The middle movies of trilogies are always tricky. Beginnings are exciting, ends are satisfying (or not), but middles are like sitting in the back seat of the car, whining ‘are we there yet?’ to our parents. Middle movies don’t have to disappoint–The Empire Strikes Back was the best movie of the first Star Wars trilogy, and The Two Towers continued the Fellowship story beautifully, while setting us up for The Return of the King. But both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings had prequel/sequels–trilogies that came out after the original sequels, but chronologically covering an earlier part of the extended storyline. And it’s looking like both are going to disappoint.
I remember vividly seeing previews for Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and the feeling of dismay that overwhelmed me. Of course, I was going to see the movie. But I felt sort of condemned to see it, fated to see it. There would be no pardon from the governor, no warden’s reprieve. I was going to have to trudge over to the cineplex and see the doggone movie. And as dreadful as Episode I: The Phantom Menace had been, this one looked worse, and proved to be worse even than that. Above all, half the movie was wasted on the least romantic love story in film history, Padme and Anakin, Natalie Portman and (shudder) Hayden Christensen, doing an entirely unconvincing mating dance, while the rest of us perished in ennui. Blech.
So okay. The Desolation of Smaug is the Middle Earth equivalent of Attack of the Clones. The middle movie of a prequel/sequel, following a disappointing beginning. The warden called, and, yes, you have to see this too. No wonder I waited, like, weeks.
I’m happy to report that the Desolation of Smaug isn’t terrible, though, and a lot of it’s pretty darn watchable. It’s built around four long action set pieces, sort of video-gamey in their choreography and execution, but imaginative and fun, the way the better video games tend to be. One is a long fight against giant spiders, in which first Bilbo, then the dwarves, then Legolas (so good to see Orlando Bloom again!) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) join in. Giant nasty spiders are always blucky and gross, and fighting them looks grisly and cool. Second is a very long extended sequences in which the dwarves float down a river in barrels, fighting orcs off, again helped by the two elf warriors. (And Evangeline Lilly fires off arrows with near-Legolas precision and style). Third is a big orc v. elf thing in a human village–I’d give it a B plus. Finally, the one fail: a preposterous sequence in which the dwarves try to drown a dragon in molten gold, which was just too silly to work very well.
Those scenes take up a lot of the movie, and three of them are thrilling. There’s also a lot of time spent traipsing through Middle Earth, which once again looks fabulous. New Zealand stands in beautifully for Tolkien’s world, as always, and the entire movie is gorgeous to look at.
That leaves the rest of the movie, which honestly kind of passed me by in a blur. Honestly, I spent half the movie wondering what the freakin’ heck was going on. I don’t know when I’ve seen a movie more confusing, and my favorite movie ever is The Tree of Life. For one thing, there are too many dwarfs, and I never could tell them apart. Okay, I could tell them apart; they’re very different looking. But aside from Thorin (their increasingly untrustworthy and unreliable leader), and the old looking one with the big beard . . . they’re just dwarfs.
But that’s not the real problem. Let me see if I can explain.
It’s a movie about dwarfs, really. And this particular lot of dwarfs have their own history and mythology and politics, which is very involved and which needs at least some basic explanation, if you want the audience to have a chance of getting what’s going on. But then there are also wizards–specifically Gandolf and bird-poop-costume Radogast. And they also have a history and a mythology and politics and story line and stuff they have to accomplish, which also requires explanation; like, Gandolf is supposed to meet the dwarfs, but then he can’t, so why? And it compounds.
There are elves, two communities of elves in fact, and they also have a history and a mythology and a politics and a storyline. Also an inter-species love triangle involving Legolas/Tauriel and the one sort of cute dwarf. Also there are shape shifting giant/bears (that is, creatures that can change from giant to bear), with their own h/m/p/s. And spiders, with their own h/m/p/s. And orcs, with their own h/m/p/s. Also Smaug, the dragon; he’s got a h/m/p/s.
And humans: ditto. And that’s when my head exploded.
Here’s the scene that did me in. The dwarfs are ferried across this lake to human village by Bard (Luke Evans), a sort of smuggler/revolutionary (Han Solo?). He’s a good guy, we think, and especially since he opposes the Rivertown mayor/king/master, gleefully played by Stephen Fry. We know he’s the bad guy, because he only has two rotting teeth, and everyone knows there’s a direct correlation between personal morality and dental hygiene. So there’s lots of explanation of the Rivertown history/mythology/politics/storyline, involving, of course, a ‘Eureka!’ discovery of just the right ancient parchment, and leading to a town meeting. In which evil Stephen Fry turns out to be on the side of the dwarfs, and virtuous Luke Evans against them!
Boom. Big messy explosion, poor theater clean-up crew having to scoop my brains off the walls.
I mean, it’s not that they didn’t explain it all. They did explain, sort of, everything. It had to do with the past, and someone’s father shooting arrows at a dragon, and the whombas overthrow of the kingdom of whazzat. And gold, probably.
See, and that’s a problem, in that The Hobbit is one rather thin book, and to fashion it into a full-out nine hour trilogy requires fleshing out all sort of hints and clues in the novel, plus random stuff from the Silmarillion, and other Tolkien trivia from Stephen Colbert levels of Middle Earth nerdiana. Plus, frankly, just making a lot of crap up.
And while I appreciate it, all the h/m/p and story threads, it does get exhausting, and I really don’t think I got much of a handle on it all. I just didn’t understand the story much of the time. I’d probably understand it better if I saw it again, but I’m not going to see it again.
The one part that really worked for me was just the big conversation between Smaug and Bilbo, when Bilbo goes to steal the whatever. That conversation was riveting. In part, it’s great, because it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and we get to see what those two actors have been doing instead of giving us more Sherlock episodes to watch. In part it’s great because they’re both smart, a smart dragon and a smart hobbit, exchanging barbs, while the stakes couldn’t be higher. That’s when the movie really came alive for me.
Overall, the rest of the movie’s not as good as that scene, but that scene’s terrific. The rest of the movie’s a solid B. It’s not great, and it’s confusing, and not everything worked. But it’s better than the first Hobbit movie, and I’m glad I saw it. Above all, it was great just to visit Middle Earth again. I’ve really missed that place.