We chat quite a bit “problematic faves” here at The Fandomentals, and for good reason. You can enjoy problematic content, so long as you’re aware of those issues. That said, I’ve got one where I’m utterly at a loss to explain my enjoyment at all: Bond, James Bond. It’s a character built on misogyny, and even the “best” movies of the series nearly incomprehensible with the leaps in logic.
Well, I didn’t watch a top quality Bond the other day. No, instead, as a way of getting excited for my trip to New Orleans this weekend, I decided to watch Roger Moore’s debut film, Live and Let Die. In some ways you might consider this a “quintessential Bond film.” Though Sean Connery brought Ian Flemming’s character to life, it was Moore that brought the camp which defines most of the series. But if this truly is representative of the franchise as a whole…then holy shit. My fave is beyond problematic and I’m starting to wonder if it’s only a fave due to Poe’s Law.
The misogyny of this film is a sledgehammer; the racism of this film is a team of wrecking balls continually smashing you in the face. Which I guess isn’t shocking, because it was literally an action film by white people that tried to incorporate characteristics of the “blaxploitation” genre, which had gained popularity in the early 70s. Needless to say its attempts to do so left behind a movie that is offensive to the point of distraction. Seriously, it is impossible to go 2 seconds without thinking, “but this is just so racist!”
And if somehow you can look past every single black person in New York City working together to kill Bond, a fortune teller whose gift is literally fucked away, or the island of ‘San Monique,’ whose dictator utilizes 100% well-researched Haitian Vodou as a means of keeping his opium fields safe, you’re left with a horribly infeasible conflict and so much plot armor, it could make the stakes of Hardhome feel real.
So of course I’m going to take you on a journey through this movie, so that you can share in its wonder with me.
The pre-title sequence consists of three scenes where white people are murdered by black people. First, an MI6 agent sitting behind the UK table at what appears to be the UN is killed when a black hand plugs something funky into the audio port to which his translator headphones are connected. Literally, it’s death-by-headhpones. And we see this other black guy sitting calmly at his table for the great country of San Monique, so we get the impression he knows something.
Over in New Orleans, another MI6 agent is obviously watching a “Fillet of Soul” restaurant, when a funeral procession marches by, all consisting of black people. Like, 50-75 members, maybe? Then another [what race…you guessed it…black] dude walks up and stabs the MI6 agent. The funeral procession picks him up in the coffin, and then it turns into a really fun parade!
Finally, we go to San Monique, where there’s some sort of Voodoo party going on. Maybe some of that Voodoo includes the inexplicable mixing of Spanish and French in the island’s name? But it’s this sort of excited, sex-party atmosphere, a la the maenads in True Blood before I gave up on that show. A white dude is tied to the stakes, and one of the locals dances around while wearing a goat head. He picks up a snake out of a coffin, and kills the guy with it, even though it’s hilariously obvious that this is just a rubber snake he lightly touches to his neck.
Then comes the title sequence, which given Paul McCartney’s song, is easily the highlight of this film. Though is it worth pointing out that even here, the black women all become skulls, while the white women dance around with what is some of the strangest choreography I’ve seen to date?
Cut to Bond in bed with a random woman who is begging for more sex in a thick, Italian accent. Sadly for her, there’s a knock on the door, and M—you know, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service—just barges in, tells James that there’s work to be done, name drops the three agents who were killed in the field/their locations, and tells him that he needs to start packing. Judi Dench would have never been so stoopid.
Fortunately for James, in addition to being a secret agent, he’s an aspiring barista, so he is able to distract M by making him a latte. Seriously, he froths the milk and everything. Even more fortunately, Moneypenny is a fantastic bro, who helps the random Italian chick (turns out she’s an agent too) hide in a closet until M leaves. She also gives Bond his watch, fixed up from Q, and we learn that there’s a powerful magnet in it. This wouldn’t be important at all, except once they leaves, Bond immediately turns it on so that he can unzip the Italian agent’s dress.
Oh, that reminds me. The puns.
Random Italian Agent: Such a delicate touch.
Bond: Sheer magnetism, darling.
I’ll let you know when we get to my favorite of these. But Bond, you have a fucking mission; go pack!
We then cut to a scene of an airplane landing, interspersed with a fortune teller flipping tarot cards to…describe commercial air travel. Thrilling.
In addition to thinking about the racism of this film every 2 seconds, you’re going to be asking yourself, “but why don’t they just kill Bond??” every 4.
This begins almost immediately. Bond lands in NYC and gets in a taxi to meet up with our favorite CIA agent, Felix Leiter. I guess either from Solitaire’s awesome tarot reading, or the fact that it’s very reasonable for MI6 to send someone to investigate the murders of 3 field agents, Kananga, the man who runs what I can only characterize as the Great Black Consortium (GBC from now on…or da Bad Guys™), immediately knows that Bond is a dangerous man who should be eliminated. So a car that has side mirrors armed with some kind of gun pulls up next to the cab and the shoots…not Bond! They just kill the driver, and that almost kills Bond, but he steers the car to safety.
It’s probably here that I should tell you who “Solitaire” is. She is played by Jane Seymour. She is white, but an honorary member of the GBC. She is a tarot-card reader with mystical powers connected to her “virginity.” Yes.
Oh, something else about this movie: there’s a couple of times that Bond lands himself in some serious scrapes and needs his CIA contacts to pick him up and help deal with the local authorities. But every time this happens, Felix just shakes his head and is like, “oh Bond that rascal,” rather than, I don’t know, show any concern for the implications?
At the CIA hotel, we learn that Kananga’s official job is being the dictator of San Monique. He also has a PhD in something, because people call him “Dr.” They have his embassy bugged, but he’s able to slip the authorities with the same exact method Mary Kate and Ashley use to get away from their parents in Holiday in the Sun.
Anyway, the CIA may not have been able to tell that there was a running tape recorder, but they at least give Bond a lead on the car with the gun in its mirror, which is leased to a Voodoo shop, because of course it is. Bond heads there. The women working behind the desk is black, so that should immediately tip you off that she’s part of the GBC, which is quickly confirmed when he slips out the back of the shop to check out the car, and she contacts *someone* with the message “he’s tailing.”
Anyway, Kananga’s crew (Solitaire and a few henchmen, most notably “Mr. Whisper” and “Tee Hee”) slip into the exact same parking garage, because it’s connected to both a Voodoo shop and an embassy, and drive to Harlem. Bond hails a cab and asks his [black] driver to follow them.
“Man, for 20 bucks, I’d take you to a Ku Klux Klan cookout.”
Then we’re treated to a scene where we learn that every single black person in the city is part of the GBC. Literally, random people will stop what they’re doing on the streets and radio in to *someone* “he’s heading east,” or something of the like. Then when Bond gets out of the cab at its destination, a Fillet of Soul restaurant, the cabbie himself tells *someone* “he’s headin’ on in.” So…if the cabbie was working for the GBC, then why did these randos need to file a report too? Or why didn’t the cabbie just kill him?
