The Hobbit: An Interrupted Journey
So, my spouse and I went out last night to finally see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We’d been looking forward to it for years, obviously, and yet we were unable to see it right when it opened; my spouse insisted on seeing it together, so we had some scheduling issues. But we finally sat down last night to immerse ourselves in Peter Jackson’s newest creation.
So how was it? Well, I’m not sure, because we only saw about 20 minutes. My sweetie had such an overpowering, viscerally negative reaction to the thing that she finally insisted on bailing, right about the time Gandalf brought out the map of the Lonely Mountain. My own reaction to the film (wait, “film” seems wrong somehow–”movie”? “show”? “presentation”?) was a bit more positive, but still not terribly enthusiastic. Astonishingly, I’m not even sure I want to go back and finish it.
So what went wrong?
Much has been made about the look of the movie (yes, “movie” works for now), and it really is new and different in that regard, so let’s start there. The Hobbit looks bizarre, at least in the high-frame-rate 3D that PJ intended it for. It’s not like film, and it’s not like video; it’s something new that we’ve never seen before, and I don’t think we really know how to process it.
(Gareth Daley, the camera supervisor on the film, appears to agree; “we’ve had 80 years of watching 24fps”, he says, so a change as fundamental as this will take some getting used to. I think he has something there.)
Reviewers and audience members have had a hard time describing what, exactly, is so strange about the visuals. The image is unbelievably sharp and smooth, and everything looks far more realistic. But, paradoxically, this increased realism, somehow, plays up the artificiality of the whole thing; the spectacular things we’re seeing actually look more fake. I’ve read somewhere that the set, makeup and costume people faced a real challenge creating stuff that looked right on camera, so that might have something to do with it, but I’m not convinced.
My personal take, after some thought, is that it looks like a digital still image come to life–as if somebody had grabbed our 12-megapixel point-and-shoot and used it for each individual frame. I’ve read up on the Red Epic cameras that were used on The Hobbit, and the maximum resolution is about 14 MP; this is substantially higher than the 2-megapixel HD format normally used for digital cinema. So I think my intuition isn’t too far off.
The other major change in the filmmaking process here is the higher frame rate, and here is where I think PJ made a big mistake. There’s a fair amount of research on how quickly the brain interprets the information coming in from our senses–the brain’s native frame rate, if you will–and what we know isn’t all that encouraging for filmmakers like PJ or James Cameron who want to push the envelope.
This article sums up the problem pretty well. Essentially, it has to do with the uncanny valley–the discomfort felt by people when confronted by something artificial that closely approximates reality but doesn’t entirely succeed. Robotics researchers and digital animators have known about this for many years. When we see something that’s clearly artificial–such as a cartoon face–we react to it in one way, and when we encounter a real human face, we react another way. But when a simulation is somewhere in between–something that approaches naturalism but doesn’t quite get there–the remaining differences create much greater disquiet in the viewer, to where many people can feel actual revulsion.
The idea here is that the reproduction of reality provided by film or video creates a similar reaction. While our eyes work at around 66fps, we’re only neurologically able to process about 40fps. So The Hobbit‘s 48fps is crossing the line where we stop perceiving it as simulation and start perceiving it as reality.
And so our minds start seizing on any imperfection in the simulation and amplify it. We may not be able to articulate exactly what’s wrong, and so many people find it impossible to explain why the experience puts them off. But the phenomenon is very real. And so we get people saying “it looks fake”, without them being able to say why it looks fake–and Peter Jackson ends up spending far more time and energy trying to create something that looks utterly real, then being undermined by his own process.
I would be interested to see other things shot in this way, to explore my own reaction. In particular, I’d like to see something unmistakably real, such as a rock concert; I might have less trouble with that than with an epic fantasy movie. (Although, come to think of it, that may just cause me to seize on other bits of artifice, such as the editing or framing.)
