. Chief among them: that making three movies in a row that each made a billion dollars gross would get you some kind of pull with the Hollywood studio suits.
In reality, they don’t give a fuck about anything beyond turning movies into high-yield investment vehicles. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, or how often you prove you can make a good movie – be you hot, young Indy or middle-aged a multiple-Oscar winner – they will sabotage and undermine your efforts at every turn, out of the incredibly self-deluded belief that they are smarter than you. After all, they have a salary, and what do you have? An encyclopedic knowledge of film history gained from long years spent actually watching movies?
Evil Me: Puh-lease. You do know there’s an algorithm for that?
Oh, there’s algorithms for everything, nowadays. They decide what a final film will look like, much more so than any individual director, or even individual studio boss. Time was you could escape this fate by becoming your own producer – or, in a pinch, have your producer be your best friend. But if Steven Spielberg’s career proves anything, it’s that such efforts are no longer enough. Even being married to your producer will only get you so far these days. As People’s Exhibit A I present: the latter-day career of Peter Jackson.
He didn’t want to do these Hobbit movies, and I don’t blame him. After five years in Middle-Earth, you’d get sick of it, too. Sometimes I think no one wanted to make this…except the suits at New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers, who teamed up to distribute the Lord of the Rings movies…and became the same company in 2008, after no one went to see The Golden Compass. An obvious failure of Hollywood’s algorithms.
Evil Me: That one was not our fault. Market data clearly showed the books had massive penetration in all the key demographics, and—
Save it. Whatever the reason, the House that Freddy Kruger Built became a subsidiary of the WB, and Tolkien adaptations became their one and only guaranteed meal ticket…especially after the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes failed to make anyone care about Jason or Freddy again. Except Mortal Kombat fans, but we’re absurdly easy to please, and we’ll crawl through all nine levels of hell for the tiniest bit of fanservice. You have to make another Annihilation before you piss us off.
We were supposed to see a Hobbit movie in 2011, and it was supposed to be Guillermo del Toro’s Hobbit movie, too…despite his being a known hater of all this by-now-traditional, sword-and-sorcery fantasy stuff. One look at Pan’s Labyrinth should tell you del Toro’s into a much older fantasy tradition – one Disney stamped out years ago by taking all the “grim” out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, back when the Hobbit was just some weird kid’s book from an Oxford prof with three letters where his first name should be.
Then MGM had to go bankrupt and del Toro got so sick of the delays he went off to make Pacific Rim, leaving Jackson and Co. with the bag. That’s apparently when the real fun began. What should have been one film was already on its way to becoming two by this point…and then, halfway through making the second, orders apparently came down form on high: do a trilogy. And why does every single thing have to be at least a trilogy these days?
Evil Me: Because we ran out of Harry Potter books years ago. If their author had just continued writing them, none of this would’ve happened. There would’ve been no need to make more Batman films, or your beloved Man of Steel, or even that Green Lantern movie that so pained you, years ago…
Goddamnit, why’d you have to remind me that exists?
Evil Me: …no need to revitalize the Mad Max or make that Lego Movie you still refuse to see. All the divisive controversies your little clique has spent the last eight years chewing over might’ve been avoided…and who knows? You might still harbor the delusion that you have something in common with them.
*sigh* No, Age of Ultron and Fant4stic would’ve probably just killed that instead.
Evil Me: Pessimist.
Damn straight! I finally have not one, not two, but three big-budget, live-action Hobbit movies and I can’t sign off on any of ’em. Not even this one, which I sometimes like the best. It’s a real toss up. Desolation of Smaug has most of the character development and the world-building, but this is the one where things end, so every time I get to the credits I can make like the store manager in Silent Night, Deadly Night and go, “It’s over! Time to get shit-faced!”