Instead, Bond gets seated in a booth at the Fillet of Soul, but whoops it’s a trap, and the booth spins around to reveal some kind of like…waiting room? Solitaire is there doing a tarot reading, and we see Tee Hee, the henchman with a hook hand that looks worse than Buster’s from Arrested Development.
Here’s an idea? How about they just kill Bond? Like right now. He’s right there. But nah, Bond simply mills around as if he’s waiting for his appointment at the optometrist’s office. He goes and nudges Solitaire a bit, and poor Jane Seymour. She’s trying to take this so seriously. For some reason all of her cards say “007” on the back of them too, but that’s neither here nor there. More to get him away than anything else, she tells him to pick a card. It’s The Fool. “You have found yourself.” Har har.
Anyway, the doctor is finally in, and it’s this guy named Mr. Big, who literally pops his head out for 3 seconds and tells the guards in the room to “take him out back and waste him.” Actually, sorry, he says “Y’all take this honky out and waste him – now!”
Bond tries to make a joke to Solitaire, but she’s all “this reading is over,” as if this was supposed to be a formal reading in the first place. But after he pesters her a little more, she allows him one card about his future. It’s The Lovers. Jane Seymour acts her face off looking stunned.
Bond is then led into the alley by two GBC randos who decide it’d be really fun to make him walk a 5K before actually shooting him, so of course he figures out how to beat them (he slams a fire escape stairwell in their face). Then another black guy appears, but here’s the twist: he works for the CIA and isn’t in the GBC! Seriously, the movie presents this like it’s shocking information. He scolds Bond for wearing a “white face in Harlem.” Then he tells him that the only man who can pull together so many GBC members is the crime boss named “Mr. Big.”
Which is anticlimactic, because we literally just met Mr. Big 4 seconds ago. He told his henchmen to go waste Bond… Ah, never mind.
So now with a lead in NYC, Bond decides to go…to San Monique. Because Kananga went there? The movie never really explains why a dictator returning to his home is suspicious, but he is traveling with the same guys who were in the Fillet of Soul, so, sure. Fine.
Bond checks into a hotel where Baron Samedi, or the “Voodoo god of cemeteries and chief of the legion of the dead” is a “performer in a little musical extravaganza” for the other guests. Except his entire routine seems to be pointing at people and laughing.
The guy behind the hotel tells Bond that “Mrs. Bond” is already there, and gives him a key. Bond is clearly suspicious so he goes to his room and…strips into a fluffy robe, bathes, and shaves. He also checks the room for bugs (there’s 2), calls and orders a bottle of Bollinger, oh and kills a snake with aftershave that doubles as a flamethrower. Who dropped the snake in? Why did they think a snake was the best way to kill him? Why didn’t Mr. Whisper just like, shoot him (Mr. Whisper is a tubby member of the GBC who was the one driving the car that shot Bond’s cabbie back in NYC, and is now pretending to work for the hotel staff. Did I not mention? Who cares.)?
Don’t worry, now it’s time to get serious, because the door is opening, and someone with a gun is walking in. Bond can’t get to his own in time, so he settles on burning the person’s wrist with his cigar, and then throwing her onto the bed.
That’s right, folks, it’s time to meet Rosie! She claims she was sent by Felix to keep an eye on Bond, but she’s also black, so I’m not sure we should trust that. She also opens with “I guess I have some explaining to do,” as if she’s a naughty school child who is being disciplined by the principal. No, lady, you are an agent who is assigned to be here. Not that it won’t stop Bond from infantilizing her.
Bond decides to try and fuck her, because why not, but she actually rejects him. However, that is immediately recanted when she goes into her bedroom and spots a bowler hat with bloody chicken feathers sticking out of it. She screams that it’s a trap, and then begs Bond not to leave her alone that night.
Okay, pause, I don’t want to shock you, but Rosie is a member of the GBC. She’s a double agent? Like, it’s unclear. She works for Kananga, but I literally can’t tell if she was working for Felix at any point. Bond doesn’t think to call him, and Felix doesn’t think to give him a heads up. Bond gets alerted to her treachery when Solitaire mails him a Queen of Cups card in an “upside-down position.” Well, it actually just falls out of an envelope, but I guess it’s upside-down.
I also cannot tell if Rosie is feigning fear at the hat or not. She is clearly playing Bond, as any GBC member would do, so acting kind of stupid and afraid as a way of seeming innocent would be reasonable for her. Except that the narrative confirms how she is stupid and afraid. So…I’m not sure where this leaves us at all. At the intersection of Racism St. and Misogyny Blvd., I imagine.
And not to belabor the point, but why didn’t Rosie just kill Bond at their hotel after sleeping with him? She was in the perfect position to do that. Isn’t it what the GBC wants? When Mr. Big said “waste him,” that had to be literal, right?
Anyway, Bond and Rosie (who hasn’t yet been revealed as a double agent) set off to check out the place where the MI6 agent died via rubber snake, so they get on a boat captained by a random black dude. The real fun of this movie, by the way, is that you become conditioned to be suspicious of every black person on your screen. Charming. Apparently Rosie is suspicious too, because when she goes below deck to “change” (aka just take off her clothes to reveal a bikini…why did she need privacy for this?) she discovers that the captain is hiding a gun, and when she comes up on deck, it looks like he’s about to strangle Bond with rope. So she tells him to freeze even though she shouldn’t care if Bond dies, right? Then we’re treated to one of the best and least misogynistic lines ever:
“As I was saying, Quarrel, a lousy agent, but the compensations speak for themselves.”
The sex compensations.
Also it turns out that Quarrel (Jr.) is one of the two good black dudes in this movie, and he’s also just some cute fanservice. Oh and Rosie had left the safety on her gun when she was threatening him. Where does her stoopid act end, and her actual stoopid begin? ¯\_(シ)_/¯
So Quarrel’s awesome boating skills take them to Solitaire’s house, which is this sweet mansion on a cliff-face. Inside, Jane Seymour is still showing up everyone else’s acting skills by doing a reading for Kananga about Bond, and having to be shocked and scared when she pulls a Lovers card again. But she covers her own ass to Kananga and tells him it’s Death. It’s at this point we learn that Solitaire’s power is tied to her “purity,” and when the “time comes,” Kananga himself plans to “take it from her,” as he apparently did her mother. I LOVE all of these implications!!!
Meanwhile, Rosie’s double agent act is going horribly, because she’s an actual idiot. Women, amirite? She changes up her story about where the MI6 agent was killed (it’s “down there” now), and Bond being all sneaky and smart suggests that they go fuck in the grass because he’s not in any hurry, despite the fact that she seems to be now. Dude, you’re kind of on a mission.
So whatever, they make out a little, and then Bond decides to pull out his Queen of Cups card, which is a warning that Rosie is a “deceitful, perverse woman. A liar, a cheat.” However, Rosie spots an EVHUL SCARECROW so she knows that the GBC people are watching and gonna kill her if she talks. Bond pulls a gun on her and says he’ll kill her if she doesn’t. She just kind of runs off, clearly terrified. Aaand, runs into the line of another scarecrow which shoots her.
