I finally caught up with the second instalment of the Hobbit movie on Virgin flights to and from Sydney (half going and half returning). It was that or a choice of 6 Planet of the Apes movies. While I found the first instalment unwatchable, I actually got into the second half of the second. This was because the architectural special effects were better. (And the dwarves were slightly less irritating: Balin almost transformed himself from a joke into a character.) The whole project is so derivative of the Lord of the Rings that there is no sense of wonder, and the special effects are, on the whole, unconvincing, largely because they are too quick. James Cameron in avatar understood that you need time to digest the wonder of special effects, or they merely flick by. In Hobbit 2 the elf city is dreadful, the tackiest of sets that makes the sets and special effects of a 19 50s sci-fi movie look good.
But things look up with the lake city, which has interesting northern European woodwork everywhere reminiscent of the timber churches of Finland and Russia, or the wooden houses of the Hanseatic ports. And there was a delightful Baroque touch with Stephen Fry as the king of the lake city (a character not in the book as I recall). Stephen Fry is hammy at the best of times, and effectively destroyed the storyteller’s illusion when he appeared as a policeman in Gosford Park. But here his hamminess is in keeping with the hamminess of the whole. In one of those long lingering shots of the faces of actors trying to be expressive that Jackson is fond of using—how many times did we get the Bilbo Baggins ‘confused and worried’ expression lingering on screen, or an elf’s digitally enhanced blue eyes staring at the camera trying to convey something of his elvish nature?—Stephen Fry’s face is surprisingly mobile, and his character surprisingly interesting for a Peter Jackson character. And, of course, he was dressed up in fully Baroque king-raiment, which was rather splendid. There was a nasty little adviser lifted from the Lord of the Rings but without the point, since while Stephen Fry’s character may have been a buffoon he wasn’t, and didn’t need to be, under the adviser’s spell: he had plenty of kingly authority; it is just that he is an anachronism. Of course, you are meant to sympathise with the communistic radical Bard the Bowman (who happens to be young, energetic and handsome, rather than a boring old fart), but in their exchanges I sympathised with the king and his dilemma.
The visual effects of the dwarf city under the mountain were rather good art deco crossed with romanesque cathedral crossed with subterranean MONA (although we have been her before in Lord of the Rings). There were some nice Piranesian shots (but all gone before you could digest them). The halls filled with dragon treasure in which Smaug was buried were rather good—significantly this is a scene that is quite vivid in the book. The plotting was deeply silly and essentially padding, like the whole trilogy. We all know from the book that Smaug is brought down by Bard the Bowman over the lake city by targeting his weak point discovered by Bilbo, which is an essential part of the mythic structure of the plot. But being a movie there had to be a big battle with Smaug in the dwarves’ caves. As in Total Recall, there is some unbelievably vast machinery that is ready to go only has to be reactivated by pulling on a lever (but seemingly started up as well by Smaug’s fiery breath). The technology is basic but large scale, and seems to be gold smelting. My heart sunk at one point when suspended mine carts appeared: not the chase through mine tunnels again, having just had half an hour of barrels! But they managed to avoid most (if not all) of that cliché.
By implausibly elaborate means this all results in Smaug being confronted by a giant gold statue of a dwarf king, which then melts and fills a vast hall with liquid gold in which Smaug disappears. Then he pops up again all gilded, looking like he had hopped off a chinoiserie garden pavilion. This makes him mean, I mean really mean, crying ‘wevenge!, wevenge! (or am I getting this mixed up with another movie?) so he flies off to attack the lake city, the gilding having disappeared. The film ends here. Talk about a phony climax! We are denied the true climax—Smaug’s attack on the lake city—and instead get much pointless (if visually arresting) fooling around with molten gold, which has nothing to do with Smaug’s downfall. Not to mention all the other loose ends. Even the middle part of a trilogy needs some kind of narrative unity. The reason why Lord of the Rings worked was that Tolkien’s plot was watertight, and this carried you over any Jacksonian tackiness of staging. In The Hobbit Jackson and his collaborators are stuck with having to be faithful to a rather thin plot and jazzing up the spectacle. The result is a great deal of plot irrelevance, whch makes you lose interest in the spectacle.
Incidentally, the art historian in me wants to work backwards from the movie to create an accurate ‘restitution’ (to use Pierre de La Ruffinière du Prey’s favourite word) of what the dwarf palace was really like. But I guess architectural consistency is too much to expect.