ROGUE ONE - A Star Wars Tale

                Rogue One is the best Star Wars film in 36 years.
                There y’go.  If you read no further, you know everything you need to know.  Rogue One is the best thing to come out of the Star Wars universe since Empire.
                You still here? 
                Right, well, in that case, you probably want me to elaborate, to explain why I’m so blown away by the film.  Why did I wait ’til I’d seen it twice before putting finger to keyboard?
                Well, a large part of my appreciation lies in the way that this is a grown up Star Wars film.  It’s still only a 12A (or PG13 for you colonials) like every big budget film has to be to stand a chance of earning big profits.  It also suffers somewhat from the modern malaise of having thousands of people killed at a stroke - all off-camera.  But you don’t need to have blood, sex and swearing to be a grown up.  You need to treat your audience like adults, expect them to be able to keep up, to follow complex plots, and to understand deftly-sketched emotional character traits.
                The characters in it are not children.  But, y’know, when I was a kid, I didn’t need all my protagonists to be my age ... I liked the sensation of bigging up, of getting a glimpse of the adult world through the eyes of an adult hero. 
                Apparently some younger viewers have been complaining that this film is too slow and too dark for them.  Good.  It hasn’t been made just for them.  Star Wars wasn’t made for children back in 1977; it was made for adults who were nostalgic for Flash Gordon.  Rogue One has been made for adults who are nostalgic for Star Wars!
                So, this film is perfectly safe for kids ... It just won’t talk down to them or wait for them to catch up.  If that’s not what they’re used to ... Well, it’s about time they learned.  Once or twice it explains more than it needs to (like why the droid K-2SO has a sarcastic personality) but mostly it trusts the writers, actors and audience enough to leave them to fill the unspoken gaps.
                When Star Wars came out, I was eleven.  There was none of this A New Hope malarkey then, it was just Star Wars.  I, like everyone else, needed guiding through the Hero’s Journey because I, like everyone else except George Lucas, was unfamiliar with it.  But Star Wars (A New Hope) changed all that; and pretty much every big budget movie released since then has taught us the lesson afresh.  So, do we really need to have everything explained to us?  No.  We know this territory now; we can find our own way.

Just so were clear (for later on) this photo is obviously a publicity shot, not a frame cut from the fillum.
                The film knows this from its opening scene where Jyn is (apparently) left orphaned.  We know these characters need to be orphans.  Them’s the rules.  But, when your audience knows the rules, that gives you the opportunity to play around with them.  To confound expectation, to surprise and delight.  And this film does - from its first frame.
                There’s no Star Wars fanfare.  But, there wouldn’t be, those legendary themes are associated with Skywalker and the rest, and this isn’t their story.  There’s no slow crawl telling us the story so far.  But there wouldn’t be, this film doesn’t present itself as a myth.  We’re not on Tattooine anymore!
                This film comes across as a gritty, contemporary war film featuring a bunch of desperate characters thrown together by circumstance and who are given little or no time to get to know each other, they just have to work together and trust each other or die trying.  I’ve asked around and a lot of the people I saw this with have no idea what most of the characters are called.

Now don't tell me ... There's the blind kung-fu Jedi, and his mate and ... Forrest Whitaker? 
                This is partly because clumsy names like Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus and Saw Gerrera don’t exactly trip off the tongue - and they are as unfamiliar to most viewers as Obi Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin were 40 years ago ... But that doesn’t matter.  The characters are visually distinct, the actors sufficiently charismatic and the relationships between them so deftly written that we know them and like them even if we can’t name them. 
                Do you know the names of the characters in The Magnificent Seven (the proper 1960 version, not this year’s remake nonsense)?  All of them?  I don’t; but I know their strengths and weaknesses, they are memorable, charismatic and (that much over-used term) iconic and, partly because of this, the actors who weren’t already famous (which is to say pretty-much everyone except Brynner) went on to become stars.
                In the heat of battle, alliances are forged out of people’s actions and loyalties, not their names and races.
                And what races there are.  In-keeping with Lucas’ original vision, this is a patchwork galaxy made up of a diversity of races, from the Cthuloid creature Jyn shares a cell with at the beginning, to the Wampa in the rebel army in Jedha, to various throw-forwards to Star Wars (like the walrus faced Ponda Baba who will soon pick a fight with a kid in a bar on Tattooine ... with messy results).  
                These bits of fan service are unnecessary but - with the exception of the obviously-grafted-on-at-the-last-minute cameo from R2D2 and C-3PO - they don’t jar (jar) and they don’t interrupt the narrative.  This film doesn’t really require prior (or subsequent) knowledge.  It tells you what you need to know as you go along.  There’s an oppressive military Empire, there’s a disorganised but well-meaning rebellion, there’s lots of different planets with daft names and some people believe in this defunct religion called ‘The Force’ ... That’s really all you need.  Everything else is just gravy.
                I was impressed by the casual diversity of the film too.  In common with Force Awakens, it makes a damn fine fist of compensating for the sausage fest that most of the existing Star Wars films have been (Carrie Fisher often mentions that she was the only girl in the boy’s club - although recent revelations suggest she made the most of the opportunities this offered to a young liberated woman).  So here we have a young female protagonist, one who can fend for herself, who casually takes out several stormtroopers with a stick (shortly before Îmwe makes a meal of doing much the same with his bigger stick).  She doesn’t need rescuing (although Cassian insists on doing so towards the end anyway) and her team is made up of a Mexican Han Solo, a couple of Chinese warriors (which will be money in the bank when the film opens there next week) an English Pakistani pilot and a Texan robot who thinks he’s Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon.  That’s pretty bloody diverse!

Leonard, Penny and Sheldon, Star Wars style.
                Rogue One doesn’t really look like any Star Wars film, either.  Yes, the design elements are familiar, buildings with rounded roofs, Imperial vehicles that are all corners, characters wearing hoods and robes ... But this is all in the background, you can either notice it or not.  There are echoes of the films and stories we know - but they are distant echoes, like the sparse strains of the melodies we know which appear briefly and sparsely.  Like the chatter of foreign voices and the crowds of alien faces.  Like the shattered statue half buried in the sand, betraying the existence of a magnificent Jedi culture ... which passed away a long time ago.