Two things: 1.) She didn’t betray the GBC; she literally ran from Bond knowing he might shoot her in the back, so why did they kill her exactly? and 2.) BOND WAS IN FRONT OF THAT SCARECROW THIS WHOLE TIME. CLEAR SHOT, MAN.
Who cares, because then this happens with Jane Seymour’s hair and nothing else matters for the rest of the movie:
Anyway, I guess because there’s nowhere else to go, Bond breaks into Solitaire’s house, sits in her cool chair, and fucks with her cards…romantically?
She tells him to GTFO, but he says, “oohh ohh, pick a card if you really think I’m meant to go.” So she draws a card and it’s The Lovers. Then they make out, and as they do, it’s revealed that the entire deck is nothing but The Lovers.
Which, 1.) This is rape. I mean, I guess “rape by deception” wasn’t really a thing understood in the 70s, but David O. Selznick figured out that marital rape was a thing in 1939, so suck on that. 2.) Are we meant to believe that Bond bought 78 packs of tarot cards, sorted through all of them, and put together a complete “The Lovers” set, which he then had in his pocket all day? Did he even know they were going to Solitaire’s house?
Anyway, in bed, Solitaire starts to have a little bit of a breakdown because she, you know, just lost her powers and if Kananga finds out he’s going to fucking kill her. Fortunately Bond is really sensitive to her needs:
However, she has these odd emotional fluctuations between being absolutely petrified about her fate, and being absolutely randy and desperate for more of the sex. When Bond tells her that he’s going to take her with him to inspect this MI6 agent’s death (why?), she begs him to get back in bed with her first. Which leads to the absolute best pun in this movie:
Bond: There’s no sense in going off half-cocked.
So the next morning, Bond and Solitaire follow the path of scarecrows that killed Rosie, and we see from a cutaway scene that the GBC is, in fact, watching them. Why are they not shot? Then they hear random flute music, so Bond the SECRET AGENT just marches his ass up and says “hai” to the player. It’s Baron Samedi, btw, without makeup, and apparently Solitaire doesn’t recognize him. And his flute has a radio hidden in it, which I’m pretty sure would have messed with its sound, but whatever.
Meanwhile, Kananga gives the order, “if he finds it, kill him.” That’s very…magnanimous of him considering they’ve been low-key trying to murder Bond for a while now. Is that what Rosie’s job was? To allow Bond to “find it”? What is this plan??
“It,” btw is a crapload of poppy plants hidden under nets. So a helicopter comes to gun Bond (and Solitaire) down, even though Kananga tells everyone that he wants her alive. Then Kananga says, “any cost. Any. Bond must die.” This is brand new information.
Bond and Solitaire run through the poppy fields to a small town, where the local police are all part of the GBC. Though I guess this makes sense because Kananga is literally their dictator. Anyway, Bond steals a double-decker bus, and there’s a wacky chase scene, including some hilariously dramatic music as we pass a sign for “low bridge.” It turns out okay though.
They get back to Quarrel’s boat, and Bond tells Solitaire that it’s all over, and they can go anywhere she wants. “Anywhere they have one of these,” she says, lying back onto a bed. Turns out he’s still a manipulative sack of shit though, because his idea is to go to New Orleans (where that third MI6 agent was killed) to investigate things, and use her as bait, I guess to draw out whatever Kananga connections there might be in that city. Except that the MI6 agent who was killed at the beginning had already been staking out the Fillet of Soul, so it’s not as if there hadn’t been a lead.
Once there, Bond and Solitaire get into a taxi cab without bothering to check, I guess because Bond either figures that he’s walking into a trap and is happy about that fact, or he has learned absolutely nothing since the start of this movie. I know I fall into the latter category. So yeah, turns out the driver is the same exact cabbie as the one in NYC who made the KKK joke. He makes the locks on the door disappear and says that Mr. Big wants to see them because Bond “took something that belonged to a friend of his.” Do you get it? Solitaire is property.
He drives them to this airplane on a landing strip, where a henchman of Mild Importance (who isn’t Mr. Whisper or Tee Hee) tells Bond that he’s going skydiving. Apparently this henchman’s name is “Adam.” I find that hilarious.
Then Solitaire I guess decides to act as though she was kidnapped so she won’t get instantly killed by Kananga, while also using these wiles to give Bond an escape opportunity.
It’s deadly effective. Bond gets away, runs a little, and then finds a small shitty plane that belongs to some kind of pilot school, which he climbs into. There’s this 80-year-old woman inside who was waiting for her instructor, so Bond says he’s the substitute or something. Then there’s another wacky chase scene that ends with the old lady saying a knee-slapping “holy shit.” Like, you can tell the writers were giggling.
We then cut to a scene of Felix patching things up with the owner of the pilot school, because apparently the CIA has never heard of administrative assistants. Hey, remember the good black guy who wasn’t Quarrel from this movie? The one who saved Bond’s white face in Harlem? Well he’s now staking out the New Orleans Fillet of Soul. Except, that same funeral procession of GBC members pops up again, so he dies.
Felix and Bond go to meet him though, and when they don’t see him outside, they just fucking walk into the Fillet of Soul. That they’re supposed to be staking out. Which they apparently aren’t worried about despite Bond’s “nasty turn in the booth” back at Harlem’s Fillet of Soul. In fact, Felix orders them Sazeracs and tells Bond “this is New Orleans. Relax.” YOU ARE TRYING TO STAKEOUT A MOB BOSS CONNECTED WITH AN OPIUM-GROWING DICTATOR.
Felix gets pulled away from the table with a phone call, leaving Bond to watch the singer on stage. Who is implied as being a member of the GBC, because she makes Eye-Contact of Extreme Significance as the table gets lowered through a trap door. None of the people eating seem to give any shits, but as we’re about to find out, they’re consuming opiates. Not too sure why Felix wasn’t worth kidnapping, btw.
Anyway, down below, Mr. Big starts screaming at Bond and demanding if he had sex with Solitaire (“asking for a friend”), because apparently this was the only way to get that information. Also she’s sitting right there, but fuck if anyone bother asking for her opinion.
When Bond tells him that he won’t give the info to a lackey, Mr. Big pulls at his face, which we realize is prosthetic, and guess who’s beneath? It’s Kananga! Emboldened by the impressive reveal, he then divulges his entire plan!
I apparently drew this a couple of years ago, but sums it pretty well:
I think the only snag in the plan is the fact that these new opiate addicts wouldn’t know they were addicts? Maybe? It seems like it’s just going in the soul food directly, but I could be wrong and the nuance is just too much for me. Or maybe the plan was always to make really pricey food.
But forget the plan, it’s time to get back to the important stuff: did Bond and Solitaire bone? This time, Bond says he’s a gentleman and won’t say either way. So Kananga decides to test Solitaire, which couldn’t have been done before, apparently. He has Tee Hee take Bond’s hand in his claw, and says that he will lose a finger if Solitaire’s tarot cards can’t tell her what his watch’s registration numbers are. She clearly guesses, and Kananga seems satisfied, giving Tee Hee an Official Nod. Then he tells the dude to take Bond “to the farm.” I assume to kill him.
