The Desolation of Smaug: my response

Note: the following is an exact copy of a post I made on after seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the first time on opening day.  It was written in a deliberately snarky style, so while my objections to the movie are sincere, sharper jabs are not meant to be taken seriously.

First up, a disclaimer. I have always been highly skeptical of the whole “pretend that it’s not an adaptation” school of thought when it comes to Middle-earth movies, because PJ has always claimed to be faithfully adapting the books and that’s largely what LOTR was sold as. But with DOS, he has abandoned that claim (though it’s very possible he’ll bring it up again at some point in the future). I still value faithfulness to the book, but in the interest of giving DOS the best possible chance of impressing me, I decided to do my best to keep the book from my mind. I was mostly successful, I think, but it did creep back in at several points.

Here’s what I had to say about DOS after watching AUJ for the first time:

THAT SAID! I have hope for the second installment of the trilogy. Now that a lot of the set up is done the film will hopefully get off to a quicker start. Also, the main characters have largely found their feet so that might allow for more fleshing out of the supporting cast and/or the rest of the thirteen dwarves. On the other hand, the problem with stretching only a few chapters of the book into a three hour film remain, and we already know to expect more PJ additions (helloooooo, Tauriel!). Also, Azog is probably still out there, the fucker. If we get to see Smaug or the Necromancer for real though I’ll cut PJ some slack.

Did any of this happen? Well, the film certainly got off to a quicker start, but I’m not sure that was such a good thing the way they handled it. The core characters were stable and they handled the dragon-sickness thing better than I thought they would, so there is that. But the rest of the Dwarvish cast has faded even further into the background with the addition of new characters. The only exception is Fili and Kili, who had a little bit of characterization in the first film and have enlarged roles here. The three film split continues to be a terrible fucking idea, and DOS is a hundred times worse at being a “middle movie” than TTT was. On the other hand, Evangeline Lilly gave one of the better performances in the film, but she was given atrocious material to work with. Other PJ additions were uniformly poorly thought out, but that’s to be expected. Bolg the Azog clone (it’s never mentioned or even implied that they were father and son) is pretty dull. The way they handle the Necromancer is beyond bad. Benedict Cumberbatch is good as Smaug, but he really needs to start picking better roles if he wants to be remembered as anything but Sherlock.

As most everyone probably knows now, the film begins with a prologue in Bree. Someone asked if it used any of the dialogue given in the Appendices, and the answer is no. Not even close. In fact, Thorin specifically says that it is NOT a chance-meeting, despite Gandalf describing it as exactly that in the book. But I’m supposed to be pretending the book doesn’t exist, sorry. 😉 Anyway, the prologue was decent, I really didn’t mind it for the most part. The only problem was the unsavoury, possibly half-orc types who were eyeballing Thorin in the bar. This would have been totally fine, except they start moving to attack Thorin in the middle of a crowded bar instead of, I dunno, waiting to jump him when there aren’t dozens of witnesses? It’s the first (and not even close to worst) example of plot stupidity for the sake of artificial drama. Bree is also full of callbacks to LOTR, but this is the one part of the film where it didn’t bother me since it was a locale that actually appeared in LOTR. And I was always fond of the black cat on the bar, so it was neat to see a similar one. 😛

After the prologue, the film jumps to the Company running around in the Vales of Anduin still being pursued by Azog. Bilbo sees Beorn in the distance, they hide out in Beorn’s house after he tries eat them (lolwut), but once he leaves them alone because they’re in his house … I guess? … and after he turns back into a dude he helps them because he’s more racist against orcs than against dwarves. Beorn has like five minutes of screentime total. I can imagine people who didn’t know who he was before being rather baffled by his abrupt introduction and even more abrupt departure from the film. He’s never mentioned or even referenced after the Company entered Mirkwood. If Jackson had nothing to do with the character, he shouldn’t have included him, plain and simple.

Anyway, Gandalf is really dumb in this movie. Like, excessive consumption of mushrooms dumb. I’m pretty sure Radagast was smarter than him this time around. Gandalf leads the Dwarves to the edge of Mirkwood and is totally ready to go through with them, but he has a sudden telepathic conversation with Galadriel who reminds him that the Necromancer is fucking shit up. So Gandalf suddenly leaves and tells the Dwarves he’s going to the high fells, which were stated in AUJ to be in Rhudaur … on the other side of the Misty Mountains. You know, the mountains they just crossed and almost died in the process. Oh, and Gandalf tells him he’ll meet them at the Lonely Mountain after they get through the forest. This geographical absurdity is not quite as bad as the time in FOTR where Gandalf says he will ride to and from Isengard and still get to Bree in less time than it takes Frodo and Sam to walk there from the Shire, but it’s still fairly egregious. It also goes to show that Gandalf has no real idea what he is doing. This point is further drive home later in the film.

