Friday, December 13, 2013
My Desolation Of Smaug Review: Oh Smaug The Garrulous And Incompetent
Right off the bat, I should establish that I'm inclined toward Tolkien purism, although if you follow this blog, you'd already know that. I think it's possible to improve on T's handling of some stuff, but...for the most part, you're better off sticking with his original approach. That was true of Jackson's LOTR movies, and it's triply true of his Hobbit films. He seems to have decided that he was the real driving force behind the first trilogy's success...he wasn't. Mostly, when he's adding his own material---and Smaug is practically all Jackson, with the original story as the merest outline---he injects very little but bathos, lousy characterization, and bombast. Have you ever seen Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen? Consider that bit where the dimwit actor begins that windbaggy speech about opening the gate, and then the Baron comes up and says, "No, no, all wrong...Open the GATE!" Well, Jackson is just like that actor, a doctrinaire hack, and if it turns out he's been hitting the nose-candy too, I won't be the least bit surprised.
Smaug opens well enough, cribbing some material from Unfinished Tales, Gandalf meeting Thorin in Bree and setting up the whole plot...I don't like Jackson's grubby version of Bree, but the scene worked well enough on its own terms. Then we skip to a year later, Thorin and company with Bilbo running from the CG orcs that were chasing them at the end of the first flick; as effects, the orcs are rather better than they were in the first outing...although Jackson still should've stuck to actual actors in makeup, as in the LOTR movies.
We get our first glimpse of Beorn, in bear-shape, although he looks about as much like a bear as Jackson's wargs looks like wolves, which is how they should look. The scene where Gandalf wheedles the dwarves into Beorn's protection simply gets chucked. Beorn in human form is a dodgy conception...he looks rather like a hirsute dirty Kevin Costner...it's just strange. But we don't spend too much time with him. In fact, unless there's some sort of big payoff with him at the battle of the Five Armies, it's hard to see why he's in the movie at all.
On to Mirkwood...it's all gnarly roots and scary forest cliche, whereas, in actuality, it should be a great big nasty black evergreen climax forest with virtually no undergrowth. We don't get the stream that puts Bombur to sleep and the other dwarves carrying him around, maybe mercifully so, given the quality of Jackson's dwarf humor...we do have the scene where Bilbo climbs up to take bearing and sees all the butterflies, and that's cool.
When he comes down, we jump right into the spider attack without sufficient buildup. That being said, the spider-fight itself is my favorite action in the movie...I liked it better than the Shelob sequence in Return of the King, and the spider scene in Kong, which was my favorite part of that. Even so, Jackson's insistence on blurry monochromatic ring-o-vision whenever Bilbo puts on the ring partially hamstrings the beginning of the fight, because you just can't see anything very well. Then Jackson seems to reconsider, and he has Bilbo take off the ring for no reason. Just stupid. The same situation wrecks much of his conversation with Smaug later on...but I digress.
Wood-elves Elves bail our protagonists out, but imprison them. Legolas is back, rather meaner than in the first trilogy...his father is Thranduil, (Lee Pace) who's rather a prick , but...I buy it. The big new addition is Tauriel, a buttkicking female elf played by Evangeline Liley, who all the reviewers are just wild about, even though she's just a ho-hum stereotype. A female warrior! Golly, we sure haven't been getting a ton of those lately, no sir. Compounding my disgust with my fellow critics is this crap they keep spouting about the lack of commanding female characters in Tolkien, as if he didn't come up with Galadriel or Luthien, or Eowyn. Tauriel is a lousy piece of work, and the people who thinks she's great should be forced to watch some Brigitte Lin movies like Swordsman 2 or Peking Opera Blues. It's possible to do this female warrior stuff well, but Jackson ain't the man for the job.
Making things vastly worse is the fact that Tauriel gets romantic over one of the dwarves, Kili. The scenes with them mooning over each other are the most chilling pieces of cinematic idiocy I've been subjected to recently, ill-written and amazingly mawkish. Every time that particular subplot raised its hideous head, I felt like I'd been prematurely consigned to a sodden adult diaper. Whew.
The underground elvish kingdom looks like a theme park. There are many bridges and catwalks. As a matter of fact, you begin to notice after a while that it resembles the subterranean lair of the Goblin King in Part One. Later on, Dol Guldur is full of bridges and catwalks, and so's Laketown, and so is the cavernous interior of the Lonely Mountain. Frightfully monotonous. One of the things I loved about the first trilogy was the way they did a knockout job on Tolkien's settings; there's very little of that here. Even when they do follow his lead somewhat, they smother it in preposterous excess.