Want to know something funny? He could have just shot Bond right there. Like 20 times. Bond was even strapped to the chair and had no method of escape.
Once Teehee, Adam, and Bond go off “to the farm,” Baron Samedi just saunters in for no reason, and does his best to annoy Kananga:
But that dude is already upset, because the registration number guess was wrong! And now Solitaire must die, because it was his right to rape her, not Bond’s! But they can’t kill her there; she has to die “at one proper time.”
“The farm” turns out to be a literal crocodile farm (not alligators, because what is geography?), except inside its main building, there’s people packing heroin. Tee Hee is a great tour guide, until he leaves Bond on a tiny ass island surrounded by crocs. However, rather than watch and make sure Bond actually dies, he and Adam just kind of shrug and head inside. Bond hops to safety on the back of the crocodiles’ backs.
Then I guess he wants to say “no” to drugs, because he torches the place, hops in a boat, and drives off. Adam gives pursuit in a car and other rando GBC members find boats of their own.
It’s at this point that we meet Sheriff JW Pepper, the hilarious Louisiana redneck. He pulls over Adam, and is clearly a giant racist dick, but at the same time Adam is trying to kill Bond, so…
Meanwhile, the boat chase cuts over the land right where this ticketing is happening, and JW gets a boat through his cop car (allowing Adam to drive off).
I don’t really know how to explain this chase for the rest of it. Bond is in his boat the whole time, but half the focus becomes JW. He hops in the back of a cop car with two random officers who I think work for him, but clearly hate him.
And frankly, for good reason because he’s an odious person.
This isn’t made better by the fact that JW just starts randomly talking about his brother-in-law, Billy Bob, because Billy Bob has the fastest boat on the river, and Billy Bob will catch them, and literally every other word out of his mouth is “Billy Bob.” Sadly for the actual Billy Bob, Adam knocks him out and takes his boat, which leads to a mildly interesting chase? Ish?
Bond ends up getting away, and Adam blows up in the process.
I wonder if there’s a GPS app that incorporates JW’s catch phrases.
We’re then treated to another scene where Felix shakes his head at Bond, the lovable scamp, rather than like, act as though he narrowly escaped death. Oh, then he casually tosses out “we busted the Fillet of Soul over an hour ago.” WHY DID THIS NOT HAPPEN BEFORE? LIKE RIGHT AFTER BOND WAS TAKEN IN THE HARLEM ONE? IT’S CLEARLY OWNED BY THE SAME PERSON.
Apparently Felix is also omniscient, and knows that Bond needs to go to San Monique again, because Kananga just got on a plane there (maybe in the bust he figures out the Mr. Big connection?). So cut back to the island, where there’s another Voodoo party, but this time it’s Solitaire who is being sacrificed. I guess this was the right time to die. I also guess there’s an argument to be made that her death being a public spectacle to the locals of the island sends a message about the power of Baron Samedi, or something? It’s slightly more logical than how Bond is possibly still alive.
Speaking of, he, Felix, and Quarrel show up on the outskirts of this party. Quarrel is assigned the task of planting explosives in the poppy fields, which I’m really not sure should be in the purview of the CIA or MI6. The Fillet of Soul busts make sense, but this…is almost an act of war maybe? Bond, meanwhile, is to rescue Solitaire. Felix is going to wait on the boat.
So, yeah. Bond saves her by shooting the dude with the snakes who wears the goat head, shooting a wooden dummy of Baron Samedi with oddly working eyeballs (who rose up from a trap door beneath a grave), and then sword-fighting and knocking the real Baron Samedi into a coffin full of snakes. Easy-peasy.
Then, Bond decides to go down through the trap door that Baron Samedi came out of (taking Solitaire with him), which reveals an Underground Lair of Evilness. Actually, not really, it’s just an underground monorail system for the shipment of opium.
Kananga’s got a shitton of men there, so he’s able to capture Bond and Solitaire pretty easily. I should have mentioned that Bond came armed with a shark gun, that has inflating pellets, which Kananga tests out on a couch:
He also dismisses the destruction of his poppy fields with a wave of his hand because “they’re a sturdy plant.” Um…explosives, dude.
Either way, he wants to kill Bond, but this time the best way to accomplish that is to string both him and Solitaire up to a weird lift thing, then cut Bond’s arm in several non-lethal locations, so that his blood drips into the water below. Then, Kananga lets a shark into the room (why did he have this? It’s never explained).
However, Bond’s watch doubles as a razor blade, so he cuts his rope. Then he turns on the magnet and picks up one of his inflating shots from his shark gun. And as he’s slowly doing all of this, Kananga and Mr. Whisper (and probably those guards who were lining the room earlier) are just watching and doing nothing. Logic. Solitaire spends her time clinging to the lift.
Anyway, Bond somehow traps Mr. Whisper inside of a bomb chassis or something?
Then he and Kananga fight and both fall in the water with the shark. Bond forces the inflatable pellet into Kananga’s mouth, and then pushes off his body and climbs out of the water before the shark gets to them. Kananga goes to the surface and takes a breath, causing this to happen:
Solitaire apparently didn’t watch any of this despite being right the fuck there, so she asks Bond what happened to Kananga. “He always did have an inflated opinion of himself.” Suddenly the pun about Xenia’s “good squeeze” is sounding Shakespearean in context. I’m not sure what happened to Kananga’s guards or everyone working under there, but I guess they stopped giving a shit, because Bond and Solitaire just skip on out.
So yay! Mission accomplished! The Lovers board a train so that they can fuck on their way to the 21 Club, where they’re apparently going to meet up with Felix again. However Tee Hee breaks into their cabin and folds the bed into the wall with Solitaire still on it:
He and Bond talk for a bit, and fight for like 5 full minutes, until Bond snips some mechanical wires in Tee Hee’s metal arm, causing it to malfunction and get stuck to the window. Then he manages to throw Tee Hee out the window, which I guess kills him. Bond pulls the bed back out to free Solitaire, and she just goes “well that wasn’t very funny!” because she couldn’t hear anything? Bond removes Tee Hee’s arm from the window for one final pun:
Solitaire: Now what are you doing?
James: Just being disarming, darling.
End movie. Cut to the front of the train where Baron Samedi is sitting and laughing. I’m not sure if we’re actually supposed to think he survived, but it is what it is.
This…this franchise goes beyond “problematic fave,” right? I mean, I’d hardly call it a fave. In truth, I have no idea how it is that I sat through this two-hour movie enjoying every second of it, but I did, I really did. And I’d happily put on The Man with the Golden Gun to watch JW’s triumphant return. So I’m just going to chalk this up to ironic enjoyment, and only be slightly paranoid if I find myself in any booths during my trip.
Images courtesy of United Artists
Marvel Drops a Threatening New Infinity War Trailer
For just a second there, my excitement for this movie ebbed away. News about the completely uninteresting Black Widow/Hulk romance having a place in the movie made me wonder if Marvel was perhaps going to misstep with their biggest movie yet. Could Infinity War actually end up sucking like Age of Ultron did (in this one writer’s humble opinion)?