So the Dwarves are in Mirkwood and we’re less than 15 minutes into the film. Gandalf warns them not to stray off the road or else they’ll get lost. Of course, they get lost almost immediately. There’s a fairly trippy montage of them wandering around in circles, but then Bilbo climbs a tree and they’re almost to the other side of the forest. One of my complaints about AUJ was how bad it is at conveying the sense of traveling, but this is way worse. The film explicitly shows that the Company is going in circles by having Bofur find a tobacco pouch that he had dropped, but somehow they get through almost the entire forest anyway. {{{And there is no enchanted river or any of the other things that made Mirkwood memorable in the book, in case you were wondering. And Bombur still hasn’t said a word of dialogue through two entire films.}}}

Anyway, Bilbo notices some extreme rustling in the trees while he’s up in the canopy, so he sneaks back down and discovers that the Dwarves have been captured by spiders. Using the Ring, he is able to sneak up and cut the Dwarves free after distracting the spider. He doesn’t do it by being especially clever or sneaky, but at least he’s not straight-up stabbling people to death like he did in AUJ. Except that’s exactly what he does in a second, because Bilbo’s worth to the Company of the films is his completely unexplained skill with a sword rather than his stealth or wits. Also, Bilbo brutally murders a (baby?) spider for daring to touch the Ring in a scene that I’m pretty sure was stolen from Breaking Bad. He looks suitably horrified by this a moment later, but there are no references to or emotional repercussions from this in the rest of the film. I will say, however, that Bilbo only being able to understand the spiders when wearing the Ring was a nice touch and one of the few successful moments at “LOTRizing” The Hobbit.

After Bilbo frees the Dwarves they start fighting the spiders too, because they still had their weapons before being cocooned in silk, but more spiders show up and the Company is unable to defeat them. But Legolas, Tauriel, and the Elven guards of Mirkwood show up to save the day and wipe out the spider colony. They arrest the Dwarves for trespassing and toss them in jail. Oddly, they jail the Dwarves before Thranduil tries to negotiate with Thorin and is rudely shot down. {{{Yes, this is a different chain of events from the book. Are you surprised?}}} Kili and Tauriel flirt with each other through the bars while Legolas glowers on in the background. Also, Thranduil shows a surprising amount of racism for Silvan Elves considering that his kingdom is 99% Silvan. I get the sense that this was a point where Boyens or Walsh wanted to showcase their familiarity with Unfinished Tales, but in the process ended up demonstrating the shallowness of their knowledge instead.

I had read in one review that PJ seemed to be in a hurry to get to Mirkwood and introduce Legolas and Tauriel, but given how little time is spent in Mirkwood I’m not sure that’s the case. Legolas and Tauriel remain important characters for the rest of the movie, and will presumably be so in film three as well, but Mirkwood itself is pure window dressing. They don’t bother trying to explore the setting at all and the Dwarves escape very quickly. Bilbo doesn’t have to explore the caverns or think up a plan, it’s just handed to him after a few minutes of screen time. {{{Sorry, book slipping back into my mind again. 😛 }}} Also, I have to say, it really annoys me how little of Goblin-town, the Elven-king’s halls, or the Lonely Mountain are actually tunnels. They’re all giant fucking hollowed-out mountains, like the Middle-earth equivalent of NORAD once set up base there, with columns and spires and bridges in them. Very little in the way of tunnels or halls or rooms.

The barrel sequence, which has been the most widely-praised part of the film from professional critics, is … well it’s okay. It’s probably the best major action sequence so far. It’s infinitely better than the storm giants (which was awful both for its preposterousness and for reducing the characters to helpless bystanders to their own impending demise. It’s marginally better than Goblin-town too, IMO. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen in anything remotely resembling the real world, though. The barrels never take on water despite being completely open (apparently the Elves were planning on sending them out this way, too). Legolas’ ninja antics are even worse than anything he did in LOTR, and the Bombur barrel crash scene is on par with any of the crap from Goblin-town. That was the one time (other than the cliffhanger ending) that people reacted audibly, with laughter and a few scattered cheers.

Anyway, like I said, I thought this was better than Goblin-town. Probably because there was less falling and because someone (Kili) actually gets hurt – wounded with a Morgul blade-tipped arrow – which goes a long way towards making the whole affair feel more real. This was definitely the highlight of the film, even though I wouldn’t go so far in my praise of it as someone reviewers have. You have to have a high tolerance for ridiculous action scenes to get much out of it, but at least it works on those terms. That’s more than can be said for most of this film. However, the ending of the scene is genuinely bad: Legolas stops the chase for absolutely no reason, and the orcs just lose track of the barrels in between a scene cut. Maybe they got tired or something.