Even Liam Neeson's Jedi wasn't that stony faced.

The colour palette is subdued - sandy browns and chilly blues - making the film look like most any ‘gritty’ film of the last ten years - and the camerawork is noticeably hand-held and messy - like any thriller or war film since Bourne and Private Ryan (Matt Damon has a lot to answer for) - because this is a dirty, glamour-free universe.  These characters are not designed to sell toys (even though, let’s face it, they will anyway) they are designed to tell a story.
                Essentially, what the film-makers have done is go back to first principles, to the ambitions Lucas had for this universe when he first invented it.  Don’t forget, Lucas is the one who wanted to make Apocalypse Now as a 16mm documentary rather than a sprawling epic.  He wanted to make his Star Wars film in, essentially, the same way, to show the universe as tatty and second hand.  We aren’t at the centre of the action, we’re out in the boondocks, seeing worlds that are not dwelt upon, but are quickly sketched-in.  It’s a real, vivid, lived-in universe, just as George wanted.  He didn’t want to concentrate on lingering shots of beautiful impossible vistas (as 2001: A Space Odyssey had) but instead to tell a pacy story in which most of the characters have unpronounceable names, speak made-up languages or wear masks throughout.
                Like Lucas’ vision, the universe we see here is a bit clunky and not terribly pretty and populated by a wide variety of British bit-part actors.  It is to the credit of Edwards and his team that they have slavishly copied Lucas’ process and intentions rather than his actual films.  This has made Rogue One truer to the feel of the original Star Wars.  This film reached out to my inner eleven year old, much more than last year’s Force Awakens did, that was little more than post-modern pastiche. 
                I really love the way that this film changes the way we perceive the Rebellion (and this must surely be Tony Gilroy’s input) as disorganised and riven by in-fighting.  Even though he’s on the same side as them, they see Saw Gerrera as a threat.  Even though they’re supposedly the good guys, when they send the X-Wings in to attack Eadu you find yourself wanting them to fail because they’ve been given the wrong target at the wrong time.  When they have their big council meeting, they are revealed to be cowardly and indecisive and hobbled by political posturing.  So, as always, the scrappy kid with nothing to lose has to take matters into her own hands.
                Of course, the Empire aren’t much better.  They are all so busy stabbing each other in the back and clambering over each other to attract the eye of the Emperor, that they don’t notice their catastrophic mistakes.  These are summed up in the trajectory followed by Director Krennic. 

Oooh, I'm so evil I can wear a white cape and not look camp!
                Ben Mendelsohn’s performance is pitch perfect, he comes across from his first moment as an eminently reasonable and level-headed megalomaniac.  He exudes the casual confidence of the genuinely evil yet, in the film’s opening scene, he makes the mistake that will lead, eventually, to the death of his beloved Emperor and the collapse of the Empire, oh, and to his own death.  He forces his old friend Galen Erso to come back and continue working on the Death Star.  To motivate him, he kills Galen’s wife.  This gives Galen all the impetus he needs to build a weakness into the Death Star and leave the instructions on how to exploit that in the all-important plans.
                Finally, when he has made his weapon work, and had it taken from him by the master-manipulator, Tarkin, Krennic fails to secure those plans and, in a beautifully karmic moment, is vaporised by his own weapon.
                And let’s spend a moment thinking about that weapon.  In Force Awakens, they beefed-up the Death Star idea to make it a ‘Starkiller’ which does pretty much what it says on the tin.  It sucks all the energy out of a star and it can destroy an entire solar system with one blast.  That’s too big.  Billions of people die with one shot.  It’s too much for the audience to parse.  One can’t feel the pain of that.  It’s destruction on a scale we literally can’t imagine.
                But, in Rogue One, we see tanks rolling down bomb-damaged desert streets.  That’s on image we see every day on the news.  We see guerrilla fighters taking on a vastly superior military force with improvised weapons.  Again, that is unfortunately a daily occurrence in the Middle East.  So this is a star war with which we can identify.  It feels tangible.  Believable.  Therefore, when they unleash the Death Star weapon and destroy just one city - we feel that!  We literally feel the earthquake it causes, we feel the panic of those escaping the blast and we feel the horror of it because it has a victim count which we can, sadly, imagine and understand.

The Death Star seen through an atmosphere is truly chilling.  That really is no moon!
                No, I don’t know why Saw Gerrera sends Jyn away then just stands there and waits for the blast, but I suspect it may be because he knew he’d filled his purpose in the narrative and had nothing else to do.  Either way, the piece de resistance for this sequence, is Krennic’s irony-free comment that the explosion is ‘beautiful’.  If you didn’t hate the Empire before, you just must after that.
                Yes, thousands of people die off camera, in a PG13 or 12A-friendly kinda way, but I felt their loss more keenly than the billions who died in The Force Awakens or in any of Roland Emmerich’s global disaster movies.
                This explosion makes the escalation to destroying a whole planet in Star Wars all the more monstrous.  It helps us feel Leia’s pain as she watches her home blown away, it actually improves Star Wars for us.  It ups the ante in A New Hope.

                The heart of this film is not in the star war, but the ground battle.  And, in this case, it isn’t arrogant men in cloaks jumping athletically in the air and sword-fighting; no, this is war as we recognise it ... Boots on the ground, troopers hiding from Stormtrooper blasters (although, as Îmwe demonstrates, they probably don’t need to bother), grabbing one piece of land at a time.  Then the smoke parts, and the walkers arrive.  A spine-tingling moment of cinema.

