Watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I had a full moment of clarity about why the people who don’t get these movies just don’t get these movies. An elf was talking to a dwarf in a dungeon under a palace carved out of a tree. It all seemed perfectly sensible to me, even the somewhat taboo elf/dwarf romance that was budding, but taken from the outside it’s outright madness in a lot of respects. It was madness made perhaps more digestible by the wartime pomp and circumstance of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this new, lesser trilogy is, in its own, around-the-corner way, more like mainlining both Tolkien and Jackson in equal measure. There’s no on-ramp for the uninitiated here.
Which is a long way of saying that those who didn’t like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (or, heaven forfend, The Lord of the Rings) won’t find anything in The Desolation of Smaug to curb their distaste. It’s long as fuck. It’s a wholesale embellishment upon a relatively slender tale. It lacks the clear(er) narrative thrust of, well, a trilogy made out of an existing trilogy. And to an even greater extent than the first Hobbit film, Desolation has trouble locating Bilbo – the titular Hobbit going on an unexpected journey across the desolation of Smaug – as its main character. He disappears for what seems like days at a time.
Desolation has, roughly, twenty principal characters. It can’t successfully juggle them all, or even most of them. (For love or points, name a single scene in which Ori or Bifur are featured. In fact, name a single time Bifur even speaks.) The action centers for the most part on Gandalf and Bilbo and to a greater extent Thorin, and at least in the latter case, this is an improvement; Richard Armitage’s sullen dwarf hero is a dab more compelling this time than last.
Much of the film seems like a reaction to the reaction to An Unexpected Journey. The day-glo cartoonishness of the first film’s troll encounters and Temple of Doom runs through Goblin Town have been replaced by a muted (nearly to the point of black and white) visual palette and grisly goings-on. There are no songs. The story carries us from the Beorn episode through the gang’s first encounter with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and it does so rapidly. I was strongly reminded of the theatrical cut of The Two Towers, which also seemed to skip over niceties like character beats and breathing space in favour of hitting its running time. I expect the Extended Edition blu-ray of The Desolation of Smaug to be a belter.
Nonetheless, Desolation is on the whole a grim, cracking ride, not as much fun as Unexpected (no jokes, no hugs) but thrilling, absorbing, and far more dynamic in its emotional range. Peter Jackson seems to be having more fun. There are some truly delicious reveals throughout. Bilbo twanging on a spider web which then ricochets throughout Mirkwood is lovely, and a single, expansive widescreen frame of Smaug’s treasure hoard – the dragon’s head on the left of frame, the extent of his tail on the far right, and tiny little Bilbo in the middle, reacting to the sheer size of the beast – could rank as one of my all-time favourite shots in the whole series. There’s also the rather magnificent moment when Sauron returns, striding out of the Great Eye like a burning pimp.
Chalk one up for Kiwi ingenuity when Jackson is laissez-faire enough with his film formats to throw a few GoPro shots into the river barrels sequence, given their status in New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry. Further points, same sequence, for having this film’s obligatory “elves are amazing” scene feature not an elf, but a dwarf!: Legolas whatever, but Bombur is the whipshit of all motherfucking shitterbongers, and his out-of-control barrel bombardment of a line of domino-like orcs is the high point of the movie.
And seriously, Legolas whatever. One of Desolation‘s biggest missteps is the ceaseless fan-wankery of Orlando Bloom’s entire presence here, in a thoroughly perfunctory role that is so generally awful that he actively detracts from his character’s wow factor in the other trilogy, reminding of nothing more than the Boba/Jango Fett fiasco in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. This Legolas is a raging bigot, puffy around the edges, who tiefs Thorin’s sword and stares blankly at the girl he’s supposedly in love with – and otherwise spends the entire movie on a flat-out killing rampage, because Jackson & Co. apparently think the entire moviegoing universe wants nothing more than to spend a bunch of time watching Bloom fight about sixty CGI orcs over a roughly two-hour span. Memo: we don’t. We haven’t ever. Please stop.
The film’s two breakout characters, one from the book and one not, fare much better. As the novel’s Bard the Bowman we have Luke Evans in a surprisingly charismatic, morally relevant performance, which – when you begin to think more deeply about what Thorin’s whole adventure might actually mean – could make him the only genuinely honest man in the whole of Middle-earth at this point. And as the wholly invented Tauriel, Evangeline Lilly gives great elf, confidently delivering a monologue about – well – light that sent shivers down my spine. She’s a terrific addition to the canon, and the fun factor notches up considerably whenever she, Bard, or a particular dragon grace the screen.
I’m less enamoured of Laketown, where much of the second half of the movie takes place – it’s a dingy, unimpressive place with a weird Dickensian Venice vibe, which feels oddly misplaced in the Tolkien/Jackson universe. Much more fun is the ultimate arrival at, and penetration of, the Lonely Mountain, which finally puts Bilbo face to face with Smaug, who is nothing less than an utter amazement. Further credit to Martin Freeman, though, who is as stalwartly wonderful this time as last: he’s got to be one of the only actors alive who can credibly upstage a giant CGI dragon.
This extensive grand finale, in which Benedict Cumberbatch lends a richly oiled voice to the preening serpent, is a marvelous affair, ginning up an opportunity for Thorin’s band to actually fight their nemesis (rather than letting Bilbo confront him solo, as in the book). The resulting action climax is borrowed straight from the back end of Alien3, with identical results, and makes no sense whatsoever while it’s going on, but points for effort. And though it can’t quite make up for the structural changes that robbed The Two Towers of its shot at giving us the best movie cliffhanger in history, The Desolation of Smaug certainly cuts to black in its final, desolate moments with the cackling resolve of a cinder block to the face. And why not? Two out of three films into an addendum to a popular juggernaut, which will now define “uphill battle” for the franchise filmmaking world for a good long while, The Hobbit has earned a bit of “if you don’t like it, fuck off” confidence. There are the people who get it, and the people who don’t, and the latter ain’t gonna.
Matt Brown co-hosts the Mamo! podcast and has a weekly column at Twitch Film called Destroy All Monsters. Imagine Thor crossed with an 11-year-old girl.