After reaching the Long Lake, the Company meets Bard, who is there to collect the barrels and bring them back to Lake-town. He’s understandably suspicious, but they pay him to smuggle the Dwarves into Lake-town. So yeah, apparently Lake-town is some sort of micro-Stalinist dictatorship filled with secret police and spies. This is never really developed or taken anywhere, other than providing some secondary antagonists until Bolg and the orcs show up again. Because even though the Company has to sneak into the town hiding beneath a bunch of dead fish, the orc pack can just ride in unchallenged so long as they’re offscreen when they do so.

There’s a bunch of skulking around in Lake-town, and since the Dwarves lost everything when they were imprisoned by the Elves, they have to break into the Lake-town armory to get weapons. I don’t know if this is a commentary on gun control, because PJ did say there were political messages in DOS, but it comes to a really stupid conclusion when the Dwarves are found out by the Master and are about to be imprisoned, but talk their way out of it simply by announcing who they are and their intention to take back the dragon’s treasure. Why they couldn’t have just done this in the first place is unclear. Anyway, most of the Company sets out for the Mountain, but a couple stay behind to watch Kili, and Bofur gets left behind because he overslept. Really. Apparently no one noticed or thought it was worth waking him up.

For the last 30-45 minutes the film cuts back and forth between the Lonely Mountain, Lake-town, and Gandalf’s adventures, but I’m going to address them topically. First, the four dwarves who stay behind in Lake-town go to Bard because no one will help them, even though the whole town had just turned out to give the other Dwarves a warm send-off and the Master was willing to give them all weapons and armor. It’s a really clumsy way to shoehorn Bard back into the story after having fallen out with the Dwarves earlier. Also, Bard is arrested for no reason that is ever given to the audience, I guess for the drama of him being in jail while the mountain rumbles and Smaug’s attack grows nearer. The aforementioned orcs show up and start wrecking shit, but they are very closely followed by Legolas and Tauriel who kill them all, except Bolg who escapes. Legolas totally could have killed Bolg with his arrows, but for some reason he decides to switch exclusively to knife fighting after a certain point. Also, Tauriel heals Kili, because she’s apparently a healer on par with Elrond, who was the only one who could heal Frodo of his Morgul wound in FOTR.

Gandalf – I admit that I forgot about Gandalf for much of this review, but my excuse is that his plotline in the movie after departing the Company is pointless and forgettable. He goes to the High Fells (which means going across the Misty Mountains again) and meets up with Radagast in the ancient tomb where the Nazgul had been imprisoned by the Dunedain of Arnor {{{strictly in PJ’s version of the lore}}}. They discover that the tombs are empty and then Gandalf wants to go back to the Company, but Radagast convinces him that they need to go to Dol Guldur and deal with this Necromancer asshole. Gandalf agrees, and the two ride the bunny sled together to get there (this is mercifully the only appearance of the bunny sled in DOS). They show up and Dol Guldur looks totally abandoned, but Gandalf explains this is only because of a spell of concealment. He tells Radagast to go tell Galadriel that she needs to do something about the Necromancer herself, because I guess she’s the only one who can initiate those telepathic conversations.

Gandalf then goes into Dol Guldur alone knowing full well that it’s a trap. He successfully undoes the spell of concealment, which is kind of neat, but he is then attacked by Azog. He manages to keep Azog at bay, but he’s then attacked by the Necromancer. So far Necro has taken the form of a floating black cloud, but when attacking Gandalf he morphs between cloud, fiery eye-vagina, and fiery silhouette of his armored form from the FOTR prologue. He breaks Gandalf’s staff and imprisons him in Dol Guldur. What bothered me more than the staff-breaking, though, is how much more important this is than Smaug. I mean, giant dragons are serious business, but the return of the devil is sort of a bigger deal. And apparently this is the first time that anyone realized Sauron had returned since the Last Alliance {{{even though they’d had a clue for thousands of years at that point in the book}}}. However, this plotline ends with a shot of Gandalf in a cage and we don’t see any more of him in this film.

So back to the bulk of the Company. They take their borrowed boat from Lake-town up to Dale, and then climb the Lonely Mountain. They find the location where the door should be, but the last sunlight of Durin’s Day doesn’t reveal a keyhole. The entire Company, sans Bilbo, then gives up and walks away dejectedly like they’re going home. They spend less than five minutes at their destination of the mountain, and when their first plan for how to get inside doesn’t work, they give up. Even Thorin. However, Bilbo realizes that the phrase “the last light of Durin’s Day” actually refers to moonlight, so he finds the keyhole. Then the Dwarves all teleport back for the dramatic reveal even though they’d been nowhere to be seen when Bilbo looked down the path a moment earlier.