Completely impractical all-terrain vehicle - And still my absolute favourite mode of Star Wars transport.
                I confess that I was disappointed when I heard that John Williams wasn’t doing the music.  But Michael Giacchino’s score is the best he has yet done.  It has Williams’ DNA running through every note, yet doesn’t ape any of his tunes, doesn’t copy, but rather - like the film it is part of - channels the spirit and the energy without diminishing the original.  I’d go as far as to say it’s better than the work Williams himself did for The Force Awakens.  Yes, you read that right. 
                Giacchino’s music swells and lifts the emotional highs then, when it isn’t needed - such as in the slow motion Star Destroyer crash - it just gets out of the way.  It’s the best blend of sound and vision I’ve heard in a film in a lot of years.
                As gorgeous as that mournful piano-led treatment of the Imperial March they used in the trailers was - that music isn’t right for this film,  this isn’t Vader’s story.  It isn’t Skywalker’s story.  Their themes have no place here. 
                That’s not to say that Rogue One is perfect, it isn’t.  It’s third act is a little too much like Jedi.  Key cast members are thrown away once they have fulfilled their narrative purpose (most notably Chirrut Îmwe, Baze Malbus and Bodhi Rook).  The flagrant lack of health-and-safety in Imperial design continues - with data files safely stored over a bottomless drop, while the satellite dish has two controls, one of which is at the end of a narrow spit overhanging another precipitous drop.  This isn’t because it makes any sense, it’s simply so our characters have one more obstacle to overcome.
                Then there is the whole Cushing question.  Cushing’s face is first seen as a reflection, and that’s significant, as this isn’t the man himself (of course), but rather a CGI version of him.  The motion capture performance beneath the virtual skin is by Guy Henry whose physical and vocal impersonation is quite uncanny.  But uncanny is the word.  In some of the shots, Tarkin looks properly alive, but in others, especially around the eyes, his image falls straight down the uncanny valley.  And you’ll find a cogent explanation of just what that means here courtesy of Gizmodo.
                It’s interesting that a week into the film’s release, there are still no photos available of the Cushing clone.  I’ve even been to look at the official Disney publicity site and there’s nowt there.  They really aren’t letting us get a good look at that face.
                Which brings us to the subject of advertising.  There were seismic shockwaves rippling through the internet a week ago when it was realised that so much of the footage in the film’s trailers wasn’t in the actual film.  I confess, when I was watching the film, I didn’t notice.  It was only afterwards when I watched the trailers that I saw what I hadn’t seen (if you see what I mean).  I don’t think this is an attempt to create false advertising, I think this is a very mature and brave creative decision.  Editing is as much a creative process as the writing and shooting and, during the edit, things can change.  If a line of dialogue or an image doesn’t work in the film, it has to be removed or redone - even if it looks ace in the trailer.  This is why Jyn’s eminently quotable “I rebel” line isn’t there.  That’s why Gerrera’s “what will you become” speech, that the first trailer was built around, is also gone.  Like all creative writers are taught - kill your darlings.  Those lines were the definition of a darling!
                In case you, like me, didn’t actually notice the differences, here is a handy dandy edit featuring every trailer shot that you didn’t see in the actual film.

                I know we’ll never know for sure why the film was re-shot and why the third act (particularly) is significantly different from the one we see in the trailers (because Disney doesn’t really like people to see too far behind the scenes) but - rather than a studio meddling where it shouldn’t - it all suggests that Disney allowed Edwards to make whatever creative decisions he felt were right.  He got to do the opposite of what Warners (apparently) made David Ayer do with Suicide Squad.  He re-shot and re-cut Suicide Squad to make it more like the trailer and, consequently, lost the plot.  Rogue One has been re-shot and re-cut to find the plot. 

The most oft-used image from the first trailer.  Not in the film.

Krennic going paddling on the beach at Scarif. Not in the film.

Jyn's close encounter with a TIE Fighter.  Not in the film.

Also not in the film.  Just saying.

                In that first trailer, Jyn comes across as cocky.  That’s what the “I rebel” line is about.  When General Draven asks if she understands her mission, she smirks at him and gives him an ironic “Yes.  Sir.”  But, if she starts off cocky, that doesn’t leave her character anywhere to grow.  In the film I saw, she isn’t cocky at the start, she’s defensive.  She’s been made cynical by life.  It’s a subtle change, but an important one.  Gradually, she finds a direction, a cause and, like Luke Skywalker before her (after her), she finally becomes radicalised when her family dies.  This means that her rallying speeches to the Alliance - and later to the troops on the transporter - are all the more effective, because she’s lost her cynicism and found hope.
                Cunningly, all this means that her story more closely follows the standard arc of The Hero’s Journey.  All the ingredients are there,  but mixed together so skilfully I didn’t find myself ticking them off the list (Here’s the bit where the supposedly dead character comes back to life ... Oh, here’s the bit where the old guy dies), instead, I just sat there and enjoyed it.
                Let's discuss the ending ... That ending ... it’s a masterstroke!  A perfect build-up to the first light sabre reveal (something that they got badly wrong in Force Awakens).  And did you notice they discuss ‘’hope’ a lot: “Rebellions are built on hope”.  Well, those closing moments suddenly make the reason perfectly clear.  The information they have snatched from under the noses of the Empire is a new hope.  Making this the perfect conclusion to this story and the perfect introduction to the next.  I still can’t quite believe they actually went all the way with this.  A $200 million movie with a sad - but triumphant - ending.  Incredible.
                It’s been a long time since I could just enjoy a Star Wars film.  Just bask in it, responding to it emotionally rather than rationally.  In fact, it’s been quite difficult writing about it, because I don’t want to dig too deep into what made my scalp tingle, in case it doesn’t happen when I go back to see it a third time.

As I'm putting the finishing touches to this piece in the early hours of Christmas Eve, I learn that Carrie Fisher has been struck down with a heart attack on her way home for the holiday.  She's a tough woman.  The Force is strong with her.  Get well, Carrie.  Here's hoping this becomes nothing more than an anecdote in the opening chapter of your next memoir.

Casting The Runes

I’m sitting in a library … Which feels appropriate, because I want to write my first review in some considerable time … And it involves libraries.
M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes is about the power of the written word and about the mortal dangers of writing a scathing review.  Well, it’s a shockingly poor piece of work, Monty; you should be ashamed of yourself!
(Waits for disaster to descend)
Nothing in the trees?  Nothing coming?  Phew.
Just joshing.
Actually, Casting The Runes is one of the key texts of English horror fiction, featuring the malicious occultist, Karswell who, despite being almost entirely absent from the narrative, strikes me as one of the most malignant antagonists in horror literature.  I have just this evening seen a magnificent theatrical rendering of Casting The Runes, which is why I have felt moved (after all this time) to put finger to keyboard (and take my life, therefore, in my hands) by reviewing it.