To recap: Unexpected Journey is a fairly-faithful dramatization of the Hobbit’s first six chapters. Desolation of Smaug covers (and greatly expands upon) chapters seven to thirteen. The last six chapters are some of the shortest and lightest stuff Tolkien ever wrote in his life, because that’s when the “camera” pulls back. The old-man-telling-a-fairy-tale-to-kids tone begins to yield to the less personal, more High Mideival kind of prose that would serve Tolkien so well in Lord of the Rings. “The polite and rather old-fashioned language of such occasions” as he puts it, on page 279 of my copy. “Such occasions” being massive battles between armies of fantastical creatures. Which is pretty much all the back half of this movie is, so you can’t accuse anyone of false advertising.
Most accuse this trilogy of what Tolkien’s son and posthumous editor, Christopher, accused the original Trilogy (oh, god help us, that term’s applicable to two film franchises now) of doing back in 2013: “They gutted the book, making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” Also seems like there’s some Elf blood in the Tolkien family mixed drink, because they’re clearly born with the gift of prophecy.
Problem is, Tolkien’s an archivist, not a critic, so he makes the amateur critic mistake of using the name of a genre he doesn’t like as a synonyms for “Bad.” Hell, I did it plenty, myself, back in my younger days, so feel free to scroll through my archives for evidence of rank hypocrisy. But for real, may Eru save you from the horrors of actual ‘action films for 15 to 25-year-olds,’ Tolkienson. Come over to my house sometime and we can work through the Fast & Furious franchise together. Then we’ll see what (or whom) needs gutting.
Still, this is the most obvious action movie Jackson’s ever made. The back half is a near-continuious action sequence, as long as some full-length features. Even in its extended form, this is the shortest of Jackson’s Hobbit films…but it’s still a grueling watch, full of gratuitous amounts of fake tension and more CGI composite shots than you can shake a Elvish spear at….and yet…in spite of all that…I can’t help but love parts of it. As I love parts of all three Hobbit flicks. They shouldn’t exist, but they do, and they are never going away. Like Bard says, “we must salvage what we can.” Besides, any movie that starts off with a good ol’ fashioned dragonslaying is going to win points from me. As does any movie featuring Dwarven armored cavalry charges, Elvish phalanx formations, or Cate Blanchett as Nega-Galadriel.
There’s a lot to salvage here, especially now that we have the extended editions – or “The Whole Damn Movie” editions, as I call them. The other reason I decided to wait until these things were out on video. Nothing makes this paying theater-goer feel more cheated than the creeping sensation that there’s a Extended Edition in the piepline. If you’re going to mutate The Hobbit into a 9-hour monstrosity anyway, why cut out half the sub-plots you inserted? So it can be an 8-hour monstrosity instead?
Evil Me: Well, actually, yes. We do have a system in place. We’ve figured out exactly how often to show each movie, in each theater, per day. Or do you think these films make a billion dollars based on their “quality?”
No, I’ve got no delusions about that anymore. But no matter how much we might love making fun of his name, at least Benedict Cumberbatch makes a quality dragon. If I ruled the world, I’d make him and Billy Connolly fight over who gets Battle of the Five Armies’ MVP award. The Dwarves in these films have always danced around being Scottish, but Connolly (playing Dain, Thorin’s cousin and Lord of the Iron Hills) just runs with it, and it’s glorious.
What else? I like Thorin’s little psychotic break halfway through the film, in his now-gold-plated Gallery of the Kings, more for it’s metaphor than for it’s presentation. Because isn’t it funny a story that juxtaposes simple, country-squire life against the corrupting power of greed was itself corrupted by the greed of its corporate masters? I think so. Richard Armitage still leaves me going “meh,” but he’s still not here for me – he’s here for my mom’s demographic, because Aragorn’s only about twenty at this point in the story.
I also like how it seems you can have as many decapitations and maimings and manglings as you want in your film and still get a PG-13, as long as they’re Orc decapitations, maimings and manglings. And you’re a high budget Christmastime tent-pole flick from one of the Big Six studios. Hell, have a sextuple decapitation – the MPAA understands. Kevin Tsujihara needs a new boat! And isn’t it funny how the WB’s TV division turned into a magnet for fan enthusiasm and good will, no matter how much they fuck up, as soon as Ol’ Kev got kicked upstairs? Maybe that curse Alan Moore laid on them back in 2009 only effects the movie side of things?
Evil Me: No comment.