Let’s just say my worries vanished somewhere between Wakandan forces riding out to war, Captain America trying to hold Thanos off, and Spider-Man swinging through wreckage in the sky in ways I never imagined I’d see on screen when I was a little kid reading Spidey comics.
Infinity War is going to be massive, the culmination of ten years of the MCU. This trailer tries to establish the stakes of losing to Thanos here. For those who don’t know, Gamora isn’t exaggerating in this trailer. Thanos can literally snap half of existence out of existence with the power of all the Infinity Stones. He’s the kind of villain you need all hands on deck to beat. The entire Avengers team won’t beat him. Somewhere between Thor screaming in pain and Captain America trying to restrain Thanos’s hand, I think this trailer established the threat he poses.
This is a villain built up for a decade, and Infinity War looks poised to deliver on that scope.
It’s almost here, everyone. Who will live? Who will die? What will the MCU look like in the aftermath? Well, we probably have to wait for part two to know the answers to that. You better believe Marvel is looking to make an impact here. Maybe Infinity War won’t be the best movie of the MCU. You better believe it will be the biggest and best event, though.
Best buy your tickets now if you plan on seeing Infinity War when it releases on April 27th.
Images and Video Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Key & Peele To Reunite, Voice Hellish Brothers in Wendell & Wilde
Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key have spent the last couple years doing their own things. Key has been working on television while Peele has been working on little independent movies like Get Out. But the now-Oscar winner Peele is reuniting with his long-time partner in a new animated film from stop-motion master Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline). The film, Wendell & Wilde, is being produced for Netflix.
The film will follow a pair of demonic brothers, played by Key & Peele, as they square off with their arch-enemy in order to escape hell. Peele will also be bringing his Oscar-winning pen into the writer’s room: he’s assisting Selick and author Clay Mcleod Chapman in writing the film’s script. The art direction for the film is being handled by Pablo Lobato, an Argentinian artist known for his colorful portraits of celebrities and politicians.
Since the end of Key & Peele, the two actors have largely forged separate paths in Hollywood. Keegan Michael Key has been working as a supporting actor in films like Storks and Why Him and television shows like Archer and Friends From College. He’s appeared in a previous Netflix production, 2017’s Win It All. Jordan Peele has famously moved behind the camera, writing and directing the smash-hit horror film Get Out and starting production on adaptations of horror film Abruptio and crime flick Black Klansman, which will also be a Spike Lee Joint. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also adapting Matt Ruff’s supernatural/gothic horror novel Lovecraft Country with Misha Green (Underground).
Wendell & Wilde will be Key & Peele’s second collaboration since their Peabody-winning Comedy Central sketch show ended in 2015. Their last film, Keanu, was a critical and financial success. The film will also be Henry Selick’s first film released since Coraline in 2009. Netflix has not announced a release date for Wendell & Wilde.
Image via Warner Bro. Pictures
Dissecting The Hobbit in Preparation for Amazon’s New Tolkien Series
I was eleven when Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy was released. I, like the millions of others who saw it, was immediately swept away into a secondary world that would take hold of me and never let go. These stories spoke to me like nothing I had ever heard. They were my favorite things. My mother, who had read the books when she was in college, said she’d be happy to lend me her copy of the trilogy, but suggested I start with something a bit simpler (I was eleven and a very mediocre reader) like The Hobbit. She explained to me how the story took place sixty years prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings and was actually written as a stand-alone novel before the trilogy was ever conceived. It’s the tale of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo and his adventure to reclaim a dwarven kingdom that’s been commandeered by a ferocious dragon. Count me in.
So not so unexpectedly The Hobbit, Or: There and Back Again became one of my most cherished worldly possessions and helped shape the person I am today.
Fast forward to November 2017 when Amazon announced that it would be making a “Lord of the Rings prequel series,” I wanted so badly to be filled with excitement when it was announced. After all, more Tolkien is good Tolkien, right? But why did I have such a bitter, hesitant feeling about new content being created? There is so much material created in the Middle Earth legendarium that spans far and wide from the content in the Lord of the Rings. Content that could be beautifully retold if it were in the hands of the right storytellers. I mean sure, there will be hiccups and cause for concern as far as keeping the integrity of the Tolkien estate unspoiled, especially with Christopher Tolkien announcing his retirement. But taking ideas and narratives and trying to sell them to a consuming public is not inherently a bad thing, and I’d like to think I look at the availability of more Tolkien stories as a potentially good thing…
That’s when it all started flooding back to me: we’ve been down this road before, haven’t we? We’ve seen what can go wrong when a giant studio conglomerate decides to capitalize on popular narrative trends and ends up butchering a folktale beloved by millions in order to pump out blockbuster numbers. I thought I blocked all that out, what was it, four, five, six years ago respectively? Perhaps my optimism for more Tolkien content is just naïveté in disguise.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Trilogy
I’m talking of course about The Hobbit. This three-part CGI fest, bought and paid for by Warner Bros made its way into existence and caused an absolute uproar with Tolkien fans and filmgoers everywhere. From the beginning it seemed doomed, or at the very least polarizing: Del Toro dropped the project, leaving the production team to scramble and revamp their entire vision, and when Peter Jackson moved from Executive Producer to Director, he made the choice to turn the 270 page folktale into an epic trilogy, shooting it with new 48 frames-per-second technology.
With the hype surrounding the project due to the success of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit was sure to be a massive undertaking that would require the utmost care and respect in terms of its presentation. But that’s not what fans were given. In its entirety, The Hobbit Trilogy became the messy, shallow spectacle that every self-identified member of a fandom dreads.
Was this all just a perfect storm of bad timing and poor decisions? Maybe. Are these films just more glaring evidence to why “prequel trilogies” and “extended film universes” are a terrible idea? Perhaps, but there are plenty of arguments against that. One thing is for sure though, much like Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy, The Hobbit was at the forefront of a film industry crossroad. Technology had made exciting and groundbreaking strides that enable stunning visuals and thrilling modern tools to aid in their story telling. Peter Jackson & Co are known for constantly pushing boundaries and playing with new tricks, but when it comes to making spur-of-the-moment experiments done at the behest of the Middle-Earth Universe—a universe which they had a major role in shaping, by the way—they were bound to piss some people off.
So, my dear Bagginses and Boffins, what exactly went wrong with the Hobbit Trilogy? What went right? Let’s dive into The Hobbit’s first installment, An Unexpected Journey in this three-part essay that examines the films. In the back of our minds we can hope that while Amazon creates their new Tolkien content, they will learn from the mistakes, and hopefully capitalize on the successes of their predecessors by exploring new, exciting ways to tell stories while (hopefully) being respectful to its source material.
Unpacking the Prologue: My Dear Frodo
Having an expositional prologue to an epic trilogy isn’t a terrible idea on paper. It gives us viewers a chance to ease into the experience and informs us on key plot points/names that are going to continuously pop up. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (AUJ) in particular has extra weight already attached, that is, to reintroduce us to the already beloved Middle Earth Universe. When AUJ begins, we are immediately given recognizable music cues and the comforting voice of Ian Holmes as Bilbo. The choice is clear: these films will not only be of the same vision and universe as the Ring’s films, but will act as a compendium, a bridge between themselves and the films that came before them.