The story is simple: An ‘alchemist’ called Karswell desires to be taken seriously.  To that end, he has written an academic paper, ‘The Truth of Alchemy’, which has been roundly rejected on the grounds that it is ‘nonsense’.  The person who made this judgement is one Edward Dunning and he, to his cost, will learn that Karswell is a vengeful man.  The story follows Dunning as he becomes gradually aware of then eventually mortally afeared of Karswell.

Imagine the repercussions of telling Hannibal Lecter you didn’t like his foie gras and you get the idea.

He learns that Karswell has cursed him, by passing him a slip of paper with a spell written on it.  His only way to save his own life is to conspire to get Karswell to take it back, but he isn’t going to do that willingly.

Now, if this sounds at all familiar, that may well be because you are thinking of the film Night of the Demon (1957), known by some (wrongly) as Curse of the Demon, which is a movie adaptation of the story. 

I first saw that film as part of one of those long-gone and much-lamented BBC2 late-night double-bills.  It was screened as such in 1980 and, even at the cynical bewhiskered age of 14, I found its opening scene to be every bit as attention grabbing as that of Jaws (1975) …

So, what does this have to do with libraries?  Well, in the original story and in the film version and, indeed, in the theatrical rendering I saw this evening, the curse is passed over to Dunning in a library. 

All three versions are very different in feel and approach, but all three are equally involving.  James’ original has his trademark mannered and loquacious style, as befitting an antiquarian.  The film has that polite, faintly embarrassed air that all British genre films of the period carry, but still makes the most of its American (and therefore exotic) lead, and manages to be pacy and chilling.  As hokey as that demon may look to 21st century eyes, the way it is lit and shot means it remains disturbing, especially because of the remarkable insectoid sound effect they use to accompany it. I can think of nothing to match in in British 50s cinema.  No, not even Quatermass.

So, why am I mentioning all this?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

I’m attending a conference on ‘Weird Fiction’ at Loughborough University and the first day culminated in a performance by the theatrical company Boxtale Soup.  I’ve never seen them before, never even heard of them but, based on what I witnessed tonight; I can’t wait for my next chance to do so.

Their version of Casting the Runes is very simply staged.  There are just the two of them, arriving on stage with suitcases which contain their costumes and are consequently employed as pretty much everything they’ll need.  These, I imagine, are the boxes containing the tales.

The mise en scene is deceptively simple, the set and props are made from cardboard, in shades of grey and brown.  The costumes are black and white, with highlights of newsprint and the odd splash of crimson.  One could even say slash of crimson.

Noel Byrne as Dunning and Antonia Christophers as ... everyone else. (photo © Boxtalesoup)
Noel Byrne plays Dunning with an easy confident air that slowly erodes as he realises the seriousness of the trap in which he is caught.  Antonia Christophers plays everyone else, swapping convincingly from character to character with a simple change of a skirt or a scarf, accompanied by a different accent and a different demeanour.  I won’t tell you how they depict the devilish Karswell, because that delight is especially effective if seen unspoiled.

It's important that Byrne stay in character because, as the focus of unseen malevolent forces, it helps the drama for us to experience his slowly fermenting fear with him.  The performances are naturalistic, even intimate (especially if seen in a small performance space) from the moment the actors take the stage and patiently put on their costumes.  I particularly like the way Byrne assumes the mantle of Dunning by pulling his tie taught with a resigned sigh.  I feel like that when I put a tie on. 

However, the tie in question, being decorated with text, is a fine thing.  I’d wear that tie.  They should sell them as merchandise!

So cocky is Dunning, in a delightfully meta-textual moment, he debunks his own tormentor to his students, exposing some of the stage-craft they have themselves used.  He dismisses the use of fishing wire and magnets to create so-called ‘magical’ effects, and then the production makes careful and clever use of these tricks to create its own effects.   But this show isn’t about the effects, it’s about the people.

He's guarding that tie with his life! (photo © Boxtalesoup)
The scene transitions are achieved through musical segues played and sung by the two performers (which typically evoke The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a text about breaking a curse, referenced in the original story) while Christophers makes quick and simple costume changes and Byrne moves the suitcases around to form the next setting.  All very simple and effective.

Because the actors never leave the stage, and even make eye contact with the audience from time to time, I found myself becoming more and more emotionally involved with them.  Empathy and identification are key tools in creating horror and this works especially well when you feel a connection with the actors as well as the characters.

There is a palpable and building tension here, which is made all the more pleasantly surprising given the relatively short running time of the play (just under an hour) and the lack of theatrical artifice.

I was put in mind of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which I saw last year.  That had all the heft of a full West End production, involving lighting and sound effects, moving sets and a sizeable cast (not to mention the involvement of Derren Brown’s creative collaborator) to produce an undeniably creepy and clever show.  But at £50 a seat – it bloody well better be effective!

This production, with the barest of sets and the simplest of effects, is every bit as dread-full (in a good way!)  This demonstrates a great understanding not only of the source material but also of the stagecraft needed to bring it to life in a very different medium.

The attention to detail in the production is magnificent, from the confident script they wrote themselves, to the folky music they composed (with possibly a deliberate nod to The Wicker Man), to the cunningly-constructed hand-built props and, of course, to the subtle and careful performances.

I should be head-first in a book right now, preparing for some more weirdness tomorrow, but I’m not, I’m sitting in this library casting my own runes, because I feel that these performers deserve my response.

This is a clever, cunning, elegantly simple production that doesn’t let the stagecraft get between the audience and the drama.  Sitting in the front row, I felt exposed; in harm’s way.  What more can one ask of a horror story?

Boxtale Soup’s website is here.
They are a charity and deserving of your time ad consideration.  And I want to buy one of those ties, guys!

Everything you could ever want to know about the Loughborough Uni Weekend of Weird (which I will henceforth refer to as "WoW", by the way) is available here.