Oh, let me guess: you don’t believe in any magic that doesn’t come out of an app, right?
Evil Me: Wrong as usual. Let’s just say we have resources far beyond the scope of any stoned amateur from “No’thampton.”
All too true. And you use ’em to force proven filmmakers to make mediocre movies.
I don’t really know how to end this…but, then again, Tolkien didn’t really know how to end the book until he was almost done, either. Bilbo was supposed to slay the dragon in the first draft, but by the the time he got to the part where the Dwarves are in Thanduil’s prison he realized that would be ridiculous. So he created Bard, and the Arkenstone, and the concept of “dragon sickness,” and all the other narrative threads these movies threw at us every chance they got, back when they started up, to the annoyance of hardcore fans. They did that because – much as I love the book – I can’t deny all those threads come out of almost nowhere, and seeding them as early as possible was probably for the best. No good reason to hammering at them as often as these movies do…but then again, there’s no good reason for all the Legolast fanservice either.
Initially the people of Laketown were just going to be another standard issue, greedy-ass pack of human antagonists, but through Bard, Tolkien realized the people of Laketown were themselves in need of a good Homeland Reclaiming, and suddenly, the Third Act’s conflict resolved itself into something beyond the cut-n-dry, good-vs-evil narrative it was going to be. Animosity between Elves and Dwarves was already present in Tolkien’s mythology, so that’s three of the Five Armies. In the book, the Orcs descend upon Eribor to avenge the killing of their King…and because, hey – dragon’s dead and the mountain’s full of gold. Here, Sauron’s influence is made explicit and the White Council gets to be the Justice League of Middle-Earth I’m sure someone’s wanted them to be for a long time. So that’s four armies, and the Eagles make five.
This, by the way, this is the reason the Eagles don’t just land in Bag End, pick Frodo up, and give him a scenic fly-over of Mordor. I thought asinine re-examinations of that quote-unquote “plot hole” (which pedantic assholes have been going on about since at least 1955…but I’m sure you’ve just got tons of oh-so-original and creative thoughts on the subject) would die down after this, but nope. Tolkien knew they were a deus ex machina as soon as he used ’em as such, and he’d go into conniptions if he’d lived to hear people ask him to use them more. No one seems to’ve noticed how, every time Gandalf the Grey asks the Great Eagles for a favor, it usually involves leaving the safety of the air and the mountains and getting your talons dirty down here, on the ground, with the rest of us crazy terrestrials. Somebody usually ends up dead, and you’re surprised the Eagles sat the Wars of the Ring out? Besides, who do you think killed all the other dragons? An army of hard working single dads with photogenic kids? Who has the only other air force in Middle-Earth?
It’s not about the fuckin’ eagles, man – it’s about Beowulf. A king – last of a noble line, whose health symbolizes the health of his entire civilization – dying on the battlefield, with no one around to hear his last words but his faithful squire and one true friend. Battle of the Five Armies gets that part right, at least. Which is also why it’s my favorite Hobbit movie. Even though it shouldn’t exist.
Evil Me: That’s not saying very much.
Maybe not, but it’s over! Time to get shit-faced!
Evil Me: No it isn’t. You have more work to do. And this was little more than an elaborate ploy to throw shade at Warner Brothers before you praise them. A fruitless quest to avoid charges of “bias.” Do you know what your problem really is?
My abundance of expensive bad habits?
Evil Me: You actually want to be liked.
True. My midwestern upbringing taught me it was a first-step in getting people to actually listen. Then I realized no one listens to anyone who isn’t already rich or famous or famous for being rich. That I’m trapped in a culture of spectacle so detached from reality that pretty much anything goes. No wonder every one’s retreated into their self-reinforcing little cliques. Or that the only things that seems to unite anyone anymore are neurotic conspiracy theories. It used to be all about aesthetics, with fuck-all to do with morality, but now, even aesthetics take second place to the question, “Is my team winning? And is that other team of losers over there losing? Because if they aren’t losing, I’m not having fun.”
Evil Me: What are you even talking about?
Batman. And Superman. Wasn’t that obvious?