The first entry of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is a well paced, exciting piece of work, a welcome return to the world of Middle Earth Jackson so vividly brought to life between 2001 and 2003 in his massive, and massively profitable, Lord of the Rings films.
But then, I could be wrong. The film, as viewed in the director’s preferred format of "high frame rate" 3D, veers wildly from a stately demonstration of 3D’s potential, to a cheap-looking mess better suited for a local PBS affiliate, to a pan-and-scanned-to-death feature on basic cable. Such incongruities occasionally leave the audience wondering what, exactly, it has just seen.
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey succeeds as storytelling in part because it hews so closely to the formula laid out in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. It is, almost beat-for-beat, identically structured. Caution: There are spoilers ahead.
We open with a flashback that tells of the destruction of the great dwarf kingdom of Erebor by the dragon Smaug. Scattered to the winds, 13 dwarves are drawn together by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and brought to the hobbit hole of an unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). From there, the band sets out on an adventure and is soon chased by enemies. Hobbit, wizard, and dwarves end up in the hidden elf city of Rivendell.
While there, Gandalf palavers about a rising evil in the world with fellow Lord of the Rings vets Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee). Then the troupe presses on, first attempting to cross a dangerous mountain pass before going under the mountain and fighting off a band of orcs. Bilbo, separated from the group, happens upon a skulking figure with a mysterious ring: Gollum (Andy Serkis).
Eventually our heroes emerge only to find more danger in the form of (another) orc attack, leading to a battle between our dragoon of dwarves and an implacably evil foe.
The film’s structure is its greatest strength. Despite feeling a bit padded here and there—a 9-hour adaptation of The Hobbit spread over three films was bound to feel padded at points—the story is nevertheless propulsive. The audience rarely feels bored and the filmmakers only infrequently indulge in some of the more annoying aspects of the source material: dwarf songs, for example, are few and brief.
The film’s biggest problem has nothing to do with plot or pacing or acting but with unpredictable technology (which, incidentally, is one of the themes in Tolkien’s stories). This is the first picture shot entirely in "high frame rate" 3D. Normally, film is shot at 24 frames per second (FPS). When you’re watching a film, you’re not watching fluid motion but 24 individual pictures, one after the other every second.
Doubling that rate to 48 FPS creates a more fluid image that proponents of 3D such as James Cameron have long claimed will solve many of the lingering issues that dog the format. It is a more immersive, more "real" projection.
In long shots, or shots without much onscreen action, the effect can be striking: there is real depth and heightened clarity. (As a friend noted after the screening, this is a format nature films would do well to adopt.) But in medium or close-up shots, shots featuring a great deal of motion, or shots during which a number of sweeping camera moves are made, the effect ranges from disconcerting to vertiginous.
There were extended sequences when my eyes literally could not track the action. Sense of space was demolished. Motion swamped the screen. The camera jutted about like a roller coaster gone off the rails.
It does not help that even a regularly paced action takes on an eerily unnatural appearance. Those familiar with pan and scan—the horrific attempt to make widescreen features work on full frame television sets by chopping the image in half and moving it about the screen so the audience can see what they are supposed to focus on—will be struck by its similarity to the odd camera moves at work in 48 FPS.
One is almost tempted to declare 48 FPS the death of film. The presentation is simply un-cinematic, as we understand the term. But it is important to remember that each change to the medium has been accompanied by caterwauling.
"The soul of the film—its eloquent and vital silence—is destroyed," wrote Ernest Betts about the introduction of synchronized sound in his 1928 book Heraclitus, or, the future of films. "The film now returns to the circus whence it came, among the freaks and the fat ladies."
High frame rate projection is just the latest in a long line of cinematic innovations that the viewing public likely will have to learn to live with. But filmmakers would do well to better understand the format’s strengths and weaknesses before foisting it on an unsuspecting, and unprepared, public.