The choice to begin the films as a meta-narrative though, is more distracting than it is helpful. It’s fine to use the same actors, sets, styles, etc. within The Hobbit narrative (Gandalf, Elrond, etc.) because the stories obviously belong together. But, to contrive a scene that takes place in the time of Frodo and the Ring of power is tacky, and the constant insistence to call back to The Lord of the Rings only serves to hurt the story you are trying to tell. The mantra of “you can’t really compare The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings,” flies out the window when you begin your entire story as a HOMAGE TO THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
So, we revisit Bag End and the Shire, but it’s not the Shire we left at the end of Return of the King, nor is it the Shire we were introduced to in Fellowship— it’s unfamiliar to the senses. This goes back to the advancement in technology and the decision by Jackson & Co. to shoot The Hobbit in 48fps rather than film. The coloring is saturated, the details are crisp and polished rather than weathered and mysterious, and—not that they can do anything about it, but—it’s so obvious that both Ian Holmes and Ian McKellen have aged a decade. No amount of makeup and 3D magic can hide this.
But could the film have started any other way? What other options were there to set the scene? Could we really have been thrown into the same (stylistically) beloved version of Middle-Earth without acknowledging the giants of which these films are standing upon?
In my mind, this could be an obvious answer to why Del Toro dropped the project. Imagine creating a film based upon a beloved novel that is also living in the shadow of the most successful fantasy film franchise to date. Imagine wanting to have a creative vision, but the studio heads and executive producer are constantly adding things and pushing deadlines and reminding you of the fact that in all honesty, these will never be your films, they’ll just be an extension of Jackson’s Middle Earth Film Universe. It’s unsurprising that Peter Jackson was the only one capable of taking on these films, unsurprising that he wanted to make them a trilogy, unsurprising that he’d want to connect them into the same film franchise he’s already made, and unsurprising why the first 13 minutes of the film amount to an over-indulgent spectacle oozing with nostalgia (and the extended version is even longer!).
So what other options were there? Let’s muse.
- Jump right in and omit the prologue altogether. Begin the way the novel does—the way your first delightful scene with McKellen and Freeman begins—by dropping Gandalf and 13 dwarves right at our doorstep, and revealing exposition as the plot progresses. Sweep through Bag End with the familiar fiddle-and-flute sounds we know and love, perhaps following Freeman through the house and out the door as he stuffs his pipe full of tobacco before he is joined by the wizard.
- In The Fellowship of the Ring, the prologue is narrated by Galadriel, a seemingly omniscient narrator setting the scene, until we reconnect with her in Lothlorian and the audience gets this wonderful realization that she has laid out the narrative in character, and we realize that she’s introduced us to the shire because she knows that hobbits will soon “shape the fortunes of us all.” Why not have her character introduce The Hobbit narrative in the very same way, since we will be seeing her in Rivendell at the white council? This would avoid the meta-narrative trope of “older Bilbo” while still giving us the information we need on Smaug, Erebor, Thorin, etc…
- Tell the prologue from a dwarf’s perspective—mainly Thorin, or Balin, or even Ori, who was the last dwarf to make record in the Book of Mazarbul, and could very easily be recording events with Balin on their journey to Hobbiton. You could even bring that into the narrative later as a character moment and make a connection with Bilbo, who will of course be recounting his own tale as “There and Back Again.”
- Gandalf narrates while he recounts the events on his way to Hobbiton.
- Frodo narrates the prologue (we got Elijah on board!), reading through his Uncle’s notes like a kid peeking at Christmas presents. He finishes just in time for Uncle Bilbo to tell him to “get his sticky paws off.”
- Martin Freeman as Bilbo pours over maps and his contract with the dwarves in Bag End. He’s going over the plot points with the audience as he debates whether or not to join the company. When the subject of Gandalf arises, that leads into his recalling of the opening “Good Morning!” scene. The plot then catches up as we see Bilbo running out the door after “Misty Mountains Cold” is sung.
Each of these concepts would pose their own set of problems. Introducing the narrative through the eyes of the dwarves, for instance, would rob the main character of ownership to the story. But the route Jackson & Co have chosen, having two different actors play the same character, poses 2 glaring issues. The first is that it disconnects us emotionally and visually from the character when you split him up, because Ian Holmes’s Bilbo already has his own separate narrative apart from Martin Freeman’s. The second issue is that wherever and whenever the story ends, we know we’ll have to revisit this established scene as the other bookend to the narrative. And it’s not that this storytelling aspect can’t and hasn’t worked before, it’s that the meta-narrative concept is completely dropped until the very end of the last film, so it feels disconnected. Ian Holmes doesn’t check in with us for 9 hours. Not once.
The best solution to not having the first half of this film slog therefore, are to either 1.) omit the prologue altogether, or 2.) have Ian Holmes continue the narration throughout the entire trilogy. Option 2 certainly wouldn’t give us the same tone of Rings, but I’d argue that as a good thing. Having an omniscient narrator we know and love come along the journey with us and making comments in all the right moments would deliver a lighter, more whimsical tone closer to the way Tolkien wrote the novel in the first place—probably the same way Bilbo might have told it—with joyful wit and authority.
Now, we finally get to have that chance, but it’s not treated as a full-on meta narrative because Ian Holmes disappears, and AUJ makes the grave error of assuming you already know and care about his character. And let me be clear, I do care very much about Bilbo Baggins in every form he has taken, but this decision doesn’t aid in the storytelling at all, it only hinders it. What it ultimately does is prolong the actual narrative in an effort to force these films at all cost, and sometimes undeservedly so, to sit beside your box set of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, even though the original Hobbit narrative was never meant to live up to such a task.
There Are Far Too Many Dwarves in My Dining Room!
So the actual narrative begins after 13 long, expensive, rather over-stimulating minutes of dragon fire and dwarven lineages and armies and Elijah Wood cameos. Martin and McKellen have wonderful chemistry in their first encounter together (good morning!) and the scene is a joy to watch. The dialogue kept very close to the cheeky and whimsical source material, and the actors gave us a stellar opening to our story. Freeman could not have been more perfectly cast as our hobbit, and I fell in love with Bilbo almost immediately.
In fact, the casting as a whole throughout the entirety of the Tolkien Universe has been marvelous, and though I’m always nervous about the politics of television and actors and contract lengths etc, I’m sure Amazon has clout enough to wrangle up the proper talent for a series based on JRR Tolkien’s work. If not, I’m certainly available for casting.
Speaking of casting, when we get to meet our large cast of dwarves, the segment is rather like the source material, so it flows with a certain organic rhythm.
