In terms of cinema, Peter Jackson is very much a known quantity. He’s an auteur in the truest sense; his work is unique, consistent and immediately recognisable, and he has the vision and ambition to tackle works of a seemingly impossible scale. The Lord of the Rings trilogy essentially proved to us that films had reached their visual zenith, that filmmakers now had the technology to depict literally any world or narrative on screen. Whatever could be imagined could be realised.
So before the curtains even opened on The Desolation of Smaug, I was already wriggling excitedly in my seat, surrounded by a remarkably bohemian twenty-something crowd – and my mother – in the darkened cinema. Seriously, the guy in front of me had such unbelievable dreads and runic tattoos that he’d have blended into Middle Earth quite perfectly, but I digress.
The second instalment of Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy picks up more or less where the previous instalment left us. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the eponymous hobbit, is still in the company of Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and thirteen dwarves, led by heir apparent Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage); they’re on their way to the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves’ ancestral homeland, which is still unfortunately home to the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). On the final leg of their journey, they must pass through the hallucinogenic and arachnid-infested Mirkwood, escape the watch of the arrogant and pretty Wood Elves (including Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel), and cross the floating ghetto-town of Esgaroth, whose Master is portrayed by the incomparable Stephen Fry.
If that synopsis sounds like a mouthful, that’s because it is. In true Peter Jackson style, this is an absolute juggernaut of a film, whose almost three-hour runtime spans a staggering amount of characters, locations and exposition. But while the weight of this material could so easily have been unwieldy in untrained hands, Jackson has done this sort of thing time and time again. Every second is masterfully paced – wild and unrelenting action sequences are punctuated by moments of serious reflection and character development. A broad, sweeping pan of Middle Earth’s forests and mountains can, all at once, contract inwards to a small, intimate exchange or a lightly comedic euphemism in a cramped Wood Elven cell.
And so, in spite of the film’s length (and not to mention that this is simply one third of a greater narrative), it never seems to drag at all. While Bilbo and the dwarves take centre stage, several other plot lines are explored to keep things fresh – Gandalf’s horrific discovery of the necromancer Sauron, or the tale of Bard, the man fated to bring about the demise of Smaug. There’s even considerable attention given to the unusual dwarf/elf love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili, which was quite frankly hilarious. Orlando Bloom’s smouldering blue-eyed pout while decked out as the androgynously pretty Legolas (seriously, that guy brushes his hair more than Marcia Brady), watching scruffy little Kili put the moves on his girl using filthy innuendo and sob stories about his mother, was quite possibly the very finest moment of this film.
I only wish I could look at Evangeline Lilly without immediately picturing her as Kate on Lost, running through the woods screaming alternately “Jack!” and “Sawyer!” while crying and tripping over. But that’s my issue to deal with, I suppose.
I had but one objection to The Desolation of Smaug, odd though it may be. For those of you unaware, Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is one of the first major cinematic releases to be shot at 48 frames per second, rather than the usual 24. The result is a smoother, ‘glossier’ sense of animation, closer to what home television and video game technology have already achieved. When I saw the first instalment in the trilogy a year ago, it was by chance only the 24 FPS version, so this was the very first time I’d seen a “High Frame Rate” film on the big screen.
And, quite honestly, the combination of 3D and HFR was extremely disorientating. I say this as someone who habitually plays video games at no less than 60 frames per second, so I’m no stranger to that degree of motion, but in the context of the big screen… it’s bizarre. ‘Floaty’ is the best word I can use to describe it. It literally felt, at times, like I was watching Quantic Dreams’ or Naughty Dog’s latest tech video, an extended video game cinematic with stunningly rendered people who nevertheless weren’t ‘real’ people.
At its worst, it was a little like watching a telemovie. And that’s a sad indictment of a film which is otherwise ridiculously, jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly, spectacularly, astoundingly stunning from start to finish.
Admittedly, I did gradually begin to adapt to it, and found it less noticeable by the final hour; nevertheless, I do believe it slightly robbed the film of that epic cinematic quality I enjoyed so immensely in Jackson’s previous work. I’m aware that HFR films are apparently ‘the future’, according to the people who make those kinds of sweeping decisions, but I don’t think I’m ready to jump on the bandwagon yet. There’s a certain romanticism in a can of film reel, a kind of heightened reality even in the most brutally realistic films that filmmakers should not so easily relinquish.
Otherwise, there’s very little criticism one can level at The Desolation of Smaug. In the genre of high fantasy, there is, quite simply, no higher fantasy than this. The cast is extraordinary – Ian McKellen is clearly relishing his role as Gandalf at this point, as is the rest of the troop of British character actors that Jackson has assembled. Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo, an absolute innocent who struggles not only with the darkness and malice he encounters in this unfamiliar world, but the corrupting influence of the Ring he carries, perversely relying on it more and more for survival as it quietly twists his mind. And Stephen Fry is as always Stephen Fry, and that’s exactly what we love about him.
It’s an elaborate fable, an immense tale of good versus evil, and a sound example of the sort of unbridled joy and magic only cinema can bring. I know that many were upset by Guillermo Del Toro’s departure from the project a few years ago, but it seems somehow fitting that Peter Jackson should be at the helm of this trilogy – Middle Earth is his home, his stomping ground, and he treats every tree and blade of grass with reverence.
If you truly wish to get swept up in The Desolation of Smaug, though, prepare your eyes for the experience. In a film populated by orcs, dragons, giant spiders, wargs and necromancers, the greatest threat to Middle Earth may actually be its hypnotic frame rate.
Oh actually, one last criticism. No one, but NO ONE in this goddamn movie builds their elaborate rock-hewn cities with HANDRAILS. Elven or dwarf, it’s all the same – steep stone stairways and narrow bridges over lethal chasms, and not a single handrail to be found. I mean, where is an OH&S representative each time these vainglorious monarchs commission another gaudily impractical deathtrap? How many people over the thousand year histories of these kingdoms have just slipped one day and plummeted screaming into the earth? It’s outrageous, honestly. Even fantasy has its limits.