The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is about an egomaniacal monster, hell-bent on hoarding his treasures above all else. He surrounds himself with a mountain of riches, all the more to remind the world of his irrefutable supremacy. He boasts at length about his own greatness. He's smitten by his own triumphs.
This monster is Peter Jackson, and he is worse than any dragon that ever roamed Middle Earth. The Desolation of Smaug is an oppressive, never-ending sort of punishment for anybody bold enough to believe J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit could be split into three movies. (I should know. I once believed it, too.) How can the director who made The Lord of the Rings series be responsible for such a terrible movie? It baffles the mind.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(Photo by Mark Pokorny)
I don't even know where to begin. The movie runs two-and-a-half hours without pause -- Jackson must ascribe to the literal meaning of the phrase "running time" -- and yet, few moments of serious consequence seem to occur in any one of its 156 minutes. The Desolation of Smaug bombards conflict on top of conflict, substituting sincerity with spectacle. (An Unexpected Journey presented the opposite flaw, with lesser consequences.) Chases lead to battles, which spill into other chases, then erupt into more battles. It's an ouroboros of action, a blockbuster that eats itself one set piece at a time.
The Desolation of Smaug picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is on route to the Lonely Mountain with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his 12 dwarf companions. They're on a mission to reclaim Thorin's mountain kingdom from Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a dragon who forced the dwarves into exile and stole their treasures many years earlier. Of course, if the objective were that simple, this movie wouldn't exist. (Heaven forbid!) So, instead, our heroes face a breathless series of assaults before they can even spot Lonely Mountain. They fight off bloodthirsty orcs, outrun a half-man/half-bear shape shifter, and escape a pack of giant spiders. They're captured by elves, escape in wooden barrels that tumble down a raging river, then fight a few more orcs again for good measure. There's even a forbidden love-storyline, and Gandalf spends the better part of the movie wandering around on his own.
This? This is worth splitting a single book into what I can only assume will be nine hours of screen time? Jackson can be a dazzlingly imaginative director when he's inspired, but he makes little effort to restrain himself here. He's gorging himself for the sake of gorging himself. His fascination with Tolkien's minutiae is drowned out by a fanciful, unnecessary devotion to visual flair. The movie needs fewer gimmicks, plain and simple.
After two long hours of sideshows, however, The Desolation of Smaug finally delivers on some Smaug -- and his first appearance is almost worth the wait. Cumberbatch embraces the dragon's voice with zeal, lowering his timbre to a deliciously sinister growl. The dragon itself is rendered with stupendous detail, thanks to the wizards at Weta Workshop. Smaug is a stunning creation, and if you can manage to doze through the first couple of hours, his scenes are nearly worth the price of admission.
Put simply, I don't understand why The Desolation of Smaug exists. It could easily be cut down to a tolerable two hours, but even then it would lack any of the hallmarks of Jackson's Lord of the Rings series. Before Smaug arrives, the best thing about the film is that the subtitles appear in a crisp, pleasant font. Of course, there's always a small chance that Jackson recognizes what he's done. "You are being used, hobbit," Smaug tells Bilbo when they first meet beneath Lonely Mountain. "You were only ever a means to an end."
I know how it feels, buddy. I know all too well.