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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

It seemed for a time there like we might never return to Middle Earth, that incredible world which provided us with one of the finest cinematic triumphs of the last dozen years. But like the Pevensie children wondering if and when they might return to Narnia, fate (and finances) would deem it was always to be.

And yes, I am aware of how confusing an analogy that is.

So after nine years, some rights squabbles and a directorial switcheroo (or rather switch back), The Hobbit is finally on the big screen.

Peter Jackson, who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently the pointless Lovely Bones and, in producer mode, surprise hits like District 9 and the disenchanting The Adventures of Tintin, is back in control of his fantasy sandpit, and has taken some strange, and some arguably unethical, decisions with it.

Dialling back the whimsy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s childish adventure book (though not entirely, with a hit-and-miss effect), Jackson has expanded the world of The Hobbit using extracts from Tolkien’s extended writings about the greater events that preceded and surrounded the story, to give a more epic, Rings-like flavour. The most controversial result of this has led to the relatively short book being broken up into not two but three films – the second and third instalments will follow in 2013 and 2014.

It’s okay Bilbo, you have three films to learn how to ride a pony

An apparent cash-grab on Jackson’s behalf, it is still only fair to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a stand-alone film. Successful feature-length adaptations have been made of short stories only a fraction the size of The Hobbit (The Dead, Brokeback Mountain, Total Recall), so the question is not the morality of Jackson’s decision, but whether or not it works.

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

Using the same technical team that helped create his opus, Jackson has indeed rebuilt and expanded Middle Earth, and much of the magic still exists in the sets, CGI, costumes, armoury and the impossibly enchanting landscapes of New Zealand. “Well,” said Sam Gamgee, “I’m back.” – and it’s hard not to feel that same sense of homecoming when we first see the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire and hear Howard Shore’s indomitable music.

Launching into proceedings with a preface set during the opening act of The Fellowship of the Ring (officially making The Hobbit a film prequel as opposed to The Lord of the Rings being a premature sequel), An Unexpected Journey takes its good time setting up the history of the dwarves and their conflict with the dragon Smaug that sets the story’s events in motion. An explosive siege against the dwarven stronghold Erebor by the beast, kept largely unseen through clever cutting to withhold some surprise for film two, puts us firmly back in the epic setting of The Return of the King before we launch into pastoral antics akin to the early half of Fellowship. A clever smoke-ring cut transforms our narrator, Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins, into his younger self, played by Martin Freeman. Greeted by the grumpy but truly good wizard Gandalf (the ever-perfect Ian McKellan), the anally retentive hobbit soon finds himself playing host to a bevy of brutish, slovenly dwarves, 13 in total, with whom he is caroused into embarking on an adventure to retake the distant fortress of Erebor.

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

Even more the fish-out-of-water than the hobbits in the Rings films, Bilbo’s discomfort agitates some of the dwarves, particularly band leader and would-be king Thorin Oakenshield, while endearing him, cautiously, to others. But his surprising courage, hobbity ability to be easily ignored by the worst of creatures and occasional moments of ingenuity eventually make him an accepted part of the team.

On their journey across New Zealand, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf encounter some strange and terrifying creatures, before a late encounter with the Great Goblin (voiced by a brilliantly camp Barry Humphries) and his slithering hordes deep inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo has his fateful meeting with Gollum and the Ring.

Bouncing from one encounter to the next, Jackson attempts to keep the pace going by inserting action scenes where they are uncalled for. Between Bilbo’s famous encounter with the trolls and the band’s arrival at the sanctuary of Rivendell, Jackson inserts a wholly unwelcome chase sequence, in which orcs riding wargs (giant wolves, thankfully less hyena-ish than in Rings) pursue the dwarves across an ill-defined landscape. The dwarves are rescued thanks to the help of elves, who dispose of the orcs off-camera, causing the excitement levels to plummet. Unfortunate comparisons are easy to draw. A similar sequence at a similar point in Fellowship, after Gandalf confronts the Balrog, where the heroes were to be chased by orcs to the safety of Lothlorien, was cut in the editing room, because a chase sequence was deemed uncalled for at that stage. Ten years later, it seems Jackson has not only failed to learn from his mistakes, but is now making them where he evaded them before.