The Dwarves’ entire character development throughout the rest of the trilogy, however, can be summed up in their entrances (quite like the novel) to Bag End: Balin, Dwalin, Kili, Fili, Thorin (later) and…the rest just fall on top of one another in an unrecognizable blur of prosthetics and fake hair. Okay so Bofer has plenty of wonderful character moments, as do many of them, but having this many members of the party to keep track of poses a challenge to the film-maker and viewer alike. I’m the type of fan who already could name all 13 dwarves off the top of his head, plus had done speculative research about which actors were playing which dwarves, what types of weaponry would they use, and what their designs would be like. But not every person viewing these films is going to want to get on my level.
At the end of the day there is only one major question you need to ask yourself in order to determine whether or not there were too many dwarves to keep track of: what did they want? On an individual level, what did each of these characters want? The only answer to be found across the board for all 13 companions: they want to reclaim Erebor. We are given hardly any individual motives, nothing that might get in a particular character’s way. No disagreements, no hiccups (other than getting there, of course, and battling Smaug when they arrive), so they are all one unit, and that never really changes.
In Fellowship, companions come together from very different backgrounds in order to aid the Ring Bearer on his quest. They all have different ideas of how to get where they are going. They all have different motives as to why they joined the fellowship. Most importantly for the viewers sake, they learn to work as a team along the way and grow together after suffering great loss through conflict. It’s these things that invoke the suspense, drama, and emotion that make Tolkien stories so wonderful to experience.
And yes, The Hobbit, a folktale written for JRR Tolkien’s ten-year-old son as a bedtime story is not going to have near enough emotional complexity as that, but you’ve (addressing Jackson & Co now) elected to “darken up” The Hobbit and draw us back into your complex film universe filled with danger and evil and excitement and political complexity and racial tension. You have a responsibility to create a main cast (other than Bilbo and Gandalf) made of more than just cardboard.
Nobody Tosses The Dwarf!
Okay, if we’re talking Tolkien’s dwarves in the order of their integral plot function in the novel, AUJ goes along pretty well with it: Thorin, Fili, Kili, Balin then the rest…maybe Bomber in the book. But the film obviously can’t hide behind the alliteration and rhyming schemes that group them together, so they needed to flesh out thirteen different heroes and make them all unique, distinguishable, and functional. They all need backstory and relationship dynamics, otherwise the audience won’t want to spend time with them. Yikes that’s an undertaking. And while I appreciate the fun superficial details they added for all 13 dwarves such as Bifer speaking Kaza-dun and Gloin using the same type of weaponry as Gimli… I’d so much rather have sacrificed some number of dwarves in order to streamline the story and lesson the dwarf-recognition-fatigue and over stimulation that so many casual viewers (“we call you normies”) experienced. I know, I know, Tolkien purists everywhere just gasped, but let’s have another thought experiment:
Can we eliminate some of these dwarves based on a super scientific method I used throughout the trilogy I like to call the Scarlett O’Hara experiment? This referring to a quote from George R.R. Martin’s “Not a blog” where he uses Gone with the Wind as an example to address his fans’ concerns about the omission of characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
“How many children did Scarlett O’Hara have? Three, in the novel. One, in the movie. None, in real life: she was a fictional character, she never existed.”
So, based on how many lines each dwarf had, how many close-up reaction shots, overall importance to the plot, plus also whether or not they were cool, useful party members, killed baddies, and, if we gave a shit about their struggle throughout the trilogy, we can make a pretty decent judge of which characters… get the axe.
Here is our Company of Dwarves sans Bilbo and Gandalf…who are not dwarves.
- Thorin: Heir to the throne of Erebor. Leader of the Company. Warrior
- Balin: Wisest in the group and closest confidant to Thorin. Warrior
- Kili: Last in line of Durin. Youngster. Heart throb with impulsive nature. Archer
- Dwalin: Strong leadership qualities but heavyhearted and quick tempered. Tank.
- Fili: First in line after Thorin. Youngster. “gun enthusiast” of the group. Warrior.
- Bofer: Jester with a heart of gold. Comic relief. Minor.
- Oin: Eldest in the group. Healer.
- Dori: Sensitive and thoughtful. The group’s lighthearted moral compass. Dandy.
- Ori: Baby of the group. Useful for jokes, also carried the journal found in the mines of Moria.
- Gloin: Father to Gimli… the “hoarder” of the crew. Warrior.
- Bomber: Fat jokes. Fun ways to play with action sequences. Tinker.
- Nori: Adept at breaking into things and has a cool beard. Lockpick.
- Bifer: Doesn’t speak common tongue, has an axe protruding from his skull. Warrior.
Let me reiterate that I personally don’t find it necessary to cut the company down if you were going to conceptualize them as interesting individuals. However, Jackson & Co elected not to film all the intriguing character backgrounds their actors created for themselves. So let’s say all those below the line, let’s call it the Line of Durin (ha) would be omitted from the film; tossed out of the company. Gloin you say? Gimli’s father? You ruthless braggart, how dare you! Okay, so I wouldn’t cut the character all together, I’d combine aspects of Oin and Gloin into one dwarf and double the moments of John Callen’s enjoyable performance recast as Gloin.
The rest of the dwarves, though they add enjoyable moments and plenty of personality to the story, are superfluous to the plot of the film, and like with Oin and Gloin, their character traits and moments could be divided up amongst the rest of the gang. Maybe you make Dori, who the actor proclaims as the dandy of the group, and also possess Bomber’s hobbit-like appetite, since that’s a direct quote from the book.
“Just when a wizard would have been most useful, too,” groaned Dori and Nori (who shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals, plenty and often).
-The Hobbit p. 30
Maybe Ori, the quiet, bookish dwarve can also speak several languages such as Kaza-dun, which would theoretically serve them well when they are in Goblin Town. 9 dwarves with tons of interesting quirks, skills, and moments over a period of 3 epic adventure films would be a much more manageable party, and would enable us to delve into who each of these characters are other than just their names and which weapon they carry. They’d be more than just walking personality traits, and the script would have more time for Bilbo to uncover their backstories, ideals, inner conflicts, motives, quarrels amongst one another–you know, things that make the fantasy characters we love interesting.
All Good Stories Deserve Embellishment
We also have two complete musical numbers which, Amazon, if you are listening, is SO important in Tolkien storytelling:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.
-“The Music of the Ainur,” The Silmarillion
According to Tolkien, there was God, then the offspring of God, then song. So, you know, let’s have as much music as we can to aid in our storytelling. Jackson & Co have always been good about that.
We probably could have forgone the ridiculous CGI piling of dishes in “Blunt the Knives,” but overall it was fun and silly and worked well to juxtapose the grim mood set by Oakenshield’s arrival. This is followed by one of the most iconic “nerd hymnals” of the last decade second only to the lyricless Game of Thrones theme: The Misty Mountain Hop–errrr–the Misty Mountains Cold. Tolkien describes the song as “deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes;” which is hit perfectly on the head with Armitage’s low baritone voice. Not only is the scene and song moving, but it introduces us to a musical cue that will follow us throughout our journey. In the novel, it’s the song itself that awakens “The Took” inside Bilbo and his thirst for adventure, and personally I think it’s one of the most powerful moments in the Middle Earth Universe.
I Think I’m Quite Ready For Another Adventure.
