Two late releases of 2012 were both touted as making great use of 3D. The first was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the last hugely anticipated and hyped film of the year. Not only would this be a 3D release, Peter Jackson had filmed his return to Middle Earth in 48 frames per second, which would (apparently) create a more vivid, living image. In an interview, Jackson explained that 48 FPS turned the cinema screen into a window, through which one could look into the other world of the film, feeling oneself there in the vividness of the image. By contrast, one review of An Unexpected Journey described it as like looking at an HD television, which rather diminished the cinema experience.
To save money, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2D, at 24 FPS. My simple response: we’re back! I loved it – the level of detail applied to every aspect of Middle Earth was superb. The Hobbit is a more homely tale than The Lord of the Rings, and more time is spent in Bag End, with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bustling about with his crockery and preparing supper. Once Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves arrive, the party is a prolonged affair that feels hectic yet comfortable and homely. This was a group of people I’d be happy to sit down to dinner with.
Despite the length of the scene, and the film as a whole, Jackson paces the action well, moving smoothly from set piece to set piece. An Unexpected Journey could be criticised for having a plot that consists entirely of set pieces, but when that it is the plot of the novel it is hard to see the film being different. And what set pieces, from the prologue featuring the coming of Smaug and the exodus of the Dwarves, to a dangerous walk along narrow mountains paths as living mountains batter each other to pieces; from the desperate dash and spell-casting of Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) in Mirkwood to the helter-skelter running battle through the halls of the Goblin King; and the climatic battle with the Orcs of Azog the Defiler (Man Bennett) aboard their Wargs at the edge of a precipice, on a toppling tree, which is on fire. The one scene I could have done without featured the three trolls, but since they are referenced and even appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, I understand why it had to be included.
Perhaps the most effective set piece, however, is a battle of wits rather than swords, in the form of Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis). Gollum’s first appearance acknowledges the viewer’s familiarity with what has previously been seen in The Lord of the Rings, as he is heard before he appears, muttering and hacking, and it takes time before he is revealed in his entirety. The game of riddles is a smooth, engaging sequence, allowing both performers space to express their situations – in Bilbo’s case fear and increasing desperation; for Gollum, eagerness and increasing frustration. The scene segues perfectly into a chase, and despite the relative unimportance of the Ring to the overall plot of The Hobbit, it still receives emphasis befitting the viewer’s familiarity with the magical object, as well as Bilbo’s important choice when he has Gollum at his mercy.
The best element of An Unexpected Journey is its eponymous character, as Martin Freeman delivers one of the most engaging performances of the year. More varied than Gandalf, less doom-laden than Frodo, Bilbo stands out from the other characters of the Tolkien-verse by the possession of a sense of humour. The Lord of the Rings can be criticised for being rather dour, but The Hobbit had several moments that were laugh out loud funny (personal favourite: comedy faint). Similarly, whereas the Fellowship was quickly assembled and the drama focused upon it falling apart, much of the drama in An Unexpected Journey is concerned with Bilbo proving himself to his travelling companions, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage). Described as an amalgamation of Aragorn and Boromir, Thorin is the grim-faced and troubled hero, and the antagonistic development of his relationship with Bilbo gives the film real heart. The moment at which the reluctant hobbit and the obsessed dwarf reconcile is moving and heart-warming, and helps to set up what is to come. For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we can expect a united company encountering further dangers.
Everything that worked about An Unexpected Journey worked because of an intelligent script by Jackson and his co-writers Phyllida Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro, Weta’s superb production design, bravura performances from all concerned, and Jackson’s fluid direction that easily slips between different plot points and gives attention to different characters, drawing the viewer into this magical world. There were a couple of points when I wondered how it would look in 3D, and whether 48 FPS would add anything to the experience. Perhaps it would, but that enhancement would not be integral to what was on screen. The high definition digital filming does make a different, as that itself creates a more detailed image than film can provide. Digital film has been growing ever more prevalent, especially since Michael Mann gave LA a digital noir look in Collateral. Mann’s own Miami Vice and Public Enemies made further use of HD digital film, and more recently Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography was one of the most striking elements of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks gorgeous in HD, as we see the fine lines of the actors’ features, the individual blades of grass in the Shire, the leaves of Mirkwood and the intricate details of Elvish architecture in Rivendell. Digital film adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the cinema image, which we can have at home as well thanks to Blu-Ray and HD TV, so I am all for this particular development in the cinematic art form. 3D would be fine if it didn’t cost extra, but without it, I don’t think I’m missing much.