But it’s not the newly invented or the sourced-from-other-texts scenes that really throw this film off, rather it is an inability to pace scenes within themselves. The dinner party introducing the dwarves goes on that little too long. The troll encounter runs a beat too long. A council between Gandalf and the most powerful beings in Middle Earth contains just a pinch too much information.

And it’s this overflow from scene into following scene that causes An Unexpected Journey to feel so much longer than it actually is, so much more crammed and cramped; and given it is the first part of an easily argued needless trilogy it’s hard to not come away from the whole experience feeling something went very wrong in the editing room.

But so much has gone right elsewhere. The production values remain at the pinnacle of the game, with individual costumes and weapons having more skill and design in them than any landscape from Avatar. Makeup, from bulky, bearded dwarves to the blight-riddled faces of orcs, could hardly be bettered. The CGI is mostly excellent, with wargs and trolls looking weighted and textured. The Great Goblin has a suitably cartoonish but still real presence. Gollum, whose very follicles are now plainly visible, makes the award-winning Gollum of The Two Towers look like Jar Jar Binks.

Ugh, not you agai- no wait! You’re the best part!

While the design fits in perfectly with the Rings films, there are some additional touches brought in by co-writer and one-time-attached director Guillermo Del Toro which spice up the visual palette. A cackling gremlin of a goblin, who appears to be the Great Goblin’s P.A. and runs errands on a zipline about his caverns, feels like he just zipped in from Hellboy 2’s Troll Market. Another sequence in the Misty Moutains, where Bilbo and the dwarves encounter giants made of stone, also feel like they leaked from the brain of cinema’s most inventive fantasist. Of course, the stone giants throw up more problems in this adaptation – referring to a single sentence from The Hobbit about giants hurling rocks (that can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a thunder storm), Jackson has once again shown his inability to resist turning such an event into a scene of peril, as the band are nearly crushed in the fray. One is left thinking of the Fellowship sailing past the Argonath, the two mighty stone statues; sometimes it’s good just to show wonder, not everything needs to be life or death. Jurassic Park would not be the film it is if, upon first seeing a brachiosaur, Sam Neill suddenly found himself in the midst of a stampede (à la, yes I’ll go there, Jackson’s King Kong).

And the action sequences are a tale of two halves, with the skirmishes between the dwarves and their enemies exquisitely choreographed, each dwarf revealing variations on a fighting style based on their weapon of choice, while the escape from the goblin caverns and the stone giants sequence reveal an over-reliance on video game imagery. There is a subconscious urge to press the A button every time the right-scrolling dwarves have to leap a chasm, and as they wait for a swinging platform to swing back their way, visions of Sonic the Hedgehog impatiently tapping his foot come to mind. Gandalf splinters a boulder from a wall and rolls it down a hill, crushing several goblins, in a feat Donkey Kong would be proud of.

Jammed full of scenes, Jackson’s film is oddly low on character. Most of the 13 dwarves might as well have personalities based on their names like in Snow White; Prissy, Fatty, Yokelly, Deafy, Mentally Disabled (the dwarf with a small piece of axe permanently buried in his skull seems to stutter out his sole line of dialogue, in what could be the most offensive moment in one of Jackson’s films since Meet the Feebles). Thorin (Richard Armitage) is given backstory and a bit of fleshy dialogue to work with, but he is little more than stoic and, towards Bilbo, disbelieving. Bilbo at least gets real fun to work with, and Freeman has a blast with his awkward mannerisms (some impressively based on Ian Holm’s), discomforts and terrors. Freeman carries the film on his back from start to finish, a tremendous achievement for a one-time typecast TV actor. The film’s highlight comes when he is thrust into the dark with Andy Serkis’s Gollum, taking what might have been a dull recitation of assorted riddles from the book, and turning it into a menacing match of wills. The writers and Serkis have taken the schizophrenic Gollum of Rings and imbued him with the creepish, toying playfulness of the famous film psychopaths who followed in his wake; Hans Landa, Anton Chigurgh, the Joker. The scene, while not shot with any of the ingenuity of the Gollum scenes from Rings, is still a standout one of writing, acting and CGI, and shows that Jackson still has what it takes to deliver the goods.