Okay. So there we are with the technological bits. But even without that, there’s still the issue of the filmmaking (whoops, moviemaking) itself. And here, we get a problem that I don’t think would be fixed by watching in standard 24fps 2D, or on DVD, or whatever.
Jackson’s previous epic, The Lord of the Rings, was based on a very long book–about a thousand pages, divided by the publisher into three volumes–and included a vast amount of exposition and detail illustrating the scope and history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s created world. There’s so much in LOTR that many people felt for decades that no film could possibly do it justice. As it turned out, Jackson pulled it off–but even then, he had to take some liberties with the story, and what he eventually gave us was nine hours long (or 11.5 in the extended version), took seven years to make, and cost $300 million. And still, for those familiar with the books, there is still a tremendous amount of stuff that had to be left out.
With The Hobbit, Jackson had the opposite problem. Tolkien’s book is around 300 pages, and is directed explicitly at children. The story is straightforward and easy to follow, without a lot of added context or subplots. Oh, there’s plenty tying it to LOTR and to the larger world, but none of that is particularly necessary to enjoy the story.
Peter Jackson could easily have made a single 2.5-hour film of The Hobbit, and it would have been amazing. But that’s not what he did. The Lord of the Rings films were an immense worldwide success, a multiyear phenomenon on the scale of the Star Wars or Harry Potter films, and he clearly wanted to replicate that. (And, of course, the studios were eager for another $3 billion windfall.) But The Hobbit just doesn’t have enough in it to support such a project.
Jackson tried to deal with this by adding contextual material from elsewhere in Tolkien’s work. For instance, the current film has a long expository prologue, narrated by Bilbo Baggins, explaining the story of the dragon Smaug’s attack on the dwarf kingdom at the Lonely Mountain. Other sections of the trilogy will apparently deal with events elsewhere in Middle-earth, such as the struggle of the wizards’ White Council against the evil Necromancer. This fight is only fleetingly hinted at in the book and could easily have been ignored, but including it gives PJ an excuse to drag in tons of other characters we know from the previous films, such as
Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman. And, from what I saw and what I’ve read in reviews, it appears that nearly every single paragraph in the book is in the film, whether it needed to be or not, and padded to an unimaginable extent.
This, IMHO, was Peter Jackson’s critical mistake. He was so focused on duplicating his accomplishment on LOTR that he ended up stretching this fun, simple children’s fantasy into a grotesque parody of itself. The Hobbit films, from what I’ve seen and read, will be a nine-hour epic monstrosity, spread out over three years, with a pretty good two-hour fantasy flick screaming to be let out from its vast, elephantine bulk.
I know, I know, I haven’t actually seen the whole movie. Point taken. It’s really not fair for me to criticize a film based on the first 20 minutes, and normally I wouldn’t do so. But, to be honest, I’m not sure I even want to sit through the whole bloody thing. I probably will at some point–although I may not bother with the 48fps 3D version again–but I will frankly be dreading the experience.
There are parts of it that do seem to work. Martin Freeman makes a great Bilbo. Ian McKellen is always a pleasure (although he is clearly older, despite the movie taking place 60 years earlier, and he looks tired and bored in the beginning; maybe he perks up later on). The special effects, of course, are top-notch. And what little I saw of Richard Armitage as Thorin was encouraging; he has the proper gravitas.
But in the end, do I really want to put myself through this? Do I really want to see what is probably my favorite book of all time turned into a bloated mess, and then not be able to read it again without remembering what Jackson did to it?
And do I want to potentially taint my many wonderful memories of the Lord of the Rings films?
I haven’t decided yet. I’m severely torn between my desire to give Peter Jackson–one of my favorite filmmakers, and not just for LOTR–the benefit of the doubt and see this through, and my instinct to run screaming away from any theater showing the bloody thing.
We will see.
(Correction: Yes, I know, Elrond is actually in the book. Sorry; I was writing quickly and didn’t catch it.)
UPDATE: I’ve now seen the whole film, and I have a second writeup here. My opinion has improved somewhat, though I still have serious reservations.