Love or hate The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, you have to respect Peter Jackson’s contribution to the technology used to make bad movies. Let’s be honest, 48 frames per second in 3D is the single greatest thing this century to push forward the nauseating art of the bad movie. It’s so bad I hope to never see anything shot like this ever again.
How great is the achievement of this poor aesthetic? Imagine the Shire. The lush, bountiful, soothing Shire as depicted in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Now imagine the same place shot like a rural county museum diorama through an Instagram filter called “You’re on Mushrooms and Everything is Tinted the Color of Urine.” It’s like where they send Teletubbies when they’ve had a nervous breakdown, a place of childishly simplistic visuals in colors that will have you questioning if you’re seeing what everyone else is seeing. Jackson gave us perhaps the most perfectly realized, quaintly, idyllic fictional setting of all time in the first film trilogy, and then made it physically painful to look at. It’s a Jar Jar Binks level of offense.
Before I’m accused of being harsh let me add that I love Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. And that I have an incredibly visceral memory of reading The Hobbit in a blue armchair in my grandparents’ living room when I was around 10 years old. I remember the weirdly contorted position I was wedged in, the way that exceedingly awkward children who are always reading sit so that makes people not want to talk to them, and exactly how the room smelled the first time I read the word “Gollum.” I wanted to like this movie. I expected to like this movie. Peter Jackson did almost everything right three times before this and The Hobbit is a much more accessible, freewheeling narrative. How couldn’t it succeed like the first films?
In fact, two of the only things that worked for me at all in this film were the things that harkened back to its predecessors: seeing Frodo looking young and fresh before what happens to him happens was surprisingly emotional for me, as was everything with Gollum. Martin Freeman is charming and all the good things as Bilbo, making his interaction with Gollum that much more heartbreaking. And once again Andy Serkis breathes such an authentically intense amount of life into the CG Gollum that the tears welling up in his eyes during his encounter with Bilbo made it the most engrossing, affecting part of the movie for me. In fact, there’s only one other moment I’d call engrossing at all. In Bilbo’s home at the beginning of the film the assembled dwarves sing a mournful song about their lost home. The lighting is dim and baroque, the emotion is palpable, the physical layout of the rooms and the cast feels dramatic, intelligent and intentional—and then nothing like that happens again for the next three hours.
Not only does a solid 60% of the film just look terrible in its flat, washed-out lighting and that damnable 48 FPS, it lacks a clarity of tone. The quiet, intense song I just described came just moments after a weirdly jovial, gravity-defying song and dance with Biblo’s dishes that felt like a deleted scene from the live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that no one ever finished because it was too unsettling and boring. The company of dwarves frequently plays into childish, broad humor that would be fine if they didn’t then begin decapitating anything and everything they encounter. At no point do you settle into knowing who the audience of the film is supposed to be.
Not that every movie has to hit artistic high notes and bow down before film history. If this were a remotely good-looking, neat 3D flick, that would be fine. But it’s not. Jackson has dedicated a total of three movies—nine hours—to a book I read when I was 10. It meanders through every detail of the book, lingering where it’s unnecessary to linger and languishing everywhere else. Then they added material from Tolkien’s other books to really flesh out that excruciating length. Worse still, it’s a movie that makes New Zealand look ugly. When you do get a live location that’s not oozing in CG, it feels like a poorly produced nature documentary from 1974. The disorienting, fake-looking perspective caused by the higher frame rate is bad enough. What shoves it right over the edge is the fact that while this is indeed the more fashionable “immersive” brand of 3D rather than the kitsch pop-out 3D, the film is intent to make sure you never forget you’re watching 3D, creating a three-hour-long string of nearly the same foreground-midground-background shot set up that sucks all the joy out of the otherwise incredibly rendered dwarf halls and elven towers.
I’m not ruling out trying to catch a weekday matinee—for as little money as possible—if I can see it in 2D and not at 48 frames per second. I want to believe that I could enjoy the film more if I didn’t feel like I was being physically assaulted by the screen, but I think I’m just trying to make myself feel better about being so perplexed by how let down I was. I’ve been thinking about this movie nearly every waking moment of the last 48 hours, and I still feel like I just don’t understand it. There were moments and elements that I loved, but it was so inconsistent that I had trouble remembering the things that I liked. Overall it’s such a lackluster movie that my brain can not reconcile it with the fact that was made by the same man who gave us Gondor and Rohan a decade ago—and that those remain staggeringly better. What I do know for sure is that the only reason my friend who accompanied me to the screening was even going to bother attending the midnight screening he already had a ticket for as well was to see the new Star Trek trailer before the film. In fact, let’s not ever mention The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey again and just watch the Star Trek trailer a few more times.