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

It would be wrong to not take a paragraph to address the most significant contribution this film has made to film history; the introduction of HFR (higher frame rate) technology, shot at a smoother 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. This addition, a pet project of James ‘have I left my mark on cinema yet?’ Cameron, does indeed make 3D look more natural, and in certain sequences the visuals flow beautifully, but the negatives outweigh the positives. As the eye takes its time to adjust to the new film speed, everything appears unpleasantly sped-up. Who wants to see Bilbo, the world’s fastest geriatric, hobbling like lightning around his hobbit hole? While the eye does eventually become accustomed to the HFR, every now and then the effect slips, and everything appears like those sped-up scenes in Tom Jones, except without the intentional comedy. The detail is immaculately crisp, but almost too much so. Real life doesn’t look this real. Audiences (and Hollywood) may decide it is here to stay, but it seems unlikely, and less likely for the best.

But the visual (and audio) tableau that makes up Middle Earth is the real reason this film remains an essential recommendation, despite its flaws. The world looks better than ever, from its green hills to its torch-lit caves. The soundscape is second to none, and Howard Shore’s score, borrowing a little too much from themes originated in The Lord of the Rings, is never short of epic. His major new creation, a theme for the dwarves, is first hummed in burly baritone and bass, before erupting in a maelstrom of brass and woodwind – it’s as grandiose a piece as anything composed for Rings.

While Jackson may have irritated some viewers with the length and pacing of his film, he has still achieved a great feat with An Unexpected Journey, getting this wonderful tale underway. What comes next may prove an even greater challenge. There’s little denying that were The Hobbit two films as previously planned, the end point of that film is exactly where this part ends. It remains to be seen how he can draw the rest of the book out over two filmic volumes. But since they will continue to look this good, it shouldn’t really matter in the long run.

There’s no denying, it’s good to be back in mythical, mystical Middle Earth.

3/5

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Prometheus – Game over, man. Game over.

It’s behind you…

Thirty-three years ago we were told that in space no one could hear you scream. But with massive financial and critical success and an enormous fanbase that extends beyond the remits of traditional science fiction, millions heard Alien’s call.

Ridley Scott’s “serial killer loose in a haunted house… in space” movie managed to do two things that have made it one of American cinema’s most iconic films: it utilised the ideal horror movie pacing perfected during the 1970s; and it gave audiences more iconic visuals than most directors can create in a career – including three creatures (or rather stages of a single creature) that are burned into the public consciousness forever more.

Yeah, that’s the one

Where the franchise went next is well known; a hugely successful (and worthy) action movie sequel followed before diminishing returns struck with a vengeance, resulting in cash-in crossovers with the Predator movies. Now Scott has returned to the franchise and the genre that made his name, setting a sci-fi epic in the universe that he, writer Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill, James Cameron, H. R. Giger and others have built over the years.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m going to compare Prometheus to Alien. Because the comparison is drawn in the material, it is drawn in the film’s advertising and it is drawn by their shared director. I will, however, also critique this film with my Alien cap off (if I had an Alien cap, it would look like a facehugger for the top of my head), lest anyone accuse me of being a fanboy disappointed that Prometheus did not live up to expectations.

Because expectations aside, in front, wherever; Prometheus is a troubled beast.

The film is set mostly in 2093, aboard the exploratory spaceship Prometheus. The crew have come to a newly discovered planet, deep in space, following archaeological evidence that points to early human contact with alien life forms. These creatures may or may not be the creators of all life on Earth, and are therefore our gods. Either way, they left us a way of finding them.

Now that’s a spaceship!

We are first introduced to David, an android, played with perfect disconnect and scene-stealing dryness by Michael Fassbender. His mechanical motives are for the most part unclear, but he is a welcome reintroduction to the Alien universe. He bears a somewhat unhealthy fascination for the archaeologist couple at the film’s centre, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green). The pair argue about her faith even as their exploration clearly shows her faith to be erroneous. Sure, why not? Aren’t these the kind of questions sci-fi should be dealing with in absolutes?

It is not long after exploring one of the structures they find on this alien world that things begin to look a little suspicious. What are these ominous holograms and murals? Why does that giant statue look human? And why is very little still alive? Also, since this is an Alien movie, what secrets are the corporate types back on the ship hiding from the team?

The story soon transitions smoothly into a tense horror/thriller as the mission goes suitably haywire and things that should never have been uncovered are unleashed. But much like the mysterious black goo that the crew of Prometheus find on the planet, the plot and its themes soon morph into something far more nasty, indescribable and, well, terrible.

Let’s just say this now and be done with it, Ridley Scott is a superb filmmaker who has been on the front line of the craft technically, ever since he got into the game. Even the biggest detractors of films from Legend to Kingdom of Heaven cannot fault his technical skills. Prometheus is not only no exception, but it is arguably his greatest-made film – his camera marries ultra-detailed sets with crisp, realistic CGI (let down by some very bland, darkening 3D), while his editor keeps the story flowing and the tension, for the most part, bubbling. This is a well made movie. But it is also a badly misjudged one.

At the core of Prometheus’ troubles is a schizophrenic script that suffers as much from meddling and rewrites as it does from a blatant case of just-not-ready-to-shoot-yet. This falls under three categories: dialogue, character and story.

The dialogue is the most noticeably embarrassing. When the crew begin to awaken from their sleep aboard the ship, we are subjected to the sort of chat that we might expect of a mismatched band in space, but eschewing the charm of the crew of Alien’s Nostromo (and other movie vessels, it’s just fun to reference Alien) in favour of ad-libbed banter. This adds realism, one supposes, but it lacks purpose or entertainment. Later, a geologist character says the word “rocks” as much as possible – we have to conclude the script had no written dialogue for his character; he was just given flashcards that said “rocks” on them. The ship’s two co-pilots engage in a bet about what they will find on the alien world, assumedly as stand-ins for the audience. But it’s all so forced; the audience isn’t stupid, it can question these things itself. Sadly, patronising the audience is one of the Prometheus script’s nastiest habits – towards the end Charlize Theron’s character reveals a minor (utterly unnecessary) plot twist throwing EMPHASIS on one word (accompanied by a spike in the music) as if to ensure that everyone down the back of the class understood and processed this already very clear twist (that remains utterly unnecessary to the story).

And then there are the characters; flimsy at best. Rapace’s Elizabeth gets the best of it, as a proto-Ripley with genuine aims within the film. These are undermined however by the character’s religious faith, apparently deriving from severe daddy issues, that like the pastor in M. Night Shyamalan’s preposterous Signs remains steadfastly Christian in spite of insurmountable evidence contradicting such traditions. She is also unable to have children, which without a Newt (the girl in Aliens) or a Jones (the cat in Alien) for her to redirect her affections to, says nothing about her character other than forcing an underwhelming dramatic scene with her lover. Charlie, played by the hopelessly uninspired Marshall-Green, is another anomaly of the script – it is unclear if we are meant to be on his side at all, agree with his opinions in any way, even care about him. Through clumsy writing and a humdrum performance, most of Prometheus is spent hoping he will be killed off sooner rather than later.

He was better in the ads.

David at least has some characterisation, but alas too much. An unsuccessful fusion of Alien’s psychotic robot Ash (Ian Holm) and Aliens’ heroic robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the character is the result of clear indecision on behalf of the writers, who also throw clumsy references to his passion for Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence into the mix. While drawing allusions to Ash (and by extension, it must be added, 2001’s HAL) in his uncertain directive, his dangerousness is undermined by a rewrite blatantly designed to make Fassbender’s character more heroic (he is so hot right now, in fairness). But the constant backpedalling between hero and could-be villain offers us nothing other than a few fun lines delivered by a truly talented actor. If only it worked with the story.

Charlize Theron is farcically misused as the film’s token corporate henchwoman; playing the Paul Reiser role from Aliens if he were lobotomised. Idris Elba at least gets to have some fun with his role as the ship’s captain, but his best lines all sound ad-libbed, and his character cannot be described using any more complex words than “cool and good”. Other than that there is the angry one and the nervous one (are these dwarves or intergalactic scientists?) and a dozen or so redshirts who no one even tried to give lines to. Ellen Ripley is a more complex character than the whole cast of Prometheus thrown in together.

Characters, apparently

Finally, there’s the themes. And what big themes they are. Creation, death, the afterlife, rebirth. Prometheus should be admired for aiming so high. But it should be condemned for not knowing what it is even talking about. Aside from the universe-contradicting religious issues discussed earlier (somehow faith sort of wins in the end), there is the schizophrenic role (and yes, I’ve used that word again) of the alien “Engineers” – known in traditional Alien lore as “Space Jockeys”.

What was I thinking?

These creatures play the dual, oxymoronic role of creator and destroyer, but their methods are perverse and inexplicable. The film’s title alludes to the Olympians of Greek mythology, destroying earlier races of man due to their wickedness and keeping fire from later men as punishment. But in mythology the Olympians created law, and were thus able to judge mankind. But the Engineers do no such thing. They plant and leave, and while they might predict the creatures that arise they cannot judge them when they develop thought and morality within their civilisations. A gardener who returns to a garden to find it overgrown with weeds does some pruning, they don’t light the place up with napalm.

Are these godlike Space Jockeys good or bad, wise or insane? Well, we learn nothing, and depending on the likelihood of sequels and what they contain we may never. One of the film’s two writers, Damon Lindelof, was the primary writer on the TV series Lost; but while that show often meandered between questions without answering them, it never completely doubled back on a question without answering it either way – why did they make us? Why did they destroy us?

By the film’s conclusion we know so little we are left uncaring. The film turns the Space Jockeys into villains because it is easier than actually dealing with the fascinating questions it raised. A good mystery is a good thing, but a mystery for the sake of it is not. By the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the audience is left free to interpret what happened. In Prometheus we are not, we are simply not told, left in the dark, unentertained.

It is just sad that Prometheus was made when it was not ready. The production values are superb, but based so strongly on imagery from Alien, the template was already there to work with. The film’s one standout scene, an intense, nightmarish surgery, remains an homage to that most famous scene from Alien. The rush job isn’t just noticeable in the script, it can be heard in the music. While the film’s action scenes have a suitable pulse-pounding musical accompaniment, many of its slower, tenser scenes are backed by an utterly inappropriate piece of triumphant bombast that sounds a little like someone strangling the Star Wars overture. Miscommunication is the only thing that can explain such a disconnect between sound and image.

Another of the film’s most troubling decisions is to cast Guy Pearce as the nonagenarian Peter Weyland, the financier of the expedition. The 44-year-old is covered in barely successful old man makeup for the role. Two better courses of action might have worked here. One would be to take the smarter Alien Vs Predator approach (yes, I just used those words), where Lance Henriksen was cast as a member of the Weyland family, named Bishop, suggesting the robot in Aliens was built in his image – thus casting Fassbender in old man makeup as David’s maker would have been at least witty, if odd-looking. Alternatively, they might have CAST SOMEBODY THE CHARACTER’S AGE! There are certainly enough actors available over 70. If you wanted to be very smart with your references, cast Peter O’Toole! Pearce’s casting comes down to the fact that Pearce, sans makeup, played a younger Weyland in promotional material for the film. But what was Scott thinking? How could the master filmmaker be foolish enough to sacrifice our suspension of disbelief for the sake of an ad campaign?

Note: not a scene in this movie

As a slow-building horror film Prometheus works reasonably well, but with this budget and skill behind and in front of the camera it is ludicrous that you don’t care for the main characters any more than you might the errant teenagers in a bad slasher movie. The preposterous, unanswerable grand questions the film raises only serve to distract from the jump scares and body horror.

Prometheus is so well made, but so poorly handled. Perhaps it would have worked well outside of the Alien universe, with less to live up to and no need to attempt a (failed) tie-in at its climax. But that would have robbed the film of its gorgeous design, which, in the end, is the sole superb feature to recommend it on. Alien aside, it does the film no service that the two films it references most often are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia, which are, simply put, the two best-made films I have ever seen. It raises the bar far too high for even a spaceship to soar over.

In the end, this all comes down to Scott’s hubris. Knowing full well he has helped create one of the most iconic creatures and indeed images in the history of cinema, he has foolishly decided that somehow this creature is linked to the very meaning of existence. The result is confused and clumsy, with its ambitions reduced to pretensions of genius.

It’s a mess. A beautiful, terrifying mess.

Oh, and don’t get me started on that “the secret is in the music” nonsense…

2/5

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