The Company has been at the Mountain for a couple of hours total (including walking time since landing their boat), and they now send Bilbo down to sneak around in the Mountain and try to find the Arkenstone. Bilbo does, not wearing the Ring from the get-go for some reason. He discovers Smaug’s treasure hoard, which is ludicrously huge (he has more gold in one giant room than exists in our entire world). Because of all the loose coins it’s impossible for Bilbo to be quiet, and he ends up waking Smaug, who had apparently fallen back asleep since awakening at the end of AUJ. They talk for a little bit, which is kind of neat, but Bilbo doesn’t really get a chance to show his cleverness. He did at least get to use some of his nicknames, which I appreciated, but he’s completely outclassed by Smaug. He’s continually trying to inch closer to the Arkenstone, which he saw pretty early on. The scene is actually fairly tense and not bad at all, though having rewatched the Gollum scene from AUJ last night I think I prefer that one.

However, during Bilbo’s first (and only) conversation with Smaug, the dragon starts knocking over giant pillars, which somehow doesn’t cause the giant chambers to collapse. The dwarves come in and Bilbo’s tense conversation with Smaug abruptly transitions into an overblown action sequence. The nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s not as good as the barrel chase from earlier. The heroic wheelbarrow didn’t bother me that much, but mostly because there was way worse stuff in the scene. Smaug turns out to be almost as dumb as Gandalf after the Dwarves show up. He falls for the old “piss off the villain so he does something stupid” trick way too easily. He could have killed the Dwarves several times, but whenever the opportunity presents itself he stops breathing fire and starts throwing his body around trying to crush metal and stone. Also, the Dwarves are able to melt hundreds of tons of gold simply by tricking Smaug into breathing fire on some furnaces, which were apparently fueled and ready to go and only needed to be ignited. The whole thing is way more blatantly unreal than the barrel chase. The really disappointing part however is that it cheapens Smaug by showing him being bested by the assclowns we call the Dwarves, although they still totally fail at even injuring him. However, despite having just been doused in gold (which was the last plan the Dwarves had), he changes his mind (again) and goes off to destroy Lake-town instead of finishing off the Dwarves who are right in front of him. Cut to black.

So, what did I miss? Um … the film had this weird fetish for super powerful artifacts. It’s stated in the prologue and referenced several times throughout the film that the Arkenstone is actually more than just a symbol of the King’s power, but rather the source of it (somehow, even though there were Dwarf kings long before there was an Arkenstone, which in the film’s timeline was discovered even more recently than it was in the book). Apparently the Arkenstone allows the King to summon all seven Houses of the Dwarves to him which is just, lol. Honestly, in the prologue Gandalf basically says that the entire point of the Quest is to recover the Arkenstone because then Thorin can assemble an army of Dwarves who would presumably march on Erebor to defeat Smaug in a giant battle. To be fair, the Dwarves of the book don’t really have a plan to defeat Smaug at all IIRC, so whatevs. Also, instead of the black arrow simply being Bard’s lucky arrow, they’re these (possibly supernatural) metal spears that have to be launched from a ballista or something, and were designed to be the only weapons capable of killing dragons. I don’t really care anymore.

There were also a ton of callbacks to LOTR in the dialogue and even lines copied verbatim. This happened in AUJ too and it got really old really fast. Someone needs to tell Peter Jackson that inviting comparisons to the vastly superior original films isn’t doing The Hobbit any favors. Also, there are just a ton of contrivances in this movie. I honestly don’t remember all of them, though I touched on some of the stuff in Lake-town that pissed me off, but it’s just bad writing. There’s really no excuse for it. Criticize the sloppiness in LOTR all you want, but it was never as bad as this.

I might sound really angry or upset here, but I honestly don’t feel like that. Partially it’s because I went in with rock-bottom expectations after all the reviews and responses I’d read, and the film was honestly not quite as bad as I’d feared. But it’s also because there are many worse examples of stuff like this that I can think off the top of my head. There was a trailer for the new 47 Ronin movie in front of DOS, and it looks way, WAY worse in terms of shitting on the source material. At least The Hobbit movies bears a superficial resemblance to the book. And there are some entertaining parts and a couple of genuine emotional moments (surprisingly, often featuring Thorin). This is not at all Star Wars prequel level storytelling. Still, at the end of the day, the negatives outweighs the positives and these just plain aren’t good movies. I don’t know if I’d call them bad if I wasn’t a fan of the book, but the most I can say is that it’s bland and mediocre. If you’re the sort of person who liked Star Trek Into Darkness, you will probably enjoy DOS. But you have really low standards. Sorry, but somebody had to tell you. 😉

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