The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Looks so cheap you'll think it's real
★★★
☆
Released: 
2012
Director: 
Peter Jackson
Starring: 
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Scott
The Setup: 
First installment of Lord of the Rings prequel.
Discussion: 

Okay, I gotta tell you I was CYNICAL. I realize I'm beginning a lot of my reviews lately with "I didn't want to watch this," but with this one I really had no further interest in the Middle Earth stories, especially one book spread out to three long movies, but I wanted to see the 9-minute preview for the new Star Trek, and I wanted to see what 48fps looked like. And it was a totally dreary day with cold rain. Notice that none of these reasons include actually wanting to see this movie. So in this review we'll detail how I went from this attitude to the point of telling you that you should go see this immediately after you finish reading.

For those who don't know, movies from a very early point settled on 24 frames per second as a standard. Before that was a lower frame rate, which is why some of those really old movies look sped up now: because they are being shown at 24fps. In the meantime, technology has advanced, and we have had the ability to show higher frame-rate (HFR) movies, but it would mean new cameras and new projection equipment in theaters, so it never happened until now. So basically you have the opportunity to go to the movies right now and see a totally new way of watching films, which to me is reason enough, and we haven't even gotten into why, contrary to popular opinion, it's actually amazing.

But first, a bit of story. We open with Ian Holm as whoever [oops--he's Bilbo later!] writing down a history for Frodo, who saunters in eating an apple, the two of them contentedly bickering as they cohabitate, making it seem like they have some sort of gay daddy / son relationship. Holm writes the story we're about to see, and we flash back to this mountain that was the happy dwelling place of a bunch of dwarves, and the king who coveted gold, and well, everyone knows that dragons love gold. I personally did not know that, but it is presented as simple fact. So a dragon killed everybody save for the merry band of dwarves who will become our cast, including Thorin Oakenshield, who is the grandson of the king that got snuffed.

Then we introduce Bilbo, hobbit in question, when Gandalf shows at his house, asking him if he wants an adventure. He refuses, but Gandalf invites a whole group of dwarves over anyway, and they eat all of Bilbo's food and are casual with his prized possessions, which was making me angry. They're going to go reclaim their mountain, and they want Bilbo to join, but he refuses, leading Gandalf to scold him for having become boring and attached to possessions. In the morning everything is back in place, and the movie nicely shows us that it's also back to safe and boring, causing Bilbo to run after to join the crew late. From then on they encounter enemies and have narrow escapes and battles and all that just as you'd expect.

So the effect of the high frame rate is, counterintuitively, to make everything look like shit. It has a clarity that makes it look like television. A whole layer of movie magic is stripped away, and you're just looking at sets and guys in costumes. It looks exactly like one of those BBC Masterpiece Theatre productions of Macbeth that you had to watch in college and might have caused you, like me, to try to put your finger on what exactly makes the video production look so entirely crappy. During the lengthy dinner scene, I was finding it hard to get into the story because you are just looking at ACTORS in MAKEUP sitting on a SET. And for at least the first half of the movie, this caused me to be unable to become involved. The scenes set inside look like actors on sets, and the scenes of nature look like HD sports footage or Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, featuring Marlon Perkins. And this is where most of the reviews I've seen so far end: it looks like shit. But if you keep with it, and go one step further, this actually becomes its key feature, and the fact that it looks like shit is precisely what makes it incredible. So are you ready? Are you ready for this? Do you like it? Do you like it like this?

When you're watching actors on a set, or reality TV, or sports TV, or nature footage, usually what you're seeing is real. We have learned that when you're seeing such cruddy production values, what you're seeing is REAL. So as you get later in the film, and you start seeing giant trolls, or huge men made out of mountainsides throwing cliffs at each other, or you have huge village of disgusting scrotum-people stretching off as far as the eye can see, it causes a bit of cognitive dissonance in your mind that tells you what you're seeing MUST BE REAL. Which is where I think this movie is a total success in terms of bringing you a brand-new movie sensation, because it really does let you experience something you've never experienced before, which is seeing all of these fantastic sights rendered with complete realism. So real, in fact, it's bland-looking. It removes that layer of "movie" look and makes it look like crap, but looking like crap is EXACTLY what sells the illusion of reality.

Ultimately it's the same kind of thing something like Cloverfield is TRYING to do, which is say "if you're seeing a monster on cell phone video, it must be real." And it does take a while to get into, and is very disconcerting, and uncomfortable for a while, but as the movie says: Do you want an adventure? By the last third of the movie, I was really into it and excited at the beginning of every fantastic scene, because you're going to see something completely wild and straight from our imagination rendered very real--so real, it looks a bit bland. You're seeing a scene straight out of Breugel, and it looks like someone just pointed a video camera at it.

The other thing is that, while The Lord of the Rings films were each made from novels, this is one, 300 page novel stretched out to three long movies. I have not read the novel, and perhaps this is why it didn't bother me. In fact, I'm often complaining that movies aren't long enough to adequately tell their stories (while movies with no stories to tell are often too long), and since one whole feature of these films is their long and complicated intertwining tales, I didn't mind it having a lot of room to stretch out. It becomes noticeable when, every time a battle is mentioned, we see that battle, and every time a new character is mentioned, we go into a protracted flashback giving that character's story (I also understand that this movie has a villain whose role has been considerably beefed up to give this episode a sense of closure), but I didn't mind. I was not bored for a moment and would have happily had it go on for two more hours.

Story-wise, however, there are a great many deux ex Gandalfs. Our crew is in an impossible situation, then--poof! Taken care of. Either by Gandalf or a sudden army or unforseen giant eagles. And it's a bit of a tension-killer that we have a good idea that, at least for this installment, no lives will be lost. But you know what? It's not Tarkovsky. It's fun adventure as entertainment and it totally entertained me.

So I say go, and definitely experience the high frame rate. I also say go now because the HFR effect is one that will probably be most effective only the first time you see it (and given its reception, we may never see it again). How often to you get a chance to see something you really haven't seen before at the movies? Even if its whole effect if looking like something you see almost everyday (i.e. television). For me, it's jarring effect and it's ability to unsettle what my brain tells me is "reality" is an experience worth throwing three hours at.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, go now and see it in high frame rate.