art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Film Review: 'The Hobbit' has a heart of darkness

The Hobbit is easily the best of the Lord of the Rings films. It's powerful and self-assured and I found it far more enjoyable than the previous two instalments. Perhaps what causes this is a combination of factors including: a more conscious effort to cultivate areas of ambiguity in the plot while keeping that plot elegantly focused; the sense that a mythic world is being powerfully reinforced; and knowledge of the events which are to unfold in the later movies and the resultant sense of dramatic irony bathing everything.

On the first point, consider the opening montage recalling the fall of the Dwarf city Erebor to the dragon Smaug, the key event that sets in train the action of the film. It is suggested that the timing of this event is linked to the discovery of a strange stone – called the Arkenstone – in the depths of the mines beneath the city. Like the titular rings of the series, the stone has an effect on whoever possesses it; the power represented in the inanimate object achieves a kind of physiological corruption. The causal connection between the stone and Smaug is never explicitly explained but the narrative seems to hinge on some unspoken force, suggesting a moral compass rather than stating it. As in a parable or myth, we are invited to wonder about the link between the physical and the moral: corruption of the soul (greed) appears to invite a physical attack on the city. In the end, the film never shows us Smaug overtaking the city. The entire sequence makes clear that he takes over Erebor without actually showing his face. What we do see are silent mountains of gold, hoarded by the Dwarves, glimmering, bringing fire and doom.

Then there is the matter of the 3-D which is something of a gift: giving us Gollum like we have never seen him before. Gollum was already creepy in 2-D CGI but to see his eyes glow after catching a sliver of light in 3-D is to better appreciate his animus.

Another aspect of the older films heightened in this movie is the use of the eagle as a kind of motif. As in the Return of the King, eagles arrive at a key point to save the day. They were seen on-screen briefly and almost indirectly in the last movie. Here, Peter Jackson gives us more time with them, to see them clearly against the sunlight, though they never take over the show as the Tiger does in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. These eagles ask us to accept them as symbols. At the same time, and much like the Tiger in Life of Pi, they cut open the narrative and ask us to accept something more sublime and ambiguous than just an easy metaphor involving the role of the United States in World War II. Summoned by butterflies, these eagles are not political and want to inhabit a world of their own, flying above Middle Earth, unknown and unknowable to its inhabitants. A part of the story, they desire to remain free of its cage. They could represent technology, but in this world magic is already technology. They ask how the natural, supernatural and technological may be related, then fly away.  

There has been much discussion of The Hobbit’s high frame-rate, but this will not be a factor in most cinemas which are not equipped to play the new format (which supposedly renders a sharper image). Though it’s easy to say this film was nothing more than just another money-making opportunity for the producers, I found The Hobbit to be the justifiable foundation stone upon which all the other films are built. In this movie, there is the clear sense of being enmeshed in another world, a sense exquisitely heightened by the 3-D which – more than just being a means to justify a higher ticket price – allows greater room for differing textures of golden light and for a deeper immersion into that never-ending darkness Milton described in Samson Agonistes (“O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon / Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse”). The film, one of the best of the year, provides spell-binding sequences which linger in the mind. It is a majestic entertainment.