(Warning: The Hobbit; The Desolation of Smaug is mercilessly and comprehensively discussed below; major plot spoilers abound.)
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit: The Utter Ineptness of ‘The Desolation of Smaug’? by Andrew Gilbertson
Oh, Desolation of Smaug… what went wrong?
As of the time of this writing, it looks as if the Battle of Five Armies will be the only Jackson/Tolkien film that this author doesn’t see in the theaters. With a 7-month-old at home, time is at a premium… and frankly, after the massive disappoint of ‘Desolation,’ it doesn’t seem worth the favors called in for a 4-hour babysitting. Such was the legacy of utter rubbish descending from the second act of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.
But why did it turn out that way? What makes the film so bad, at its core?
The film’s issues are certainly evident from the start; a conversation scene in Bree that establishes absolutely nothing that we don’t already know, and is so utterly redundant that my jaw was on the floor, waiting for the waste of time to gain relevance. After that, a low-key intro leads us into a fairly slow Beorn introduction.
Mirkwood, at least, is where the film thrives- with its trippy hallucinations and spooky spider scenes. After so many speaking roles from the book (the wargs, the eagles, the magic purse) were dropped for the sake of consistency with the more ‘serious’ tone of PJ’s LOTR films, it was great to hear the spiders speaking- and having it only in the ring-realm was a great touch.
Even the divergence from the book, with Bilbo’s ring-mania leaving him to beat a centipede-thing to death, was a great thematic touch for the saga… all though it does work to strain credibility that Bilbo is then able to resist its corruption for so long in the intervening 60 years between sagas (unless something occurs in Battle of Five Armies to fix that).
From this one high-point, however, the film descends into a long spiral. The Elf King is made to look reasonable (but then treacherous and evil), while Thorin is made to look unreasonable (but then noble). The characterizations are all over the place, and the majority of the dwarves’ problem seem to come directly out of their own stubbornness. Worse, the out-of-nowhere romance between Kili and the new character Tauriel spins itself together out of thin air simply because the script demands it to. While I object to Tauriel in practice far less than I did in principle (I seriously hate Kate from LOST!), there doesn’t seem to be any reason whatsoever for her to take a shine to Kili, and the sudden softening of Elf/Dwarf relations in the saga is a poor thematic choice that lessens the impact of Legolas and Gimil’s friendship in the latter trilogy.
The absurdity of the barrel chase and its abuses against the laws of physics have been justly skewered elsewhere (CinemaSins’ youtube videos, for instance), so I will skip over that particular absurdity- straight to the bit that had me raging in the theater.
“I stuck him with a Morgul Shaft.”
Wha- I- I just- they can’t-
THAT’S NOT HOW MORGUL WEAPONS WORK!
The Morgul blade that so injured Frodo was a weapon from Minas Morgul, home of the Nazgul; it was deadly not just because it was crafted in the adopted home of such evil, but because it was imbued with and wielded by the evil that sprang from there! In this film, by contrast, they treat the prefix ‘Morgul’ as some sort of poison, like ‘cyanide’ or ‘curare’. It’s such a terrible misunderstanding of what makes a Morgul weapon deadly, it’s as if someone saw a Western in which a lethal new black-powder canon was brought to bear against the Cavalry fort, and then penned a prequel where one of the villains boasts “He’ll be dead within the hour- I stuck him with a deadly black-powder knife!”
From this supreme missing-of-the-point, we get to Laketown, and PJ demonstrates that he’s learned nothing from observing the downfall of George Lucas; he predicates the second act of the film primarily on the politics of a fictional land. Random squabbling over tarrifs and fish and power-plays goes on for far too long before the Dwarves depart for the Lonely Mountain… and then things really go off the rails.
While Bilbo’s ‘confrontation’ with Smaug is a great scene, the rest of the final act is composed of pure problematic-ness… and if that sounds like a word that is both made-up and arbitrary, don’t worry- the film’s finale is a thousand times moreso.
Firstly, Tauriel shows up to heal KIli, sealing the setup for an ill-fated romance that anyone who knows anything about the book in blindingly aware of the inevitable conclusion to (and thus, most likely, refusing to invest in). To heal Kili’s ‘Morgul poison,’ the Dwarves go on a long search for Kingsfoil- a bizarre and terrible narrative choice for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it makes this ancient, all-but-unknown cure (which only Aragorn knew of originally, and no one in Minas Tirith was familiar with in the novel) extremely common knowledge… and also begs the question of what the Dwarves figured they were going to do with it. It seems to require Elven magic to be effective… which is ALSO wrong, as it is only supposed to be the hands of the King that can work wonders with it.* (The hint’s in the name). The fimmakers seem to have conflated Aragorn and Arwen’s roles in healing Frodo from their previous film… and end up producing in this entry such a direct and uninspired rip-off/reprise of that plot point that it calls attention to its own pointlessness.
One could almost call these scenes laudable, however, in comparison to the mess that happens inside the Lonely Mountain. Following Bilbo’s confrontation (and coincidentally, the last of the material actually taken from the book), the film invents a climax so bizarre and out-of-place that Frodo’s little detour to Osgiliath looks positively inspired by comparison.
Watching the film, one can only assume that a planned Desolation of Smaug video game had been canceled, and the decision was made to salvage the final level in cinematic form. The bizarre, multi-stage, puzzle-solving-platformer format was so tailor-made to a tie-in game level-filler that you can almost hear a Thorin-soundalike instructing, “We need to stoke the boilers! Press X to pump the bellows!”
This was the first time in a Peter Jackson Middle-Earth film that this author actually found himself glancing at his watch and wondering when it was going to be over.
Smaug is made to look utterly inept as he is unable to catch any of the Dwarves, is hoodwinked by slapstick tricks, and can’t even manage to incinerate them in close quarters. Then, he decides- following pitched, furious battle with his essential, known-by-name nemesis who is now cornered up on an exposed platform- to take his revenge… on someone else, for no reason. He flies away to take his revenge on the Lake people who HAVEN’T attacked him and leaves those who have- and whom he hates- standing right in front of him, in flame-range, unhindered. It’s a bizarre and nonsensical choice that goes through expository-dialogue acrobatics in a vain attempt to justify itself… but in the alteration from solely Bilbo’s presence to the direct, bodily presence of Smaug’s specific foes, it becomes an act of pure absurdity.
But far less absurd, it seems, than the climatic act of this suddenly-abandoned slapstick war- following a shout about Dwarven vengeance which puts one in mind of trailers for a certain ‘Inglorious’ film about World War II revisionism, the Dwarves unveil a just-poured, ridiculously-giant golden statue (which was apparently an abandoned project being prepared at the time the Dwarves were forced to abandon the mountain?) which maintains its integrity for a few seconds before melting all over Smaug (with a viscosity that seems to defy physics).
This jaw-droppingly bizarre climax is maybe supposed to be…symbolic? Instead, it comes across as merely comedic (for all the wrong reasons, rather like a 70s Godzilla movie; not intentionally amusing, but hilarious nonetheless), especially when combined with its utter failure (this climax has precisely 0% impact or effect on the plot, resolves nothing, accomplishes nothing, and goes nowhere) and Smaug’s subsequent decision to fly away and retaliate against someone else, rather than the people that just tried to drown him in gold.
Now, this isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have a few good moments. Along with the aforementioned Mirkwood scenes, Gandalf’s bits (especially the tomb scene) are mostly good (even if the bodily manifestation of Sauron was a bit much for this author).
But the Desolation of Smaug is riddled with so many issues that, at least for this author, it is rendered unwatchably bad. Not a ‘Return of the Jedi,’ as it were (regarded by some as a lesser quality entry in a still-beloved series of films), or even a ‘Phantom Menace’ (regarded by many as a major quality-drop from the highly-regarded predecessors)- no, in terms of quality dropoff from the other entries in the series, Desolation of Smaug moves straight to the level of a ‘Star Wars Holiday Special.’
Yet as many lampoonable moments as the film contains, it is not these setpieces-of-awful that truly wreck the film; in pacing and content, the film fails to hang together at a basic level that transcends any particular scene. The narrative itself fails to engage- and there is a particular reason for that.
On the Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition, there is a documentary chronicling how the Hobbit Duology was converted into a Hobbit trilogy, and I would be fascinated to watch that. But however the films may have been constructed, at its core, the notion that ‘I think we have enough footage t expand this into three movies’ is an inherently flawed one.
Not only is editing the art of refinement by trimming (which becomes the downfall of nearly every ‘He’s a genius- he can do no wrong!’ great franchise director, from Lucas to Roddenberry, and now to jackson, as studios stop forcing them to refine their work…), but narrative storytelling in the modern day, even if it doesn’t use the traditional 3-act structure, still contains a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Throwing whatever unrestrained, unrefined footage may have been shot onto screen and partitioning it into 2-hour(+) chunks doesn’t change one simple fact- there are now two beginnings, two middles, and two ends, as scripted…to be divided up between three films. No matter how they’re arranged, at least two of them will inevitably be missing crucial elements.
Again, I haven’t seen ‘The Battle of Five Armies.’ Badly as I was burned by ‘Desolation,’ and owing to the aforementioned logistics of babysitting, the rare opportunity to get out to the theater is not going to be chanced on the follow-up to such a disappointment. While I expect to see one long two-and-a-half-hour fight scene that has all the worst aspects of ‘Return of the King’s uninvestable excesses, without any of that film’s sublime successes, I still hope that in some way, this incomplete narrative (which seems to be bequeathed only the ‘end’ of the original second part) can manage to craft a satisfying narrative. (Most of you probably already know the answer to that; I suspect that I’ll find out through my friend Redbox sometime in the next few months).
But when it comes to ‘The Desolation of Smaug,’ the film fails not because of redundant dialogue, boring politics, or absurd cartoony climaxes. It fails because a set of plot points that were never meant to stand on their own are being made to- with only fluff that was meant to be trimmed out in the editing process to fill the gaps and form a still-incomplete storyline. With a pedigree like that, it’s almost impossible not to fail.
*Well, okay, and a hound. But there’s no precedent for Elven usage, to my knowledge- nor for non-Ranger, non-Numenorean knowledge of Kingsfoil’s properties by the time of the Third Age.
About the Author: Andrew Gilbertson
“Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so. He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…”