Movies used to be critically important in my life. I found solace in them, uncovered wonders and wisdom. I watched terrible films and laughed, hard-edged films I could not finish watching, delightful films that made me want to create and persist. But in the last several years that feeling has changed; I still watch films but fewer of them, most of them not recent releases, and I only venture to the theater – once my tabernacle – a few times per year (now often to take my daughter to a film she wants to see). Something has changed in me, to be sure, but I also think something has been changing at the cinema.
I saw The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on opening night. And it was not good. It earnestly desired to be good; it was in 3-D with lots of pointy things and stuff flying at the viewer, it had actors doing very-much-a -lot-of acting, and it rarely winked at the audience or blinked at its own bombast. The performers tried to do well; the special effects strove to be spectacular and thunderous. It oozed pretension and significance, but all of the pomposity, the moments of “emotional weight,” and the grandiose battles and duels in the end were little more than an overwrought panoply of scenes, instances strung together in the hopes of creating an awe-inspiring lucid dream. There was neither connection with the audience nor with the story that lurked beneath the images but rarely showed its face.
I must admit my bias here: I found the first installment of The Hobbit to be tepid at best. I liked the songs, really. But all of the ridiculous escapes and unlikely salvations just became tedious. I did not finish the second film; The Desolation of Smaug was desolate, all right, full of even more impossible escapes and unnecessary happenstances than before, enlivened only by the possibility of a strong female character busting the story out of its traces. But it felt busy and rudderless, and halfway through (I think) I gave up trying to make sense of or care for the story that was presented to me. I was not looking for an exact copy of the book; I was looking for an interpretation that somehow harkened back to the book. And it just wasn’t there.
I went to the third movie with low expectations, and from the first “image” I realized that even they might not be met. The Real 3-D – partly lost on me because of my terrible depth perception – looked like it had been filmed in a studio back in the heyday of sitcoms. A strange bright quality filled the screen, and it all looked cheap. The CGI effects looked no different than a regular actor or physical object onscreen; rather, they all looked conjured by a computer. After awhile it was hard to watch because it felt like an attempt to hyper-realistically visualize a cartoon.
The characters were even more cartoonish than the visuals. Orcs, the most tiresome of foes, were once again deployed in the service of EVIL. Mindless, monotonous, marching in lovely choreography, they flung themselves into the fray like puppets tossed across a stage, with no sense of individual tactics or any chance of autonomy. Some of the siege techniques using large monsters were interesting but the rest of the fighting was utterly boring. But even there the incredible misuse of the Were-Worms stood out as a beacon to The Exigencies of the Plot. Monsters that could bore right into Erebor just drop off their comrades and depart? It was for me a telling moment amidst the avalanche of conveniences and nonsensical actions that movie required to move along.
Individuals seemed to fare no better. While I liked watching Bilbo try to do the right thing, few other characters had much meat to their roles. Richard Armitage’s Thorin acts so obviously insane that I could not for the life of me figure out why he wasn’t immediately subdued by his concerned companions. Most other characters did little more than utter a line of dialogue and furrow their brow, or performed some amazing feat of combat that would make epic-level D&D characters swoon. Many characters felt like game pieces rather than attempts to portray living beings on screen, in scenarios that could have given actors substantial, powerful roles to perform if they were allowed to show more than three feelings (anger, concern, sadness).
The character who got the worst of it was Tauriel, a character whom I know little about (having not seen all of the second movie), but who feels terribly handled in this film. This is not because Evangeline Lilly gives a poor performance; on the contrary, I see her struggling to make what she’s given work. But the character is neutralized by what is apparently the only reason she’s in the movie: to be a lovestruck damsel who weeps at the loss of her love. She is second-fiddle to Legolas (who feels shoehorned into this film), a kickass fighter when the outcome is not significant, and little more than a ragdoll when it’s time for her to fail. I felt bad for her, because there was no way for the character to escape the fate made for her by the plot. And with women given such short shrift in most of the film (Galadriel gets to be Dark Phoenix for a few minutes earlier in the film, and a human woman bravely leads a few others into battle) it felt criminal to so misuse the character like this, to foreclose her agency and capability to create a tearjerker moment so manipulative you want to cry for the actor.
I couldn’t help but sit there and think “Why do we want this? Why do they think we want this?”
Here is where the bitter denunciation comes in: I realized as I left the theater that these kind of movies tire me. I felt wrung out by trying to care about the characters, to feel some exhilaration at the visual effects or feats of daring. I felt spiritually battered by the manipulations and excesses of the film, both visually and narratively. There is certainly room to interpret and expand on the events of The Hobbit, but this tortuous elongation of the plot into three long films (that will have “expanded” editions!) seems more designed to wear the viewer out than to provide entertainment. Thunderous sound, eye-popping 3-D effects, vertiginous vistas, and stretched scenes of fighting all combine to sand away any possibility of nuance from the cinematic work, making films into long strings of barely-coherent, preposterous moments.
At the same time there is an adherence to supposedly tried-and-true tropes, stereotypes, and assumptions. Tolkien created a conservative milieu, but there have been many opportunities in the films of his work to create more spaces for a richer, more complex world. And there have been attempts, such as Tauriel and expanding Arwen’s role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And yet the struggle to enliven them constantly falters. And not just with this, but with many other titanically-budgeted films such as The Avengers and Man of Steel. They are films starved for diversity, and I don’t just mean in terms of gender or race. So few humans populate these films that it is hard to not see them as incredibly expensive shadow-puppet shows, whose creators hope that intense visual detail and bludgeoning effects will hammer any desire for nuance or emotional plenitude out of the viewer. Spectacle is all; amped up, shock-and-awe, senses-overloading extravagance is the point, not just an aspect of such films. They are full of clichés and video-game-style shenanigans because their design is to bombard us with ideological banality and impossible visions and make us crave more of it.
They are extravaganzas devoted to making us desire empty spectacle as art, to yearn for divertissements that are simultaneously over-stimulating and bromidic. I don’t think this is the first time such a trend has emerged, but now the film industry has the technology and the funding and the formula to make it succeed. And, increasingly, a willing audience that is ravenous for them. And I am often in that audience, hoping for more than I got last time, wondering if I will leave the theater energized, inspired, or once again drained and bereft, but still esurient for another.