If you want to know more about Night of the Demon (and if you think you don’t, you’re wrong) then may I point you in the direction of the book Beating The Devil by the film industry’s second favourite Yorkshireman*: Tony Earnshaw.  Learn more about it and him here.
If you'd like to know more about the original story, you can do so at the click of a mouse.  There are various audio-book versions of the story available but this is, I feel, a particularly good one.  We'll forgive Mr. French for being an American whilst reading something quintessentially English, since he has such and excellent voice.

And now, a bit of fun.  If that phrase from the film ‘It’s in the trees, it’s coming’ rings a bell … Here’s why.

*Sean Bean, alright? I’m sorry, but them’s the rules.  Hey look – Sean Bean made it to the end of something … Namely, this blog.
Has it really been almost four years?

Lying here, gathering dust ... Ignored ... Disregarded ... Unloved ...

And yet, I just plug it in, flick the switch and ...


Part One of Two:

Lord of the Rings is my favourite film (cos I think of it as one loooooong film) of the past 30 years.  That, then, is the definition of a hard act to follow. 

With that in mind, I’ve watched the development of The Hobbit over the years with a mix of hope and trepidation.  I was distraught when Jackson said (effectively) that he couldn’t face making another.  Then I was mollified when Del Toro took over because, I thought, he’d keep it dark and extraordinary.  When he got tired of the delays and left I was genuinely concerned … Then, when Jackson said he would do it after all, I celebrated.  

But the delays continued … Studio and rights issues, union and political problems … A threat to shoot somewhere other than New Zealand (which we all now know is Middle Earth).  It looked like the film was cursed.  To be fair, all of this is not that unusual in large-scale movie making but, in this case, it all happened very publicly.

Thankfully, it was all well worth the wait.

"You feel there's something calling you ... You're wanting to return ... To where the misty mountains rise and friendly fires burn ..."
For me, watching The Hobbit is like returning home after a long time away … It feels comfortably familiar, yet things have changed noticeably.  I’ve seen it twice now, once in proper 2D and once in 3D gimmick-o-scope.  You probably already know my thoughts on 3D so I won’t revisit them but, suffice it to say, the only reason I inflicted 3D on myself was to see the 48 frames per second presentation.  This had been so controversial, I just had to make my own mind up and, given the controversy, this might be my last chance as there may never be another widely distributed film in so-called HFR (higher frame rate).

The 48 frames do make a significant difference to the viewing experience – akin to that of stepping-up from DVD to Blu-Ray – and it can be distracting, so I’m glad I watched the film in traditional 2D first, simply so I could concentrate on the story, the acting and the overall feel.

“I’m not the same Hobbit I once was” opines Ian Holm as old Bilbo, looking at a drawing of Martin Freeman as young Bilbo.  This starts things off with a nice nod and a wink to the audience.  It does cross my mind that I do hope we won’t get a belated ‘Special Edition’ of Fellowship, with the flashback of Ian Holm's Bilbo finding the ring replaced with Freeman's re-staging of the same scene.  I’m confident we won’t though because Jackson, after all, isn’t George Lucas.

"No wait, here it is in the small print: ' ... Reserves the right to suddenly turn two films into three without warning.'  Seems fairly watertight, chaps.  No series three of Sherlock just yet, then ..."
As he did with the opening moments of Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson gives us a flashback to a moment of historical significance which lays the foundations of the current dilemma.  In LOTR it was the defeat of Sauron and the failure to destroy The One Ring, here it is the loss of the city of Erebor to the marauding Fire Drake, Smaug.

Because Jackson is a tease, he gives us the Dragon’s spectacular attack and capturing of the city, without letting us get a good look at it, there’s a taloned foot here, the tip of a spiky tail there, the shape of a wing and, eventually, a close-up of an eyeball.  But the big reveal will, of course, be saved for a dramatically expedient moment in the next film.

He pulls the same trick, just as effectively, when Radogast’s tree-house is being besieged by giant spiders.  We see legs and shadows and a genuinely chilling shot of the furry-elbowed arachnids stalking away through the woodland foliage.  The full horror of them will be revealed next time.  Not sure how he’ll top Shelob from Return of the King, but we shall see.

Of course, the presence of these spiders, along with Radogast’s dire warnings about ‘The Necromancer’, are ingredients we should recognise … They are dramatic fore-shadowings … The seeds from which grow the dangers of LOTR.  When Gandalf’s wizard superior, Saruman, appears he is already equivocating over the danger posed by Mordor and we all know where that will lead in just sixty short (by Middle Earth standards) years.

Getting back to the loss of Erebor, it explains why, in Lord of the Rings, Gimli distrusts Legolas because Thranduil, the Elf King (and, not incidentally, Legolas’ father), refuses to get involved in the fight between Dwarf and Dragon and thusly earns the eternal enmity of the Dwarven folk.

And so the framing device ends with old Bilbo sitting quietly, on the eve of the party that launches The Lord of the Rings, reminiscing and blowing a smoke-ring which, as this films sub-title ‘An Unexpected Journey’ appears, is a reminder of another ring still, at that point, very much on Bilbo’s mind.

"To think I should have lived to be good morninged by Belladonna Took's son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!"
And so we are introduced to young Bilbo, sitting on the same bench sixty years earlier, smoking the same pipe weed, played now by Martin Freeman who immediately proffers his trademark perplexed look as his view of The Shire is blocked by a rather shambolic grey wizard.  Gandalf is exactly as I remember him from the Bag End scenes in LOTR which, in itself, is an impressive achievement given the twelve years that have passed since those scenes were filmed and these.

Soon after this, our new cast-members begin to arrive, initially in ones and twos, then in one heaving mass, we meet the thirteen Dwarves of the new fellowship.  I know that having thirteen Dwarves plus one Hobbit and one Wizard was a major headache for Jackson and co. because they simply didn’t know how to present so many new faces in a way that we, the poor beleaguered viewer could remember them all.  Well, frankly, I’ve seen the film twice and I still don’t know all their names nor have a grasp on all their personalities but that’s okay; this is, after all, the first part of the story.  We have many hours to get to know them before we’re done!

