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SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. If you haven’t seen those films, you have no business seeing this one until you do. Move along! On your way!

Turning JRR Tolkien’s slim-by-comparison 310 page The Hobbit into 3 films instead of 2 (or even 1) has always smacked me as a little cynical on New Line Cinema’s and Warner Bros’ parts. It’s almost as if they’re saying “You nerds will buy a ticket for anything Tolkien. Pay up.”  It’s never been seen by me or anyone else with fond memories of the book as being something that lends itself easily to almost 9 butt-numbing hours of epic CGI filmmaking. I always found The Hobbit to be a quiet, personal journey of Bilbo and his odd companions, sprinkled with joyous companionship, songs, and the simple wonders of an adventure you didn’t expect, something captured more purely in this film’s predecessor. Remember the slightly-long-but-still-fun party where all the dwarves show up and just eat and goof around? I like that. I like characters just being themselves for a bit, especially since we know there’s a long, treacherous, potentially fatal journey ahead.

You wouldn’t get that same warmth from this film, and it’s as if the movie takes a hard pivot despite having the same director. The Desolation of Smaug lives up to its grim title, concerning itself with straight-faced seriousness, political machinations, brutal death, and the destruction of the dwarven soul. It almost feels like a different film, the dark and humorless Empire Strikes Back of the series. I guess this film has a chronic case of Middle Film Syndrome: that bothersome and completely unavoidable dysfunction of planned trilogies. It’s a meta-middle act, an entire film of people just getting to the big finale with some obvious complications along the way.

desolation of smaug
“Hey. we’re a clever and inventive action setpiece! This is fuuuuuuun!”

It’s not all fiery ash, surly beards, and angsty glances, though. There’s some rare moment of levity, such as a fantastic, funny, surprisingly tense extended action setpiece where the Dwarves tumble down a white water rapid in empty wine barrels, simulatenously fighting the raging current and a band of attacking orcs. It showed me how creative and playful Jackson’s films can be, while maintaining a serious edge. This film doesn’t seem to have many of those killer moments that jump out at me. There’s no “No, I am your father” reveal, even though Smaug’s introduction comes close (more on this below). The film is a tableau of fantastic art design, a lovingly crafted world populated with characters I had trouble connecting with. Bilbo’s screentime is so low, he’s almost incidental to the plot. Gandalf vanishes for almost an hour in the character and narrative shuffle. Apparently, he was barely involved in “that business with the dragon.”

But that’s the problem trying to adequately represent a main group of literally 15 characters. There’s no point trying to learn names or follow who these people are, or their relationships to each other. They’re representing an Dwarven ideal, not themselves as people. They feel like a mass, with a few dwarves singled out for special closeups, like Balin (played marvelously by Ken Scott) who stands out as the group’s moral center. Kíli (Adrian Turner), the beardless one, gets more than his fair share of screen time with an inexplicable romantic subplot with a low elf named Tauriel (Evageline Lilly).

desolation of smaug4
Apparently, ladies with bows are IN this year.

Tauriel is a new invention of Peter Jackon’s to add at least 1 female character in Tolkein’s obnoxiously male-centered universe who has a name and talks to someone. It’s a shame that her only defining feature is to abandon her duties to chase after a guy she met once as a prisoner. They basically have one conversation about stars and a magic rock, then she completely abandons her post as Captain of the Mirkwood Guard to chase after him. Apparently, this is how you fall in love in Middle Earth. Talk about rocks and stars and get ready for marriage. Maybe she’ll have to wear a beard to get him in the mood. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) also has a modicum of screentime to artificially complicate this, and his appearance is utterly unnecessary.

I do appreciate how this film expands on the areas of Middle Earth on the fringes, the more seedy and unpolished pockets of the map. The elves of Mirkwood have a perpetual inferiority complex to their higher class colleagues in Rivendell, with hints of their own internal classism. Lake-town is a new type of human settlement: Middle-Earth’s Detroit, a depressing, rundown fishing village lorded over by the Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry), whose character is as crooked as his trademark nose. I get their purpose: they’re the embodiment of corruption and greed, a thematic through-line in Jackson’s Middle Earth.

desolation of smaug
“Now ‘o says we was the moral message of this here picha?!”

Yet there’s another inexplicable scene where the Master of Lake-town and his unibrowed Alfrid (Ryan Gage) cartoonishly discuss their fears over a possible democratic rebellion of his impoverished, downtrodden populace if Bard (Luke Evans, aka Discount Michael Shannon) actually has some good ideas that may help people. Bard is a terminally dull character who might as well have a neon sign screaming “EVENTUALLY A POPULIST HERO”. I find particularly ironic considering one of the main storylines is for Thorin Oakenshield to regain an absolute, non-democratic monarchy over the Lonely Mountain. What is this movie trying to say exactly? I don’t know. That’s another symptom of the Middle Film Syndrome: lack of narrative direction other than forward. It feels like a finely sculpted blob, shapeless but well-crafted.

desolation of smaug
And then there’s a dragon. A really scary dragon.

Remember how we were teased with Smaug? A blurry swathe of red or a huge yellow eye? Guess what? It’s a veritable Smaug-asbord. Smaug is the big highlight of the film, voiced and motion-captured with oily perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch, and one of the most convincing CG creations ever put to film, most certainly its best dragon. Smaug moves like a building-sized serpent powered by sadistic menace. He’s the Anti-Godzilla: calm and agile, teasing the Dwarves, terrorizing Bilbo with the possibility of escape, then the certainity of death. The Dwarves’ fight scene with Smaug moves and turns like a ballet down the bowels of the Lonely Mountain’s cavernous halls in an extended chase sequence. It’s an impressive series of scenes, opening up the previously claustrophobic Dwarven world.

Quick questions: how did something so big as Smaug even get inside the Lonely Mountain? How did he collect all that gold? Pick up each tiny coin with his huge hands? Was it already there in big piles? Did he have lackies? Why did Bilbo even bother to take off the One Ring?

desolation of smaug

All in all, The Desolation of Smaug is entertaining and massive, but not as enticing or heartfelt as its initial entry. It has all the parts of an epic, such as a large cast, eye-catching vistas, and a huge scale. But it sacrifices depth for width, trying to mark off as much of its checklist to its bombastic conclusion. Clocking it at 161 minutes, it still feels rushed. To call the ending abrupt is a kindness. I’m going to firmly state that Warner Bros should thank their lucky stars that we know a third film is on the way. This film ends with what I’m considering the most infuriating cliffhanger of all time. The entire audience almost booed at the sudden hard stop, and not even a sneak peek at the next film after the credits. For this series, it’s about the destination, not the journey.

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Carl Wilhoyte

Carl Wilhoyte

Carl Wilhoyte is the Video Games Editor of a class warrior poet who writes about all things video games. He's sure everything is not under control and is not going to be okay. For a good time, follow his angry rants and smart thoughts on Twitter: @carlwilhoyte.