Sunday, 2 March 2014

Article: 'The Hobbit' and the Phantom Menace Effect

The 1999 film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace heralded George Lucas's return to his fantasy-blockbuster Star Wars series to double-dip a second trilogy out of the property.

A second, infamously terrible trilogy.

When the news broke in 2010 that Peter Jackson was going to do the same thing with his Lord of the Rings cinematic universe, I couldn't help but wonder if he would fall into the same traps that Lucas did.

Surely enough, I found myself having eerie Phantom flashbacks upon seeing the first Hobbit movie 'An Unexpected Journey'.



In the 1977 Star Wars film ('A New Hope'), Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) tells Luke (Mark Hamill) that once upon a time his father was '...the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior', and later in Return of the Jedi that he '...was seduced by the dark side of the Force...the good man who was your father was destroyed.'

The whole premise of the Star Wars prequels was to follow up this scant information with the story of how the guy who became Darth Vader became Darth Vader. The prequels unfortunately lacked an identity of their own, and were instead just a weird scaffolding on which many tiny, pointless details of the old trilogy were established. In Phantom we find out the origin of C-3PO, and in Episode II: Attack of the Clones we learn stuff about Boba Fett as a little kid.

Likewise, The Hobbit's framing device - old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing his memoir - uses up precious runtime to show us Frodo (Elijah Wood) nailing a 'No admittance' sign on Bilbo's gate. This is to explain how the sign got there in Fellowship of the Ring, you see.

Thank God they tied up that loose end...

I got the feeling that each trilogy is being treated as a side of an intricate algebra problem: The Hobbit is on one side of the equation and Lord of the Rings is on the other, and it is the former's duty to add up to the latter. 

Seeds are planted about Rings villain Sauron (even though The Hobbit was written before J.R.R. Tolkien even came up with the guy), and orc villain Azog is plundered from the dusty recesses of the Lord of the Rings appendices just to make the story more dangerous and urgent.

Tolkien's The Hobbit is just a story of a bunch of companions trying to recover some gold, and the Star Wars prequels are just about the downfall of a guy who is only fairly important to later events. All these prequel movies feel like they are the insecure sibling of a successful older brother. You don't have to be a huge, giant, epic story like your brother is, I want to reassure them all. Just be yourself. It'll be okay.

The Hobbit threw in Rings characters that weren't even in the book - Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the original Ian Holm Bilbo, apparently just for brand recognition. Besides these safe bets there aren't any memorable characters. Instead, there is just a roster of dwarf characters that are so numerous and thinly-defined that they are just an unidentifiable, dwarfy mush. 

'Aragorn stand-in' is his name, I think.

I don't know if 'remind' is the right word, but it reminds me of the equally bland Star Wars prequel characters (Stoic Liam Neeson, Stoic Natalie Portman, Stoic Ewan McGregor...) that were such a letdown from the colorful Star Wars characters of yore.

Technology, Comfort and Laurel-Resting

When Lucas and Jackson first made Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring, they were both relatively inexperienced filmmakers trying to make projects in genres that can easily be dismissed as dumb drivel. They were scrappy underdogs with a lot to prove, and their time and budget constraints reflected that.

Both trilogies ended up becoming massive cultural landmarks and generating billions of dollars of revenue. That's scrappy underdog graduation money.

In the interim between the original Star Wars films and the prequels, George Lucas funded his special effects company Industrial Light and Magic (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Last CrusadeWho Framed Roger Rabbit) into developing computer-generated imagery (such as in The Abyss and Jurassic Park). 'With the new digital technology', Lucas said, 'whatever I can imagine I can do.'

For the prequels, Lucas ditched physical effects such as matte paintings, stop-motion animation, miniatures and even sets. Instead, he filmed the actors in front of green screens, then added everything else in post. Screw filming on actual locations like the Tunisian desert - that shit's hard.

