(Peter Jackson, 2012)
There's a particular sort of shot that Peter Jackson mastered with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Its a sweeping view of an epic action sequence, the camera looping and perhaps turning too as it approaches the heroes - generally in a group, in motion - and they move through a space, the geography of which is established by the vertiginous action of the camera. Theres a lot of cgi involved in these shots. Cgi figures throng, and the landscape - the mines of Moria, the tunnels inside a Goblin stronghold, an ancient Elvish citadel, whatever - is generally mostly created inside a computer too.
In the first and best Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, there are only a couple of these shots. Jackson was working, then, with restrictions. The film had not yet become the critical and commercial smash it eventually was. It was still a huge risk for New Line, the studio financing it. But after that, Jackson could do what he wanted, really. With success, his vision bloated and expanded. The films swelled on dvd with extra scenes and longer episodes. The Hobbit, a story which could make a good three hour film, has been cut into three episodes of over two hours each, and the result, in this opening episode, at least, is almost unbelievably tedious and mannered.
The story is set decades before the events of The Lord of the Rings and follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular hobbit with an unusual thirst for adventure, after he joins a band of dwarves on a long journey back to their ancestral lands in order to recover gold from the dragon Smaug. They are accompanied by the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and after an extremely slow, talky opening hour or so, encounter a series of creatures and perilous situations, including Orcs, Goblins, trolls, Wargs and Elves. This all feels thoroughly samey - reams of CGI, familiar creature design and the usual dynamics governing the set-pieces ensure that these are sequences resembling many other sequences in other such movies beyond Jackson's own.
Aside from that, it is strangely unengaging. The characters are that peculiar Tolkein mix of tweeness and pomposity, the comedy is excrutiatingly unfunny, and the pacing is so leisurely it feels almost insultingly padded out. The cast do their best with these strange collections of tics they are playing; Freeman is a winning lead, McKellen is solid and Richard Armitage is charismatic in the Viggo Mortenson role as Thorin, leader of the dwarves, but the whole thing only feels like its anything more than an exercise in stalling with the arrival in the last act of Andy Serkis (by way of CGI) as Gollum.
His scenes with Freeman in the caves beneath a mountain are by a long way the most compelling in what is otherwise a pointless, even painful, affair, so bloated and obsessed with its own mythology it feels like it represents much of what is wrong with modern blockbuster cinema.
Oh, and those swooping shots I mentioned earlier? The Hobbit is full of them. Only where they were once exciting, even thrilling, now they just feel like Jackson repeating himself, like another set of failures of the imagination in a film stuffed with failures of the imagination.