Speaking of excess, the sequence where the dwarves escape downstream from the elves in barrels---with orcs shooting arrows at everyone---is one of the things that works relatively well in my opinion, and I wouldn't have thunk it. The whole thing is nonsensical; somehow the elves haven't even noticed that their woods have been infiltrated by the orcs, and the dwarves are floating in open barrels in rapids, and the barrels would've filled up in notime and sunk---but the special effects are surprisingly convincing, with really great water (where were these water-FX-honchos when Jackson did that ship-going-through-the-barrier wall garbage in Kong?), and there's loads of good violence.
But then we get to Bard, and Laketown, and the movie starts to sink and there aren't any lifeboats. I didn't quite realize it at the time, because I'd been informed that Smaug was tremendous, but no...the movie turns into a shit sandwich after the barrel chase. There's mucho wheel-spinning regarding the characterization of Bard, who will kill Smaug in Part Three, but really doesn't have much of a role in the book; punching up his part made sense. But Jackson serves up a whole uninteresting family for him, and has him being a quasi-rebel subverting the evil Master, and everything's way in excess of function, and grimy and greasy and fishy, and the dwarves sneak into Bard 's house through his toilet and...
I breathed a sigh of relief when we left Laketown.
But even when we get up to Erebor, we keep wandering back to Laketown, because Kili's been shot in the leg with an orc-arrow, and Thorin won't let him come to Erebor, and other dwarves stay behind because they're drunk, and orcs infiltrate Laketown, but Legolas and Tauriel are pursuing them, and there's a big stupid irelevant fight, and Tauriel and Kili moon at each other some more while she heals his leg...
Oh, and the Erebor stuff is also intercut with Gandalf sneaking into Dol Guldur and having an encounter with Sauron that doesn't work bigtime and won't have any real dramatic payoff in the third film...
At least there's isn't much with Radagast.
But on to the titular dragon.
You've been informed he's the greatest dragon in the history of film. Personally, I prefer the dragon in Dragonslayer. But Smaug is niftily voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and he's a good special effect, although I thought the facial design verged on cartoony. All in all, if Jackson had simply stuck to the source material, the sequence would've been at least as good as the Gollum biz in Part One.
But Jackson lays waste to the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug. Wrecks it, destroys it. Deprives it of any sort of internal logic. After some impressive buildup involving lots of cascading treasure as Smaug wakes up, you have Bilbo putting on the ring, and ringo-vision ensues, and the whole opening of the conversation is in that, and it just isn't visually satisfactory. Then, a la the spider scene, Bilbo, for no reason at all, takes off the ring, the only thing keeping him invisible and alive. From that point it's a ton of talking-villain horsecrap, with Smaug going on and on, inventing reasons for why he shouldn't kill Bilbo at any given time. It's just effing, effing dumb.
But it's not as dumb as what follows.
Jackson, as I said, is a completely doctrinaire film-maker, and when he opted to turn Tolkien's one-volume kid's book into a three-part extravaganza, he felt compelled to inject a vast quantity of climactic loud and stupid into parts one and two, well, because...you just got to. The end of the first Hobbit movie, with the tilting pine trees, was maybe the single worst part, and the climax of Smaug is the worst part of either movie so far. For some reason, after Bilbo's had his brush with the dragon, the dwarves decide they've got to rush off to "the dwarf forges" and do...something. Really, you can't tell at all what they've got in mind. There's an endless amount of running here and there, swinging on chains, sliding down slides, riding in mining-cars and on rivers of molten gold, screaming, and apparently fulfilling some sort of complicated plan (which couldn't have been agreed upon beforehand) to...
Run here and there, swing on chains, slide down slides, ride in mining-cars and on rivers of molten gold, and...pour an instantly liquid giant golden dwarf-statue onto Smaug, whom it has no effect upon, and there wouldn't be any reason why anyone would think it would anyway. He starts to fly off to Erebor, acting like he's dangerous, but he's not. He can't catch anybody, mostly because he talks too much. He's the most incompetent dragon ever. He's about on a par with the zombies in Shaun of the Dead, who at least were just zombies. Yeah, Mr. Cumberbatch has a good dubbing voice, but the characterization is horrendous.
And then the movie just stops.
Martin Freeman is good as Bilbo, and Mckellan is excellent as Gandalf, as usual. I also rather like the fellow who plays Balin, who ever he is. I was happy to see Orlando Bloom again. The music was nondescript. By the time I got out of the theater, I was really glad to. This thing is like Temple of Doom Part 2 or Van Helsing Part 3.
Jackson really seems to have lost it.