The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaugby Kavish Chetty / 13.12.2013
New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, apparently because there’s nothing to do there – except, perhaps, LARP (live-action roleplay) among its exquisite natural landscapes. Indeed, much of The Desolation of Smaug carries itself with the charisma of a tourist document for the country, a cinematic brochure which lingers on sprawling expanses of forest and mountain. Here, Peter Jackson and assorted associates have elaborated dress-up and role-play into a multi-million dollar spectacle – only saved by the hipster redemption of fantasy, the merciful powers of “nerd capital”. The film is otherwise, irrescuably lame. It’s also something of an Aryan wet-dream, where Nordic-nosed elves and ye mass assorted of porcelain tone can congregate in a confected world where there are multiple species of capable tongues, and literally no black people at all – save two nameless paupers of darker hue, faces in the grip of melancholic registration, in some arbitrary port-town. Middle-Earth can imaginatively accommodate dwarves, elves, halflings and humans, dragons and the orcish – but “blackness” it seems, is beyond the realm of fantasy.
Perhaps the producers should have purchased rights to the title Long Walk to Freedom – because if this series of films has been about anything at all, it’s been about how a world bereft of automobiles and aeroplanes forces its subjects to journey endlessly upon exhausted legs, to accomplish goals that could otherwise be satisfied by a casual Sunday drive, getting you home in time for Carte Blanche. Once again, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his cohort of dwarves and other species of vertical disadvantage find themselves on a long-ass walk, in splendid excess of two hours. In the convoy of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), rightful heir to the Kingdom of Erebor, the company must move through a series of grim episodes in order to combat the ancient dragon Smaug and reclaim their historic estate. Certainly, Jackson’s work here approximates more a “reimagining” than an adaptation, having plundered source materials and sleuthed through appendices and footnotes, bloating Tolkien’s original 300-page children’s tale into a three-part epic of CGI and monstrous special-effects, interpolating characters and scrambling the original chronology… the result is very much an end-of-year blockbuster in the spirit of our age.
Legolas, the slick archer makes a return in a much-cooler incarnation, dispatching orcs in gruesomely-fathomed choreography. The only problem is, he still has the face of Orlando Bloom, and no amount of dexterously-dispatched arrows will cure the character of that smirk. If The Hobbit was appropriately subtitled “An Unexpected Journey”, then this middle chapter should surely merit the tag “An Expected Journey” – journeying and slaying of things is the order of the day, first through the Mirkwood with its bloated arachnids and their tangled webs, and then through Elvish territories on toward Lake-Town, and finally, the Lonely Mountain, snarled nest of the ancient wyrm. The dwarves are more manageable this time around, likely because they no longer persistently burst into drunken sing-along, with all the urgent compulsion of Aishwarya Rai in a Bollywood jol. And some new characters make their impression: principal among which is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the “strong female lead”, and Legolas’s equal in agile murdering, who’s relatively entertaining up until she falls in love with a dwarf, surrendering herself to usual fate of women in action cinema: romantic interest, untameable loins.
I’ve struck a harsher tone here than can be considered fair: to those among the audience who can vriet the Tolkien mythos, this film bests its predecessor and capably offers up the usual wares of this kind of fantasy – it has not the dynastic intrigue or anarchic whim of Game of Thrones, but rather the usual, merrier, more questing elements of the genre. Stephen Fry makes an appreciable cameo as a gluttonous feudal master, and Benedict Cumberbatch voices the malevolent Smaug. By the final act of the film, dear Smaug, mighty intellect and desolator of civilisations, reveals himself to be rather less cunning than one would have hoped, and the concluding act drawls on forever in extended chase sequences and might-voiced monologues. What’s most perplexing, in fact, is that The Hobbit does not come to an end here, when the last minutes have all the setup available to extinguish the franchise. As to what the hell will actually happen in the next movie, with almost nothing in the way of interest remaindered after this one, is beyond my pessimistic prognostications. Desolation of Smaug is a desperate but entertaining new incarnation of the franchise – but what would have truly pleasured is Alejandro Jodorowsky behind the camera, fucked up on LSD and turning this palette of fantasy tropes into something truly imaginative, and beyond the borders of what is to be expected by a commodity-centric world.