Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Blobbit: Blere and Black Again

So much to write! Let's start off with The Hobbit. I have a happy history of midnight openings for Lord of the Rings - the first two movies came out while I was still in college, and the third right after I graduated, so I was at my peak in terms of staying up late to enjoy something cool. I just love the ad-hoc communities that pop up around events like this. Any genre franchise movie opening attracts friendly-yet-hard-core fans eager to out-geek one another and show the level of their devotion.

The Hobbit isn't just famous as Peter Jackson's return to Middle-earth settings; it's also been getting a lot of press for its technological advances. Peter Jackson has used this opportunity to champion a switch to a new format for film, dubbed 48 fps. For almost a century, film has been projected at a speed of 24 frames per second; this is a little slower than the human eye can detect, so there is a sort of falseness built into the movie-watching experience; it's what makes something look like a movie and not like reality. Video is shot at a higher frame rate of 30 frames-per-second, which results in a smoother picture. Amusingly enough, people often react to video by claiming that it looks more "fake" than film. Actually, the opposite is true, but in a revealing sort of way: it looks more like reality, and the reality is that those are actors, using props, on a stage, and not characters using items in the world.

(As a tangent: a lot of different concepts get conflated together. High-definition is independent from film speed; the amount of detail you see in a 24 fps version of The Hobbit will be the same as the detail visible in a 48 fps version. Also, the film speed Peter Jackson shot in is different from technologies like "motion smoothing" and "de-jittering" that are built into many new HDTVs. Those technologies actually are awful: they essentially invent fake composite images that get inserted between the actual images, which can, for example, convert from 30 fps to 60 fps. That leads to something that's truly fake.)

The 48 fps Jackson shot in is even higher than the 30 fps of video, and closer to the maximum that our eye can perceive. I decided that I wanted to try watching the movie in its full-on, no-holds-barred form: 48 fps, in 3D, on a huge screen. I initially considered the Metreon IMAX in San Francisco, but since BART shuts down a bit after midnight and I wouldn't be getting out until around 3AM, I opted for the Century Tanforan closer to home. It has a "Cinemark XD", which isn't as large as an IMAX but it still a very big screen, and an awesome theater with large, comfy leather seats.

I pre-ordered my ticket a few days before, but that turned out to not be too necessary. I'm not sure what other theaters were like, but I was fifth in line even though I just showed up a bit more than two hours before midnight. There was a pretty good turnout, but the theater was probably less than a quarter full. (That said, they were doing the midnight showing on three screens, which must have brought down the density. Not that I'm complaining!)

Now, in the past, when I've occasionally gone to sneak-peeks (like for Serenity) or other special events, the pre-movie experience has been great: typically just one or two trailers attached to the movie, and nothing else. Sadly, that wasn't the case here… there was the standard assortment of ads for video games, television shows, beverages, and so on, followed by a long series of trailers. (The reboot of the Lone Ranger looks WEIRD. Most of the sci-fi movies looked grim but interesting.) My theater didn't get the nine-minute Star Trek opening that IMAX got, but we did get to see the new trailer. I'd seen it on Apple's trailers site the week before, and… yeah, definitely looks even better on the big screen.

While the movie trailers were 2D, the DVD trailers before then were in 3D, and the 3D picture looked great. I've enjoyed a couple of 3D movies in the past, particularly Coraline, but I sometimes get the impression that I don't detect 3D as strongly as other people do… I do perceive depth in the image, but I don't get a very strong sense of dimensionality. This time, though, the 3D really "popped" in a way that it hasn't before. I have no idea if that's due to the higher frame rate, or the enormous screen, or what, but it was very impressive.

Ah, but then the movie started. The opening logos for all the film studios (Warner Brothers, New Line, and MGM) were all animated in 3D, and looked amazing. The still images that were shown looked great, with lots of depth and detail. Any time that the camera panned, though, or a lot of action was on the screen, it looked bizarrely awful. There was a kind of streaking effect, so motion was kind of smeared across the screen.

I saw a couple of other people lifting their glasses off and back on, and one or two people left the theater. The rest of us sat quietly and hoped that the movie got better. It really felt like a case of The Emperor's New Clothes - each of us saw that something was wrong, but nobody wanted to be the first to speak up. I think this was partly because of all the controversy around the new format - we all had heard criticism of how 48 fps looked "bad," and were wondering, "Well, is this what they were talking about?"

Of course, it turned out that it was actually a problem with the projector. They softly brought up the lights after about five or ten minutes, and the theater manager (a VERY young guy!) came in and apologized to everyone. He said that they had tested the movie earlier in the day, and everything had looked fine then, but something was going wrong now. His specific words were: "It isn't supposed to look that bad." I just love the use of "that" in that sentence, which seems to imply, "Yeah, sure, it's supposed to look bad.... just not THAT bad!"

They said that they would try to fix the projector and restart the movie. They apologized profusely and offered everyone vouchers for another free movie. Fortunately, we geeks are an amiable lot, and a little punchy when this low on sleep, so folks mostly reacted by laughing and napping. Come on... we had already stayed up until nearly 1AM, there was no way we would call it quits now!