A (baker's) dozen Dwarves
The Dwarves are played by a cadre of (predominantly) Celtic thesps, led by Yorkshireman (and therefore, you might say, thinking woman’s Sean Bean) Richard Armitage.  He is Thorin Oakenshield, who was there at the fall of Erebor and, again, at the battle of Moria when it was overwhelmed by the Orcs who still lurk in its stygian depths when Gandalf returns there sixty years later.  Thorin and his kinsman, Balin (played by sagely Ken Stott) are the old guard, this film’s links to their culture’s noble past now fallen on hard times and, as such, they exemplify the dignity and restrained aggression that Aragorn brought to LOTR.

We see Thorin battle the Pale Orc, Azog, who will be our antagoniste du jour.  A feud burns between these two which will fuel the latter scenes of this film and will continue to burn, no doubt, in the next one.  Thorin’s grabbing of an uprooted tree-stump to use it as a shield (and thusly earning his moniker) is one of those mythic moments which makes my skin tingle with its authenticity.  This is exactly the kind of moment one finds in real myths.  We are also told that his father, King Thrain, who had hoarded all the gold in Erebor, had been driven mad by its loss and simply disappeared.  One imagines that he’ll be back subsequently, possibly in the final part of what will now be a three-part treatment of this story.

"Have I ever said: I love that eye-liner on you, it really makes your eyes sparkle?"
This, once again, gives us a thread to connect with LOTR as that story was entirely driven by the failure of kings and other leaders.  From Isildur’s initial failure to destroy the ring, to King Theoden’s torpor, Saruman’s greed and Steward Denethor’s mad jealousy, every leader in Middle Earth failed their people.  This, I feel, was a significant part of Tolkien’s message, reflecting on his own youth as a victim of the political incompetence which resulted in World War One.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, himself, no stranger to a bowl of Old Toby ...
Part Two of Two:

Tolkien himself, of course, vigorously denied any allegorical content in LOTR, in the Foreword to the revised edition, he states: “As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical … The crucial chapter, "The Shadow of the Past', is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster …”  Well, far be it from me to argue with the great man but the very nature of subtext is such that an author may not be personally aware of it, may not intend it and, certainly, may deny it.  Please note that he does take the trouble to include that all-important ‘in the intention of the author’ clause, so it seems he was conceding that it may be there, but not by his deliberate design.

After all, he was writing during the period when the country was sinking towards, then engaged in, then recovering from the second Great War of the generation.  During this time, from the rarefied halls of academe, he will have seen many of his students drawn to the flag and that surely must have stirred up memories of his own youth when he had fought in the first war.  As he continues in the Foreword: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression … to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”.

In a time of war, he wrote about war … How can his circumstance not have influenced his mood, his creative decision-making and his conclusions?

Any similarities between Tolkien and Gandalf are not in the intention of the film-makers.
But The Hobbit, a children’s fable, is most decidedly not about war, neither in its text nor its subtext.  It is about introducing us to a fabulous world, from the point of view of an innocent, child-like in bearing and experience, but surprisingly bold in demeanour.  Bilbo has only the vaguest notion of the depth of history, politics and the vagaries of civilisation that have formed the world into which he steps.  Are any of us any different when we first venture forth?

And so the merry band set off on their heroes' journey and Jackson gets to unleash the gratuitous use of spectacular New Zealand landscape that gave LOTR such a particular look and, co-incidentally, did wonders for the New Zealand tourist trade.  These new Middle Earth vistas are every bit as beautiful as those with which I am now familiar.  Oh, good!

The world is lighter and more magical than we know it, with no Mordor to darken the horizon.  Radogast The Brown is deeply disturbed by the rot and mould he finds infesting his forest, the vanguard of Sauron’s regime.  The giant spiders he encounters are familiar to us, but completely unprecedented to him: “Where on this good Earth” he asks plaintively “did those foul creatures come from?”

Radogast is only the third wizard we have met (although, to be fair we’re only likely to meet three as Tolkien only invented five and didn’t trouble himself much with the other two ‘Blue’ wizards, the names of whom Gandalf can, pointedly, not remember).  He is played wonderfully by Sylvester McCoy who, essentially, plays himself.  Stuntman, mine-artist and all-round eccentric, McCoy has always been a natural entertainer.  In person he comes across as something of an overly-enthusiastic uncle, delightful for kids, embarrassing for adults and Radogast, with birds in his hair and his mugging, eye-rolling performance, is exactly like that.

The Seventh Doctor thinks being a Wizard is for the birds.  (Sorry).
As we are introduced to him, he is fighting an epic battle to save the life of a hedgehog.  But why not?  Having your protagonist be a member of the physically smallest, least adventurous race on earth clearly shows a willingness to acknowledge the value of every life – however seemingly insignificant.  Whilst Saruman disdains Radogast as a fool, Gandalf is himself not so foolish as to think bearing the demeanour of a fool necessarily makes one such.  As he later confides to Galadriel: “I have found it is the small things … The deeds of everyday folk that keeps evil at bay.” That, right there, is the overarching message of this whole series of films in a sentence.  God – if Middle Earth had any such thing – would be in the details!

It is an interesting point, I think, that McKellen and McCoy have worked together on stage as, respectively, Lear and Fool.  Their relationship is well established and deep and that comes across immediately here.  Finally, before Radogast disappears completely from the film (hopefully to return in the next one) he breaks out his quite wonderful sleigh, pulled by his team of Rhosgobel Rabbits.  Now that beats shanks’ pony as a way to traverse Middle Earth!

Bilbo is soon advised by Gandalf that true courage “ … is not about knowing when to take a life but when to spare one” which is, of course, why he spares Gollum.  Of course, one could argue that Frodo and, indeed, Gollum himself, might be better off with him put out of his misery … but he isn’t genuinely dangerous and I seriously doubt that Frodo and Sam would make it to Mordor without him.  So leaving him alive is investing in the future of Middle Earth and the ultimate defeat of Sauron by human (or, rather, Hobbitual) decency!  No?  Suit yourself.

I love the decency of the characters as demonstrated in the details:  Thorin waits for all of his men to escape down the chute to Rivendell that Gandalf has discovered, before heading down himself.  He, needless to add, is not a ruler who fails his subjects.  Later, when the dwarves are surrounded by full size horses with weapons-wielding Elves riding them, they form a defensive circle and instinctively pull the helpless Bilbo into the centre of it.  They may be intimidated and hopelessly out-classed, but they don’t let that imperil there instinctive sense of comradeship and decency.  He may only be a ‘Hobbit Burglar’, but he’s one of them and, as such, an equal.

