Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are one of my favourite cinematic experiences. It's hard to believe that close to a decade has passed since the first one was released. Even now, the trilogy still seems fresh and innovative, its CGI hardly dated amongst many other poorer imitations that have not aged as gracefully. Howard Shore's incredible music remains a heavy part of the rotation through my headphones - and I have seen both the Lord of the Rings symphony production, and watched the first two films with the fantastic Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing the score live. I'm very much looking forward to seeing The Return of the King in a similar form next year.
I've been very much looking forward to Jackson's return to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit. The road to the film's production has been very rocky, punctuated by studio cash crises, fights over the film rights, and the departure of the original director, Guillermo del Toro. But finally, it seemed like all of the pieces fell into place. Peter Jackson would return to direct, and his writing, production, and effects teams from Rings returned as well. All of the major cast members signed on again, Howard Shore would write the music, and an amazing Bilbo in Martin Freeman was added. Everything was looking peachy.
Then, slightly perturbing news started coming forth. The Hobbit would be split into two movies. It would be shot in 3D at double the usual framerate - 48 frames per second, rather than 24 (the human eyes see 60 frames per second; they effect of a higher framerate is to "smooth" the film so it looks more realistic). Early footage was unenthusiastically received, and rather unflatteringly compared to BBC period dramas shot with similar framerates. Then the announcement that additional material from Tolkien's short stories would be incorporated, expanding The Hobbit to three movies - as long as the original trilogy, but from a far smaller source. Like many fans, I was beginning to get slightly worried. Could this team that I had such faith in be led astray by the advancing march of technology?
I shouldn't have been worried. I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last week, in all of its 3D, high framerate, Dolby Atmos sounding glory, and it was brilliant. Yes, it was definitely too long (at least half an hour could have been cut from the first half), but Jackson has perfected the vision he put forth in Rings, and produced incredible cinematic art doing it. The acting performances are uniformly It's not every day you get to the cinema 45 minutes early for a film, and the line is already 150 metres long, snaking upstairs to the next floor.
3D is used excellently in the film. There are many sequences where the camera swoops around the running company, indoors and outdoors, and the immersive 3D effect really makes you feel like you're the camera, flying over the running dwarves, wizard, and hobbit as they flee pursuit. The waterfall at Rivendell is simply spectacular in this format, as are the underground sequences that dominate the second half. The high framerate adds a kind of hyperrealism and clarity to the film, like no other film I've ever seen, and it also distinguishes The Hobbit visually from The Lord of the Rings. It's hard to describe precisely what it looks like... just go see it for yourself. I can see why the look of the film has been divisive, but it is definitely unique.
Dolby's Atmos sound technology surrounds the audience completely with speakers. The sound effects genuinely feel like they're coming from all around you - voices fade in and out over your shoulder, the clang of weapons and fighting are enough to make you spin around to see who's there. It was all too much for one person, who left our screening early on complaining that it was just too loud. I thought it was perfect from our position three rows from the very back of the cinema.
The Hobbit is intended as a less serious work than The Lord of the Rings; the latter pulses with the urgency brought on by the impending triumph of ultimate evil over the entire world, whereas the former focuses on evictees trying to evict their evictor, and the growth in character of an unexpected member of their company. The Dwarven cast of The Hobbit contributes to this; much humour and light-heartedness is wrought from their antics through the film, as was from Gimli in Rings. But right from the start, the ominous haze that hangs over The Lord of the Rings is missing from The Hobbit; the placid opening is completely different to the introduction of the Ring that opens the earlier trilogy. (Though the opening of The Hobbit ties in wonderfully with The Fellowship of the Ring). It's funny - the great advancement in film technology seems at odds with the more lighthearted storyline. It's not a bad thing - just a strange artefact of the prequel coming out a decade after its sequels.
The music reuses many of the themes from The Lord of the Rings, helping to tie the films together. Hearing each familiar melody was like welcoming back dear old friends. Of the new music, the Misty Mountain tune (sung by the Dwarven company in the film) is Howard Shore's latest instantly iconic leitmotif. Variations of the theme recur throughout the entire film - perhaps to the point of overexposure. The tune also supplies the melody for Neil Finn's stunning Song of the Lonely Mountain, which plays over the final credits of the film. Crowded House, Finn's band, is one of my favourite musical groups, and the soundtrack is worth buying for this song alone.
This experience cost $17 - at least one third cheaper than in Australia for the full 3D and high framerate deal. For those still waiting for the film to come out, I highly recommend watching the video production diaries on Peter Jackson's YouTube page. You'll get a picture of the love, dedication, and detail that has gone into making this film, and be ever more excited to see it. I have faith that the team will continue this over the next two installments as well.
Overall, while the film was extremely long (close to 3 hours, with a very slow and patient opening...), it was worth every moment. I may wish for tighter editing, but it remains a tour de force in world-building, in immersive cinema, in stories and pictures that take you to another world. I've seen complaints that nothing really happens in the film. This is true to some extent, but The Hobbit makes no pretense at being an action adventure. Rather, it is a beautiful, faithful, and loving adaptation of a classic work of fiction.
Here's a final admission: I've never actually read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings (!). I've tried to read both several times since I was in high school, but I've never made it very deep into either. The prose in _The Lord of the Rings _is fairly infamous for being difficult to read, but I've decided that there's no excuse for me to have not read its predecessor (it's already on my Kindle!). Stay tuned.