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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 46
Seeing Clearly

Last December, the Goddess and I attended a press screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which left us both of us wishing we had spent our three hours doing something far more worthwhile. It wasn't so much the quality of the movie's content that disappointed -- though I left the theater feeling my goodwill toward director Peter Jackson shrink as Part I (of III) unfurled with all the grace of a burlap bag dropped onto a cement floor -- as the presentation of the visuals. It was the first major motion picture with shooting and projection frame rate of 48 frames per second, and the first question asked by many of my friends centered on my assessment of this technology.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I think even I was surprised at how much I sounded like a cat puking up a hairball the size of a grapefruit. Yes, I hated it that much.

I remember thinking how much I disliked what the high frame rate did to the atmospherics. The actors were clearer, outlining every one of Sir Ian McKellen's wrinkles and wispy tangles on his head. The wisps of smoke curling from Martin Freeman's pipe drifted across the screen in such detail that my throat closed in anticipation of the scent of pipeweed assaulting my nostrils. And the trolls, orcs, and goblins baring teeth to eat Bilbo Baggins and the accompanying band of dwarves -- not to mention Andy Serkis's Gollum -- were rendered in such exceptional detail that, for a brief moment, I forgot that computer-generated imagery created them.

However, within an hour the 3D glasses and the visuals made me want to claw my eyes out.

Jackson and his team sacrificed the look of a movie in order to render them. Whether the action took place outside or inside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looked a lot like the PBS adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven: cheap, poorly staged, and lacking the appearance of cinema. Even the grainy, shoddy look of grindhouse features would have been preferable to the look of a staid public television feature, regardless of how well the effects team rendered the denizens and monsters of Middle Earth. For somebody who loves cinema as a medium and an art form, the transition was unforgivable, and made it nearly impossible to focus on the movie itself…which, perhaps, was a good thing. A subsequent viewing without the high frame rate (and absent 3D glasses) made the movie more watchable, but it also highlighted every flaw in the text itself, from the sluggish storyline to the fanboy wank of including elements of The Simarillion. As a movie, it impressed me very little; as a work that attempted to push the medium into new territory, using new technology, it caused me to spew bile I thought I saved for far worse fare.

So unpleasant was my experience with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that I viewed my invitation to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with a dread I reserved for family gatherings during the holidays. The screening was not a high frame–rate screening, but the experience with the previous outing colored my experience enough that I still strongly considered sitting it out.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I didn't, of course, and viewing the second part of Jackson's unexpected trilogy as a movie allowed me to concentrate on the movie itself, including many of the problems it faced. Despite elements I found far more palatable, Part II succumbed to action-adventure silliness not present in the novel, such as Legolas hopping across the heads of river-bound dwarves to near-constant battles with orcs. Such things made James Bond hopping across the heads of alligators in Live and Let Die seem like a meditation in a Terence Malick movie.

So I surprised myself by sliding nearly 14 dollars across a box office counter in order to catch the same movie. I knew the movie's flaws, I understood where it failed, so I could prepare myself for seeing it using new technology.

It changed things. The movie itself again amounted to little more than a shrug for me, but this time I concentrated on how the presentation blended with the effects. Where many movies using CGI appear cheesy and obviously false, this time the effects blended, if not seamlessly, then at least more naturally, especially in the presentation of the dragon Smaug. Audiences know by now how to spot a CGI creature; Smaug represented a living being. Viewing the odd patches where effects teams create feats of derring-do often is more fun than many of the movies at your local multiplex; this time, the action sequences actually felt like they were happening. There was an immediacy and an integration I had not noticed in the first movie, and seldom saw in many others.

And yet…

And yet, all I could think about was a movie I had seen the previous day.

Though not a fantasy, Ben Stiller's remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty at one point features the title character on a cell phone as he looks out at a mountain range in Iceland. As Mitty (Stiller) speaks to Kirsten Wiig through a cheap cell phone, he pauses, absorbed by the scenery around him. And, as shot by Stiller, the scene captures a degree of understanding, for the character and his journey, that both Hobbit movies so far lack. I'm hardly a Ben Stiller fan, but I found myself caring far more about this rather depressed introvert far more than Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield, the Bard, or any other character in nearly six hours of Peter Jackson's fan fiction version of Tolkien's classic.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It helped, too, that the visuals in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were breathtaking. Yes, it is a much smaller movie, even a more intimate one, but it also possessed far more sense of wonder than this "classic" fantasy. Think about it; at one point, Stiller, who has joined eHarmony in the hope of meeting a woman he works with, answers a phone call as he bikes down a road in Iceland. The call is from an eHarmony employee who wants to help Mitty beef up his profile, making a suggestion or two ("Why don't I put down 'adrenaline junkie?" the employee asks when Mitty tells him he has jumped from a helicopter as he tried to board a boat) even as Mitty attempts to meet a photographer who might be able to divulge the contents of a missing frame of film. It actually felt like a movie, high frame rate or no.

I certainly don't want to seem down on the possible advances of Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. They hold enormous promise. But they seem to promise a lot, and aren't delivering much, either as technological advances or as movies themselves.

Copyright © 2014 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His stories have appeared in Rayguns Over Texas edited by Rick Klaw and Le Bon Temps magazine. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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