Even Gandalf is not without his human foibles.  As the iridescent Galadriel bids him farewell and disappears … Gandalf is left alone and, just for a moment, distraught … So deeply smitten with her is he.

McKellen gives a very human performance as the ... Well, we don't know what he is but he's not human ... Gandalf, when he meets the film's one and only female performer - Shoe-horned in there simply because ...
Apparently some people have complained about the pace of this film, beginning, as it does, with well over half an hour of characters arriving, eating and doing not much before taking a leisurely stroll to, initially, Rivendell.  But, mayhap, the complainers have forgotten that that is precisely how Fellowship began, with time for the viewer to adjust to this new world and this panoply of bizarre new characters.  It’s possibly also worth mentioning that the film was originally intended to be the first half of the story, and has been re-worked so that it is now just the first third … That must have had some effect on the pacing of the movie.  Must have.  But when the trilogy is complete I am confident that the pace will seem perfectly appropriate.

Getting us to revisit familiar (and welcome) places like Rivendell, to show us fondly remembered characters like Elrond and Galadriel and the less-well-thought-of Saruman, is a short-hand way of helping us to identify with the familiar elements from the films we know, so to help us cope with the elements we don’t.  This isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, mind, as Jackson and Co. have achieved something quite different here, not least in the technical innovations of shooting so many special effects in 3D and at 48 frames per second.

Part Three of Two:

Particularly noticeable in these early scenes, but present throughout, is one of the key differences between this film and LOTR … The glow.  Many of the characters’ faces and, sometimes, the environments in which they walk, have a hazy shine about them as though they are glowing with inner magic.  I know that this is a product of post-production digital colour-grading and, initially, I found it quite distracting but then I settled into it because, after all, this film is set in an early, more innocent, less doom-laden world that LOTR.  In that world only The Shire is untouched by Sauron’s blight but, sixty years earlier, the whole world is going about its magical kingdom business, being a place of wonder and fantasy … So why wouldn’t things have an innocent, magical glow?

Hang on, have my eyes gone funny?  It's this bloody eye-liner, isn't it!
Whilst, as you probably know, I can’t see in 3D, I’m told the experience here is a very comfortable one, with none of the eye-strain that some people experience in normal 3D.  Of course, that means nothing to me because I’m just watching a flat film, no-matter how many dimensions they’ve made it in.  I mostly watched this film oblivious to the dimension I was missing – save for the very few cheapo 3D gimmicks they’ve thrown in – such as having Gollum almost walk into the camera to emphasise just how much he hates Bagginses.  Thankfully, these distracting shots are few and far between and the film, by and large, moves the camera and the viewer’s eye around the screen very much as it would were it 2D.

As to the HFR … I could see a difference almost immediately.  In the panning shots over the city of Dale there was no strobing, as there often is with sideways movement.  The image was clear as a bell and camera movement was correspondingly smooth.  The additional detail was genuinely starting.  It is like the screen isn’t there and you’re looking through a hole in the wall to another world.  In the feasting scenes, I genuinely felt like I was sitting amongst the dwarves.  Surely, that’s the effect the film-makers have been striving for since … Forever.

But definition of this incredible height reveals the reality in a way that, maybe, Jackson and Co. had not banked upon.  Some of the sets now look like sets … Particularly Bag End, the pony stockade and Troll camp and a lot of the stone-work looks like the painted plaster it really is.  This same clarity also reveals the limitations in some of the special effects, which betray the reality of an actor standing in-front of a green screen reacting to something that will be added months later.

The approach to Rivendell not only looks like painted styrofoam in HFR but, thanks to some bizarre auditory illusion, it also sounds fake underfoot!
There is a lot of light and a considerable depth of field, meaning that a lot of what you see is in focus.  I suspect this is at the behest of the 3D, as it would be difficult to separate the image into layers and separate them, if they aren’t initially in focus.  This effect takes away from the cinematic feel of the viewing experience and makes the film look more like TV from the 1980s, when the video cameras needed a lot of light and a wide-open aperture to record the image with fidelity.  But, oddly, that effect was okay; it reminded me of fantasy TV shows like Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel and the BBC’s version of Narnia, shows for which I have considerable affection.  So, in an unexpected way, the nostalgia I felt in revisiting Middle Earth was heightened by a nostalgia I felt for the TV shows of bygone decades.

Of course, all is not exactly as we (who have not read the book) expect.  The hint’s in the film’s sub-title, after all.  The scene where two Stone Giants clash (essentially two mountains throwing smaller mountains at each-other) seems just a scene too far – betraying the child-like ambitions of the source novel rather than the rational maturity of its sequel.  Never-the-less, Jackson and Co. strive to make this complete fantasy as credible as possible, lighting it in (probably more than fifty) shades of grey and creating real suspense.  What could have been ridiculously over-the-top is possibly the most spectacular sequence in a thoroughly spectacular film.  It’s a moment of pure Harryhausen and I mean that as the highest compliment!

Other subtle differences are to be found in The Orcs, they are stranger than their ancestors will be sixty years hence, they do not speak English and they are almost all CGI creations now rather than the more obviously humanoid mime-artists in suits.  This is testament to how far CGI animation has come in the ten years since our last visit.  Then, Gollum was a remarkable achievement whose only real antecedent was the risible Jar-Jar Binks.  Now, he is just one of a multitude of completely convincing animated characters, each with their own personality.  Thanks in no small part to the pioneering work done for LOTR by Andy Serkis (who, of course, returns as Gollum for a cameo, then spent the rest of the shoot behind the camera, directing the second-unit action scenes) motion capture (or 'performance capture' as they prefer to describe it these days) has now become the way to create believable performances and breathe life into the wildest of CGI creations.