'We have clones and droids and flying termites and rockets taking off, flying gunships, ground troops, 200 jedi...' Too bad that the actors amid all this frantic CG garbage look suspiciously like they are standing in a small, green room.

Jackson also used his surfeit of Hobbit pocket money to purchase so many green screens that poor Ian McKellen had a stress breakdown on a set that looked like this:

Green. Green everywhere. Can't escape. Green. Crushing me. Green. Can't breathe. Green.

Jackson's line on CGI is almost verbatim of Lucas's: 'The good thing about technology is that anything I imagine can now be put on screen'. The great miniatures, sets and clever forced-perspective illusions of the Rings days became overshadowed by the much safer and more easily mutable 'fix it in post' method. He certainly had the scratch to do that - the gargantuan $225 million he was bestowed to make each Hobbit movie is enough to make two and a half Rings movies.

Peter Jackson has hit upon a kind of Midas curse with CGI: his Weta Digital computer artists can render anything they want in flawless detail, but in these Hobbit movies he uses this power to create things that are so inherently silly that no amount of digital artistry can make them believable - such as a giant-rabbit-drawn sleigh, a battle between living mountains; and a tiny goblin with his huge, testicle-headed cousin.

Pixar presents: Finding Goblo, coming this summer.

Phantom Menace also had the then-best digital effects, but in both cases their painstakingly-crafted yet overly-outlandish CG characters have a way less convincing  screen presence than the Muppets. 

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers features a sequence involving vicious creatures called 'wargs'. I really liked their bear/hyena/wolf-looking design - they don't necessarily look sinister, more like real(ish) predatory animals. 

In The Hobbit they rejiggered the wargs to have oversized fangs, beady angry-eyes and pointy, sharp-edged faces - like they ran the designs through an 'evil' filter in their software.

The Rings films made great use of 'digital color grading', the manipulation of each scene's color saturation to evoke different moods. Warm greens in the Shire, desaturated greys in a dark mine; and eerie, soft, metallic lighting in an elven enclave.

The Hobbit films embrace the uniform, done-to-death blue/orange color scheme that every single blockbuster uses nowadays.

Also, both the Hobbit movies and Star Wars prequels eschew each of their original series' gritty, lived-in worlds in favor of blander, faker-looking digital environments.



At this point I'm just listing small grievances, and I could go on and on. 

The thing is, I don't actually think that the Hobbit movies even begin to approach the shoddiness of the Star Wars prequels; I'm just concerned that Peter Jackson is going down a similar road. I'm not diagnosing him with the dreaded Lucas-influenza, but I have been noticing that nasty cough he's developing.

It could be that Jackson actually doesn't have as much creative control as I think he does, and the excessive CG and the blue/orange thing are trend-adhering ways for MGM/Warners to homogenize their films into reaping a bigger box office return on their massive investment.

Maybe Jackson meant to make one or two movies as previously planned, but the studios wanted to stretch it into three and he said yes because he loves Tolkien, he has fun making these films, and he'd rather do it than have someone else hijack his legacy. I certainly couldn't fault him for that.

In any event, my bitching is pretty farcical: The Lord of the Rings movies are my generation's Star Wars, and they captured my imagination since I saw the first one at age nine. I wouldn't miss a Middle Earth follow-up for the world, lesser quality be damned.

Incidentally: I can only hope that the first of the next wave of Star Wars movies will be decent, but I'll definitely go see it when it comes out regardless of what people say. Call me a sucker - 'fool me so many times, shame on me' right?

Maybe. But a new Star Wars movie?! It could be totally killer!

Further Reading

For more of my 'articles', you can see my posts entitled 'Four Directions of Bond' and 'Fantasia and Racism Reparations in Old Cartoons'.

For a detailed and entertaining treatise on the faults of the Star Wars prequels, you can see Red Letter Media's epic-length video reviews.

Screengrabs: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was produced by New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and WingNut Films. The UK DVD 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition was released by MGM.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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