Review: “The Hobbit”

There’s probably very little about The Hobbit (or Lord of the Rings mastermind Peter Jackson‘s involvement in it) that you don’t know already. After all, the project’s troubled journey to the screen could probably fill three separate films of its own. So I’ll skip the exposition and jump right to my experience seeing the first installment of the new trilogy, An Unexpected Journey.

Going into the film, I was cautiously excited by the idea of seeing the story of Alpha Hobbit Bilbo Baggins brought to life by the same man whose drive and singular vision made Rings one of the most accomplished and satisfying cinematic accomplishments of all time. I hadn’t thought about The Hobbit for decades, and only scraps of the story left over from the animated film (a purple coat; a glowing sword) and a community theater production I saw when I was about four (spiders; a sleeping dragon; an overzealous drama major from the local college hissing “My preciousssssss…”) still fluttered around in my skull.

I was also excited to see how the film would look: Jackson’s daring and controversial decision to shoot the film at 48 fps (as opposed to film’s standard 24 or video’s 29) was already generating buzz of the good and bad varieties, and I always welcome the chance that someone in my aisle will vomit from vertigo instead of bad concession stand chicken tenders.

In all honesty, as the film began I was shocked at how it looked… and not in a good way.

I went in expecting – perhaps unfairly – a sweeping visual epic on par with Rings. What I found myself watching looked like a low-budget, shot-on-video fantasy movie more suited to the SyFy network than thousands of theaters on Christmas weekend. The lighting was harsh and unflattering. The camera movements were exaggerated by the high frame rate, making the motion look clumsy. Honestly, if I had stumbled upon the movie on cable, I would think that the settings on my flatscreen were off. And I probably would have turned the channel.

But as Bilbo’s quest played out, it slowly became clear why Jackson made the decision – because while the visual effect of the information-rich frame rate reads very much as “American soap opera” in the early domestic scenes, it is extremely powerful in action sequences and settings where there is a good amount of fine detail in the background.

As the action scenes began to pile up, the scales began to tip in 48′s favor, and by the end the choice was probably a good one. Not only does the added visual information provide massive amounts of deep-focus detail in busy settings (like the vast, teeming underground goblin city) or in scenes involving perilous, vertigo-inducing heights (as in a dizzying sequence where the band of heroes find themselves standing on a mountain that is not only alive, but in the midst of a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots-style fight with another mountain), but it allows for a much more seamless marriage of live action and CGI (which has always been held back by standard 24fps film’s innate motion blur).

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