Click to enlarge and take in the incredible detail of this entirely CGI image.  "More real than real" would seem to be Weta's motto.
Given how used we have become to life-like animations, I was pretty concerned that Gollum would have to be pretty special to impress now, yet they couldn’t really change anything because that would be to betray my memories of him from LOTR.  I needn’t have feared … Serkis’ performance is masterful, a complex mix of pathos and humour and bestial rage, while the computers have whipped-up an extraordinary visual creation entirely suited to this sharper, clearer, brighter world, yet still unambiguously the same tortured soul we know so well!

Serkis shows the duality of the character, he bickers with himself and changes mood in mid-sentence.  He is by turns vulnerable and dangerous, loathsome and laughable and, ultimately, sympathetically sad.  Given his bi-polar nature that is perfectly proper but it’s an extraordinary feat for them to have given so much personality to a cloud of pixels.

Both the Troll and Goblin sequences rely heavily on the perf-cap technology.  They also are great examples of Jackson's habit of keeping people busy during his notoriously long and complicated shoots.

The Trolls are played by William Kircher, Peter Hambleton and Mark Hadlow who are, out of those fetching skin-tight costumes, also the Dwarves Bifur, Gloin and Dori respectively.
He also offered a laurel-branch to Australia by employing Dame Edna herself - Barry Humphries - as the voice and face of the Goblin King.

Even the loathsome Les Patterson couldn't have played this without make-up.
This sequence – largely played out in long shot as the gang fight their way through the tide or Orcs (or are they ‘Goblins’ … They don’t seem entirely sure) – stays just the right side of the Super Mario platform-game effect that the similar scenes in the Mines of Moria had last time … again because of the huge improvement I computer processing power and the sophistication of the software.  I confess, even as someone who is rarely impressed by sheer scale in a move, I thought these scenes were extraordinary in HFR.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen imagery so clear, so immersive.  Well presented, a 48 fps image genuinely is the theatrical equivalent to the step-up from DVD to Blu-Ray. 

The ridiculous fall down the crevasse, surfing the bridge as it breaks apart, a sequence even more preposterous than the hanging dinosaur fight in King Kong, even less feasible than the rocking-stone-archway in LOTR … Somehow seems completely convincing in HFR.  Indeed, the scenes immediately afterwards, on the hillside, when the CGI avatars are replaced by human actors once more, actually feel like something of a letdown after the razor-sharp hyper-real clarity of the Goblin Chase.

It’s fair to say that Gandalf has a habit of saving the day at the last minute.  He conveniently turns up at the Cave Troll camp just in time to stop them spit-roasting Bilbo and the boys, then arrives once again in the veritable nick, to save them all from the hoards of the Goblin King.  I hope they don’t keep playing this card, because it has already become predictable and will soon make the transition to corny.

Thorin butches up for his showdown with Azog ... Little does he know who'll save the day.
When Azog and Thorin make eye contact we’re into a world of slo-mo as they face off.  I’m a sucker for melodramatic slo-mo, me.  This battle, in the burning woods, is just as dramatic as Sean Bean’s face off against the Uruk-Hai at the same point in Fellowship.  Any other film series and I’d be criticising it for following its own template too closely, but I can’t do it here … By this point I couldn’t see anything but good.

The last Hobbit standing.  Howard Shore’s epic choral work.  The Giant Eagles.  Yes, yes and yes.  I even accepted that Gandalf saved the day again.  That’s why he’s there, after all!

Some might protest:  Why don’t the Eagles take the Dwarves all the way to that mountain, instead of dropping them on the randomly-chosen peak of another.  Well, where would be the fun in that?

When two hours and forty minutes suddenly came unexpectedly to an end, I was distraught … I didn’t want the journey to end.  I can’t wait for it to resume.

I confess that I still don’t know the names of all the dwarves off by heart, but it’s (relatively) early days yet.
And, to help you along, we have this helpful family portrait:

Don't strain your eyes - Click to enlarge ...
Sure, I have some concerns about the decision (apparently taken as late as last Easter, when a year of principal photography was all-but over) to expand the films from two to three.  As I've mentioned, I haven't read the book, but I understand the concerns of those who have, regarding him having enough material with which to fill three films.  But there is also a library of books published by Tolkien's son, filling-out the entire history of Middle Earth.  There is no shortage of stories to tell, absolutely no lack of material from which to cut the movie's cloth.  I understand that the cast are re-assembling for three more months of shooting.  They may refer to them as 're-shoots', but three months ... That's longer than most movies take to make.

My only real concern is over the pacing of the narrative.  A two-part structure is very different from a three-part one.  The so-called 'three-act structure' is the backbone of all Hollywood movies.  It has a tripod structure which is quite strong and well-balanced.  To be honest, I am more comfortable with this structure than with the two-parter, however, it does mean some elements that we were told to expect are now not going to be on our screens until next December.  Have a look at the banner below.  Click it to enlarge and take a gander at the last three panels ... All of which are scenes which were intended to be in An Unexpected Journey but are now, unexpectedly, not.

Click and scroll ... It's the last three panels you should be paying particular attention to ...
Whatever concerns I (or you) may have, I think it is undeniable that Jackson and Co. know their material as well as anyone and they have demonstrated - over four impossible movies - that they can be trusted with this material.

The Hobbit is an extraordinary achievement, an entirely worthy companion to Lord of the Rings as well as an expansion upon and development of its spectacle and creative ambition.

I’ve got two more films owed me and I want to enjoy every frame of them.  And at 48fps that’s a lot of frames!

As he did with King Kong in 2005, Jackson has allowed very detailed 'Production Diaries' to be produced showing the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into making this film.  With Kong they came out weekly, sometimes several a week, and constitute an incredible vision of a big movie being made from the perspective of practically every participant however apparently insignificant their contribution.  Many of these  videos were released on a now hard-to-find DVD, which I encourage you to buy if you can.

If anything, Jackson shared too much about the film before it was released and took away the magic before it had chance to cast its spell on us.  He has been a bit more restrained with The Hobbit, releasing just eight diaries in a little under two years.  They are easy to find on Jackson's blog and on The YouTube and look splendid in high definition (something which was not available for Kong's diaries in 2005, in the early days of YouTube and broadband).  However, someone has gone to the trouble of editing them all together as one long video so, simply for the ease of it ... Let's watch them all in one: