When wizardry Dwarfs reality

The Hobbit's hyper-real viewing experience is impressive even for those who are not hardcore fans of Tolkien

So we're back in the Middle-earth, green and gnarly, volcanic, folkloric, heroic, mystically Germanic, mythically Norse, and obviously New Zealand. In short, a familiar neighbourhood from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, last inhabited and winning 11 Oscars in 2003. Populated by murderous ogres, phosphorescent elves, salivating goblins and digitally ageless Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen, the narrative is strictly another quest of a little hairy-footed being who'll have to prove his worth, conquer his fear, and slay the dragon (the latter will come in the second episode, or maybe the third, stick around). Gollum also returns _ no, in the Tolkien universe the creature has lived in that grotto long before LOTR _ only that he's now even more life-like, more hideous, more sad. Should I also add: more real?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis. Directed by Peter Jackson. In cinema in both regular format and 3D.

If director Peter Jackson is giving us more of the same, what is certainly more is the look. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first film to be shot and screened with the 48 frames-per-second format, a new height of high-definition digital imagery that renders everything hyper-crisp, hyper-clear, hyper-real _ a perpetual diorama. The latest technology makes the ancient Middle-earth greener, brighter, more lucid and edgeless; no longer do we have even the slightest flicker, and while it's simply breathtaking at times, the task of watching a giant video image (3D to boot) for 170 minutes can also be strange and slightly exhausting.

You're in awe of the perfection, then you wish it could be a little less perfect. Movies used to be like dreams because dreams are fuzzy. Dreams that appear too real are no longer dreams, for better or worse.

But the history of cinema, like every other kind of history, only goes one way: forward. This is what we have to get used to. It's reported that James Cameron was tinkering with the idea of using 48fps in Avatar. He didn't then, but he'll use it in the sequel, and more filmmakers, especially those dealing in epic and fantasy, are likely to adopt it. Sometimes I miss Jackson's 1992 film, the low-budget horror Dead Alive, made with something like 500 baht in spare change and a roll of film found behind the couch, but such cinematic melancholy is futile. Here comes the shimmering elf hamlet, the vertiginous ravines under the goblin cave, the fist-fight by granite Goliaths, and the magnificent motion-capture wizardry that lets Gollum live and hiss. Eyes wide open, and jump in.

And you will. The Hobbit tests your patience at first, particularly if you're not a hardcore fan who clutches Tolkien's book like a passport to geekdom, and thus find the drunken camaraderie of the dwarves unnecessarily long.

But the film builds up a gravity, and when the ogres start hunting and the stampedes of various diabolical creatures kick in, Jackson has you in the palm of his hand. It's more of the same, sure, but after a while you don't really mind.

Martin Freeman (best remembered, to me, from The Office) plays Bilbo Baggins, a well-dressed, pipe-smoking, unwarlike hobbit who's tricked by the wizard Gandalf _ played by Ian McKellen with a mix of cool, wink and hoboism _ to set out with a band of dwarves to Lonely Mountain where the dragon Smaug lays hidden. That airborne fire-breather destroyed the city of dwarves decades ago, and now Thorin (Richard Armitage) is leading his proud yet rowdy crew of little men, armed with axes, blades and slingshots, to reclaim their lost home. They trek through mossy forests and rocky cliffs as a terrible dark force, whatever it is, and a glimpse of the necromancer threaten to throw the peaceful Middle-earth off balance. There's also a map whose contents only reveal themselves under the same crescent moon as when it was written. Hellish beasts roam, elves pontificate, jowly goblins scheme _ you know, the whole lot.

Bilbo, like his grandson Frodo who would come after him, is cast in the narrative of a small man who has to take on a mission much bigger than himself. Jackson and his team of writers _ Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro _ have found a good mix of barnyard frivolity and earnestness of a self-defining quest, and just when you thought that The Hobbit would be a LOTR-lite _ the long scene with the trolls trying to spit-roast the dwarves is pure slapstick _ soon comes what I think is the best scene in the movie: the first encounter between Bilbo and Gollum, that schizophrenic ghoul who sets off the whole kit and caboodle in LOTR.

Apparently more confident with the technology than he was a decade ago, Jackson gives us a full portrait of Gollum's troubled soul, with the digitised performance by Andy Serkis, who should be nominated for every acting award. Revolting and yet childlike, consumed by obsession though maybe just painfully lonely, Gollum inspires snicker and fear. Pity too, perhaps. His riddle match with Bilbo is theatrical, Sphinx-like, and disturbing.

What's also interesting is that while the film shows off its 48fps hyper-crystal-clear image in bright, colourful, outdoor chase scenes, it's in that murky underbelly of Gollum's cave that the technique is emotionally efficient and less distracting. We have a lot of close-ups of Gollum, his watery eyes too large, too pathetic, and the hyper-quality of the image cheerfully corrupts the line between fantasy and live action, making Gollum a unique creature that we wish to see more of.

More Gollum, yes and maybe Christopher Lee, too. In a quaint scene set on the cliff of the elf city _ let's skip the name, this is a movie that every sword and hillock and pony has a long Celtic name _ McKellen, as Gandalf, sits pleading his case with mad-eyed Saruman, another respected and slightly loony wizard played by Lee. As they speak, Cate Blanchett, playing the demi-goddess Galadriel, walks around them in slow-motion. Watching the three great actors in eye-popping 3D as they go on and on about dwarves, dragons, a necromancer, elves and ogres is the joy and ridiculousness of a fantasy movie that takes itself very honestly and seriously.

It will more and more of the same in the next two episodes, but the momentum has been set, so, well, bring it on.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist