Sunday, 22 December 2013

Desolation of Smaug: The Aliens vs. Predator of Cinematic Tolkien

Now that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has been out for some two weeks, there seems to be a general consensus that it’s not only a lesser film than last year’s An Unexpected Journey, but easily the weakest of Jackson’s Middle-Earth films to date. The reasons for this vary from person to person – general bloat, extra-Tolkien-ian invention, video-game-aesthetics, action-movie clichés, overt servility as an LOTR prequel, over-reliance on CGI, etc., etc. In what follows, however, I offer my own, hopefully somewhat unique, critique of it…

One of the greatest contributory factors to the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s magic was that it took place in a world wholly other and apart from our own. Tolkien always maintained that creating Middle-Earth was a purely formal exercise for him, with no real-world implications whatsoever, but the key was that he took the formal exercise entirely seriously as such. His academic specializations in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon history, language, and folklore provided him with the raw material to create a world so detailed – so rich in culture and tradition – as to feel real in a way that (seemingly) no previous fairy stories ever had. Paradoxically, Middle-Earth became more fantastical for seeming less so. Being given enough texture of detail to really believe that Theoden’s people would not have felt out of place in the England that Harold II ruled on the eve of the Norman invasion meant that the wizards and balrogs seemed less fantastically imaginary than they would have otherwise. Fantastical beings that seem really to exist in their own densely historicized world, rather than simply being appreciable as the Freudian projections of the author – presented sui generis and at face value – was and remains an amazing literary achievement. More than enough, for plenty of readers, to offset Tolkien’s insufferably retrograde views on most real-world matters.

It was exactly this dynamic that Jackson captured so successfully in the films. One got the sense that the locations we saw were deeply imbued with a history which we could understand and appreciate, but that is nonetheless nothing to do with our world. And it is this dynamic that Jackson loses badly in The Desolation of Smaug. In retrospect, the opening sequence gives a foretaste, although the first-time viewer won’t know it at the time. We’re back in Bree – “On the Borders of the Shire,” a subtitle helpfully reminds us – watching Thorin tramp through the streets, and arrive at the Prancing Pony.  The obvious, calculated re-tread of The Fellowship of the Ring, right down to Jackson making the same cameo as a carrot-munching hobo, doesn’t bother me. What does, with retrospect, is the way the sequence is handled. In Fellowship, the scene there was heavily stylized to underscore Frodo’s discomfiture at being away from the Shire for the first time, with the Ring already working on him, and Gandalf unaccountably not there. We got a lot of lurid, slow-motion close-ups of scruffy, bearded, hard-drinking men, all potentially gazing threateningly at Frodo. This scene would climax in one of the most vivid images of the trilogy: his slip backwards, into an overhead shot of him grabbing for the Ring in mid-air… only for it to slip onto his finger, whereby the bar of the Prancing Pony is replaced by the giant eye of Sauron declaring “I see you.” The Prancing Pony might have resembled an innocuous medieval pub in theory, but in practice the resemblance was negligible.

In Desolation of Smaug, however, Jackson goes the complete opposite route. Here, we see Gandalf meet Thorin with a mug of ale and a basic hunk of bread in front of him. Gandalf catches the attention of a passing hale and hearty waitress and says “I’ll have the same.” This is soon brought to him in the course of his tête-à-tête with Thorin. There’s really not much more to it than that. The scene is handled with ordinary film grammar – no surreal subjectivity of any kind, and certainly no ringwraiths bursting in later on. The Prancing Pony has now become, in practice, the innocuous town pub it only was in theory before.
Again, all this is not in itself a problem. The problem is that it foreshadows the course of the film from the second act on: the film’s vision of Laketown deviates too far from Middle-Earth’s fantastical side, and becomes virtually indistinguishable from a setting in our world a few centuries past. Laketown, as we see it in Desolation of Smaug, is essentially a harbour town in Georgian England, and a few minutes of screen time spent there is sufficient to totally remove the spectator from the epic fantasy realm of Middle-Earth. Far from attempting to downplay this, Jackson seems almost to have perversely embraced it. When Bard first arrives at the town gates on the Long Lake, he has to reckon with “Alfrid,” the town Master’s deputy, who is characterized as exactly the sort of hatefully officious, micro-megalomaniac, middle-management type one is occasionally unlucky enough to meet in the real world. His only concern is with stamping Bard’s paperwork, and then sneeringly informing him that he’s only registered to be carrying barrels, not fish, and thus that he’ll have to dump the latter overboard, the town’s food shortages notwithstanding. This seems so wearyingly relatable to Earth in the here and now, that the elves and orcs we saw just a few moments ago already seem less real.

This only continues when we meet the Master himself, as played by Stephen Fry. It’s seeing the interior of his house – with its canopy bed, its dark oak panelling, its framed portrait of him above the mantle – that really solidifies the film’s Georgian England connotations. Along with this, there’s Alfrid’s warning him that “the people are growing restless; there’s even talk of an election,” to which the Master can only say piffle and demand a brandy. It’s exactly the same tone one’s read or seen a thousand times before in British literature and television adaptations: the degenerated old-school squire, landowner, or aristocrat refusing to accept that his powers aren’t innate in the natural order of things, and that majority rule is anything other than absurd.
Beyond this, Laketown itself is far less fantastical than any other Middle-Earth environs we’ve ever seen. The piers, impromptu canals and walk-ways, the various boats, the familiarly-shaped houses – all of it as convincingly wet, icy, used, and lived-in as any LORT set – serve to remove us from a realistic fantasy world, and simply plop us back into the real world. Even if we’ve never inhabited a place quite like this ourselves, it just seems to cross a threshold of relatability such that we’d be unsurprised to find out that there really is or was exactly such a place. The fact that so many of the dwarves – Richard Armitage as Thorin and Aidan Turner as Kili especially, but Dean O’Gorman as Fili and James Nesbitt as Bofur not far behind – are cast to look more or less human, rather than like John Rhys-Davies’s Gimli in LOTR, only completes the illusion. For a relatively lengthy stretch in The Desolation of Smaug, we’ve effectively left Middle-Earth, and the looming War of the Ring, for England on the verge of the Peterloo Massacre.

And it’s here that my title comes into play. Because The Desolation of Smaug of course does not stay on this odd footing forever. Soon enough, orcs come upon Laketown, with Legolas and Tauriel behind them. And the odd effect of this is much the same as that achieved by Colin and Greg Strause’s much-reviled 2007 film Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem – the film in which the xenomorph “aliens,” so universally famous from futuristic scenarios directed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, come to terrorize a small Washington State town in the present day. Attacking the kitchen staff at the local pizzeria, shredding teenagers in the high school swimming pool, dashing between steel girders at a construction site to pick off unwary construction workers – one is basically seeing one of filmdom’s most charismatic creatures brought into our own recognizable here and now, just to flatter our sense of our own importance. It’s a lowering of them, to be sure, but also a raising of ourselves, and thus a cheap thrill in its own way. As I’ve said, Requiem was almost universally excoriated by critics for this narrative strategy, but there was a method to its madness, and one that I sort of appreciated. It is that same method that Jackson is invoking with Desolation of Smaug.

After enough time to acclimatize to Laketown as a location more relatable to our world’s recent past than Middle-Earth as we know it, it becomes doubly shocking to see orcs start bursting in the windows nonetheless. The terrified shrieks that Bard’s children give off are less the hypothetical shrieks of the imaginary children of Rohan, and more those, by proxy, of real children in the audience. It’s one thing to see a farmstead appropriate to the Dark Ages be attacked and burned by vaguely-defined wild men of the mountains while two appropriately smudged and ragged children have to flee on horseback to Edoras and raise the alarm. It’s quite another to see crudely over-defined savage creatures burst in the window of a family home, to elicit shrieks from implausibly well-scrubbed, shampooed and conditioned children. It’s as though Jackson is already turning his Middle-Earth franchise into its own theme park, within the very confines of the filmic narrative.
And herein lies the final twist, of course. Because no sooner have the aforementioned orcs burst in and elicited said shrieks, then Legolas bursts in after them, in all his Orlando Bloom dreaminess, and slaughters all of them with nary a scratch to himself or the little kiddies. Bard’s house will likely look just familiar enough to suburban children in Auckland, Los Angeles, London, Toronto, etc. to give a scary frisson to the orcs bursting in at them, but this will then be compensated for by the sheer coolness of Legolas bursting in after them and kicking ass. It’s essentially just a much more violent version of getting to shake hands with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, or seeing C-3PO and R2-D2 appear on The Muppet Show, or seeing the aliens go into teen-slasher mode. On the one hand, kids accept the fact that these beloved figures of popular culture exist in their own fantasy never-world – that’s an inextricable part of what makes them so beloved – but on the other hand, there’s an ineradicable part of us that wishes they could descend into a more intimately recognizable realm closer to our own, so that we can feel that much closer to them. At the most cutesy-twee level, every child knows it would be a crime beyond reckoning to wrench Pooh out of Hundred-Acre Wood, but on the other hand, what child in the world wouldn’t also dream of getting to establish Pooh in their own backyard? And at a more familiar, perverse level, what kid wouldn’t want to see their hometown, rather than Tokyo, levelled by Godzilla on his next rampage? 

Such is the logic I saw Jackson using in the Laketown segment of Desolation of Smaug. Put like this, it may sound very interesting, but in practice watching it, I found it very frustrating. Legolas’s relative invincibility was never too distracting in the LOTR trilogy, because he was only one part of a much larger cast, and his never missing with his bow, and never getting a hair out place under any circumstances, was basically just his character note. When he’s absolute and total centre stage, however, as in these parts of Desolation, his bleach-blonde pretty-boy insouciant-invincible characterization becomes insufferable very fast. One is frankly cheering for the big orc captain to get the better of him, and then seething with frustration knowing there’s no way that’s going to happen. This brings me back to the spectatorship dynamic I discussed regarding Sucker Punch once. I find it applies to Desolation more than any film I can remember seeing recently, and for exactly the same reasons as Sucker Punch. Think, they both involve dragons…

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