After about ten minutes the movie restarted, and, thank Eru, everything was fixed. The movie began from the very beginning, so I got to re-see all those scenes that had been so painful to watch. Everything was now incredibly lifelike, epic, grand, eminently watchable.

So, whenever people ask me what I think of the new 48 fps format, I have to say that I think it looks great, but I also need to warn them that I'd been perfectly primed to think it was great - after the incredibly awful first showing, and then re-watching in glorious 48 fps, it looked particularly wonderful in comparison!

To be honest, I'm not a huge film buff. I used to go to the movies somewhat often, but for the past few years I see maybe four a year in the theater, and not a whole lot more at home. It seems to be the most enthusiastic theater-goers who are most upset about the format shift, and I cheerfully concede that they probably are picking up on things that I'm not. I will say, though, that I thought The Hobbit was the best-looking movie I've ever seen. It's hard to say how much of that is the 3D, how much the frame rate, and how much seeing it on a huge screen, but it was simply incredible. The epic landscape scenes were jaw-droppingly detailed and gorgeous. You could see an entire forest that seemed to stretch for dozens of miles, and if you wanted to, you could focus on one particular tree and see individual branches, even though it seemed very far away. The actors all looked great as well. I remember being disconcerted when watching movies like Gladiator, that had enormous close-ups that made peoples' faces look freaky. Either I'm used to it now, or Jackson is doing it better than Scott, or there's some improvement from the new technology, since this time around the big screen seemed to enhance and not detract from the close-ups.

The one thing I had trouble with was the battle scenes. They felt exhilarating, but I had a really hard time tracking the action. Unlike, say, the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, where I felt like I always had a clear idea of where the various forces were and what each major character was doing, the fights here felt overwhelming and I couldn't always tell what was going on. Again, though, I'm not sure how much of that feeling was due to the technology, and how much is due to how it was shot or edited.

The music in the movie is really, really good. There is a LOT of music that's reprised from Lord of the Rings, generally to good effect - familiar themes for Hobbiton, and the Ring theme, and Rivendell and so on. The new music is excellent, though, and particularly the main "Lonely Mountain" theme. We get to hear that song in a few variations throughout the movie - it is introduced in an acapella vocal arrangement, and returns in more instrumental versions as the movie goes on. It's absolutely haunting, and mesmerizing.

With technical considerations out of the way, let us move on to discussing some

MINI SPOILERS (book and movie)

First things first: Martin Freeman is incredible as Bilbo Baggins. He's the best Hobbit from any of the four movies so far. I did really enjoy Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd from the Lord of the Rings movies, but Freeman blows them all away. He just perfectly embodies Bilbo's character, and the subtle yet crucial qualities that make someone a Hobbit. Bilbo is ultimately someone who is very put-upon, but who bears up under the stress and follows through. He's upset by changes to his routine, and never actually comes around to enjoying his new life, but accepts his lot and does the best he can. Well... that's a perfect description of the roles Freeman has played, as Tim in The Office and as Watson in Sherlock. Freeman perfectly nails that delicate balance of aggrievement and stoicism that the character requires. Even if the rest of the movie was awful, it would be worth watching for his performance alone.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie is quite good as well! Several characters reprise their roles from the earlier movies, in canon-friendly ways. Gandalf is obviously a major character, and it's interesting to see McKellan back in the Grey mode instead of the White. We also see the other members of the White Council: Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman. Along with the 48 fps issue, this is probably the other major controversy around the movie: how Peter Jackson has filled out what's a relatively slight children's novel to a sprawling three-movie epic (and, at just under 3 hours long, each entry in that trilogy is quite substantial already). Some of this extension comes from simple decisions, like some extended takes and a general decision to let the story breathe instead of rushing from plot point to plot point (much like he did in the Extended versions of Lord of the Rings). The bulk of it, though, and the source of the controversy, is his decision to include other events that Tolkien described as having occurred during the time of The Hobbit, but that weren't actually included within the book.

The most obvious is the plot of the Necromancer, which is briefly mentioned within The Hobbit, and later expanded upon within The Lord of the Rings (particularly in the Appendices to Return of the King). Within the context of The Hobbit, the Necromancer is an evil wizard who lives in Dol Guldur, at the southern edges of Mirkwood. Ultimately, he is revealed to be a disguised but re-emerging Sauron. In the books, Gandalf just disappears to deal with him, and reappears at plot-opportune times. In the movie, we actually see what this entails: the meetings of the White Council, their deliberations over the scope of the threat and how to respond.

For the most part, what has impressed me most about Jackson's adaptations is how faithful he has been to Tolkien's work. Yes, there are exceptions, most egregiously his reshaping of the character of Faramir. However, I've been regularly impressed by just how much of the original texts carries forward into the films: whole lines of dialog, visits to particular sites, and so on help to ground the movies within Tolkien's mythos. In contrast, while the stuff Jackson is doing with "The Hobbit" does have a textual basis derived from Tolkien, he's completely on his own when it comes to deriving dialog and fleshing out the details of events.

On the whole, I think he does a good job. Characters sound fairly similar in those "new" scenes to how they sound in the other movies, so it isn't terribly jarring. As an avowed Tolkien nerd, I didn't find fault with most of the expanded stuff he included; it's either taken from the appendices (such as the meeting of the White Council) or fits within a compatible framework (such as Radagast discovering a Morgul blade; I'm pretty sure that Tolkien didn't state that that happened, but it helps make the threat more concrete in a way that works nicely for a movie). The one major invention is actually tied in to the main story with Thorin and Bilbo: Jackson created a new character, a "white Orc," to serve as a grand villain for the first movie. Which is fine, but also kind of funny, since that's EXACTLY what he did for the first movie in "Lord of the Rings" as well. It might have been nice to do something else this time around, but whatever, it's fine.

I've heard a bunch of complaints about Radagast. Personally, I enjoyed him... he's definitely a comic character, and very silly, but I feel like Jackson has more license to play around with him than he does with the other major characters. It is pretty fascinating to consider him alongside Gandalf and Saruman. He doesn't attend the White Council, and I can't remember whether he does in the books, but it seems in keeping with his nature-loving ways to shun even Rivendell.

On the topic of the White Council... I was VERY glad to see Galadriel appear again, because, man, if she wasn't here, there would be NO women at all in the entire movie. I hadn't thought much about gender before, but The Hobbit is very much a boy's book. Anyways, she's wonderful, as always. The thing that had disturbed me most about the first trailer for The Hobbit was a shot that made it look like she and Gandalf might have some sort of pseudo-romantic relationship. That same shot is in the movie, but in the context of the entire scene it's much clearer that their bond is one of affection, not of love. Which, lore-wise, is a relief. I mean, this isn't Melian we're talking about here! I can't get behind a Maiar/Eldar pairing!

I had somehow missed the news that Christopher Lee would be returning for this movie, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him, and it took me a little while to realize that it actually was him and not a replacement. The man is ninety years old, it's great to see him still in action and with such gravitas! It's also interesting to see his character - this is the old Saruman the White, before he was corrupted; but, as shown in this movie, he's still a little overbearing and not as wise as he might think. I thought that was an interesting decision to make - again, since there's little direct textural reference to Saruman, Jackson could have made him very noble and admirable; I feel like, instead, he's showing the seeds of his personality that will lead to his downfall. (Which, in turn, makes me wonder what it will be like when we watch all six movies in sequence after they're all done. The arcs in LotR were already impressive, and for some characters they'll be growing even longer.)

One of the smaller things that had bugged me about Lord of the Rings is how the dwarves in general, and Gimli in particular, were played for laughs; Gimli was generally the comic relief character, and there were jokes about dwarf-tossing and such scattered throughout. Which was a bit of a shame, since in the books I'd always pictured Gimli as an incredibly brave, stoic figure. So, going into this movie I'd been a little concerned that, with thirteen dwarves, it would play as a non-stop laff riot. Fortunately, that's not the case! While some of the dwarves do have a good sense of humor, as a group they're much closer to how I'd imagined them in Tolkien's world. They're serious, and solid, and determined, and honorable, and brave, and tenacious. They're shown to be strong in battle (where Gimli was often portrayed as being lucky), and I rooted for them throughout.


Between the trailers for the movie and the pre-release publicity I'd heard, I had prepared myself for a stylistic adjustment: based on what I'd seen, I would be seeing "The Lord of the Rings Prequels," not "The Movie Version of The Hobbit." The book The Hobbit is a light-hearted, often funny, occasionally charming children's book; the books of The Lord of the Rings are epic, dramatic, occasionally bleak fantasy novels for adults. It turns out that the movie of The Hobbit is actually about midway between the tone of the book "The Hobbit" and of the movies for "The Lord of the Rings". It keeps a lot of the humor of The Hobbit and, a surprisingly large number of the songs and poems. However, the battles and the portrayal of evil feel much closer to that of the earlier movies. Looking back over the movie, it seems a bit jarring just how much the tone can shift from one end to another, but I think it's handled well within the movie itself, since it didn't strike me as odd while I was watching.

Back to the question of length: I do get why people who don't like these movies would be upset at seeing even more of them. Looking back over the almost three hours of the movie, I can picture ample opportunities to cut them down without wrecking the plot: they could pass over the prologue, which establishes the framing device of telling the story, and cut out some of the journeying, and excise some of the side-stories. But, for someone like me who loves Middle-earth, all of those things are wonderful. As long as the material is high-quality, I'll gladly take as much of it that's offered. Since I enjoy this world and these characters, every extended scene gives me more time to spend with them, and every side-plot lets me see another corner of the world. So: people who didn't like The Lord of the Rings should probably stay away, since this is largely more of the same; but people like me who did enjoy it are in for a treat, because this trip to Middle-earth is in some ways even better than the last one.

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