So the adventure itself finally begins at the 43:30 mark—the length of an entire pilot episode—and ignoring the sluggish pacing, they have accomplished their goal of (re)introducing us back into the Middle Earth universe. They’ve painted thorough circumstances and laid out necessary plot points. They’ve given us good character repartee with Bilbo and Gandalf, and given some recognizable traits to our main dwarves (Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili) and also introduced us to some important items like the key to Erebor and the Arkenstone.
All the while, Martin Freeman is just absolutely killing it as Bilbo. Our titular character is charming and affable and over-polite, but it’s all really only to mask his neurosis about being left the hell alone. He’s already a layered and conflicted character, and he hasn’t even stepped out his front door. If only this tale hadn’t taken so long to get going. I’m ready for a pee break already and we’re still in the Shire. Oh well, we’re finally ready for an adventu–
BUT WAIT. We haven’t had enough exposition, you say? Well how about another super melodramatic expository cut scene to introduce Azog—the big, uninteresting CGI baddy! Let it not be said that Jackson doesn’t “show” rather than “tell.” Actually he does both. Ad nauseum. So Bilbo, Fili, and Kili are told the backstory of Thorin’s relationship with Azog (because Fili and Kili don’t know their own family history?), who murdered his grandfather. This film is PLAGUED with so much exposition that it’s insulting to the words “adventure” and “journey.”
Yes, Radagast is important to Gandalf’s quest later, yes, Azog is important to Thorin’s character in a cliche sense, but piling it all on top of us right now is just too much. We already have the centralized evil of the plot: Smaug. Azog and the Necromancer are delightful appendices, but it’s all just more gravy slowing this film down. The only thing I can say that’s at all interesting is the fact that the orcs speak Black Speech, the language of Mordor. That’s an immersion we can well appreciate and a storytelling detail that’s well placed. In the first hour of the film though, all they’ve really managed to give us (after much delay) is an empathetic main character, a beautiful song, and exhausting CGI homework.
After the campfire and another unnecessary call to action (“There is one I could call king”), they set off for their journey to–
BUT WAIT. We abandon our quest and introduce a separate character, Radagast the Brown, doing a separate thing that deals with a separate evil. Oy. Couldn’t this have waited? Couldn’t we have eliminated the first Radagast scene? Couldn’t we have combined the Azog intro/campfire scene with roast mutton? Couldn’t the sound they heard, what they thought to have been orcs, have been the trolls? Balin says “Thorin has cause more than most to hate orcs,” and we let that just exist on its own for the audience to muse over and then the dwarves realize that the ponies have run off (they all run off in the next segment anyway)? Have the company send Fili, Kili, and Bilbo to go after the ponies and stumble into the troll’s campfire immediately. Done. I just shaved off like 20 extra minutes instead of sitting through another indulgent battle sequence starring characters we don’t care about yet. Get this fucking story moving.
To give this context, my copy of The Hobbit has Roast Mutton on page 27. Chapter II. And when it finally arrives in the film, it’s fantastic. It’s funny and exciting and imaginative and things are, you know, happening to our cast of characters. Again they play it close to the original text and, to nobody’s surprise, it works very well. It’s almost like there’s a pattern here. Now, I’m not a Tolkien purist by any means because I can understand that a director doesn’t just want to be pigeon-holed into word-for-word interpretations whilst working in a completely different medium. But it’s no coincidence that when you stick close to material presented in a literary classic, it translates well.
When Jackson & Co. took creative liberties in the Rings trilogy, it was to condense and aid the main narrative that was already presented. In AUJ, wonderful Segments like “Roast Mutton,” “Riddles in the Dark,” and “A Short Rest,” segments that exhibit Jackson’s imaginative personality in his film-making, have to battle through all this extra weight that don’t add to Bilbo’s story. So instead of the source material in AUJ being augmented and elevated, these great segments stand out in spite of all the film’s meandering fluff.
“Why The Halfling?”…“The Who? Oh Yeah, Him!”
We arrive in Rivendell. It’s as beautiful as we remember it, and it doesn’t feel as jarring and strange when recreated the way the Shire felt. This is perhaps because we are now in the seperate narrative that we’ve been intending to tell, so it ought to feel different in the context of a company of dwarves. And if returning to the elven haven wasn’t enough nostalgia for you, then get a load of this reunion:
The decision is made to have the White Council while in Rivendell, because this film is just moving way too fast. While the White Council is important as far as Tolkien lore is concerned, and does make perfect sense to add into these films, giving us another planning scene with heavy exposition, even with Blanchett, Lee, and Weaving, is just exhausting at this point. In Tolkien’s appendices, we know that the White Council does occur in the time of The Hobbit, but it was meant to happen when Gandalf abandons the party at the edge of Mirkwood. It’s an obvious and interesting adventure for Mithrandir for certain, and one Tolkien intended on expanding on, but the White Council is yet another instance where the greater War of the Ring narrative swallows up poor Bilbo and his story.
Could we not have saved this scene for a later time? Could we maybe establish a trust between the elves and Gandalf that will lead to the White Council, but focus in on our main cast of characters instead? Again Jackson & Co are banking that you’ve already seen the previous installments of the films that actually bothered to engage in character building and action. Within the framework of the film, the story has now become about Gandalf plotting several different schemes in order to protect the realm from the threat of Sauron…but then who is this Bilbo fellow and why is he worth diddly?
The Bilbo we know and love is, has been, and always will be fascinated by elven culture. The dwarves in turn are filled with resentment, or at the very least prejudice towards this particular race. I would have loved to have seen a glimpse of those themes explored deeper than just “their food and music are both dry.” We need to know how Bilbo feels about certain things in order for us to see a deeper connections with the many dwarves we know barely anything about.
Instead, Bilbo takes a backseat to his own story, being referenced to or talked about, rather than experiencing and building relationships. Like in the scene between Galadriel and Gandalf, one of the more touching parts of the film, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the “why the halfling,” line was completely contrived. Bilbo and Galadriel never say a word to each other throughout the entire film, nor do Gandalf and Galadriel go over any plans about Bilbo’s burglar role…so why would she feel the need to ask Gandalf about the halfling? The obvious answer is to fit that lovely moment into the story…but unfortunately for us, the quote comes off as nothing more than a sentimental platitude as it’s drowned out by a lack of substance within the framing of the actual film.
What is Gandalf afraid of? What deeds has Bilbo done to have given Gandalf such swelling inspiration? What adversity has been thrown at them for the audience to relate to other than a “looming threat”? It boils down to this: unless you’ve seen Jackson’s previous Rings trilogy, these scenes carry very little weight.
What Are You Going To Do Now, Wizard?
When the company leaves Rivendell, we get a touching scene with Bilbo and Bofur and I’m wishing so badly that we had more scenes with our dwarves and less “Necromancer Hype.” There’s a wonderful folktale in here somewhere, I know there is! But then we make it to Goblin Town. This could have been a dark and daring escape sequence, heart-pounding and haunting. After all, they’ve decided to give their film a more ominous, gritty feel in order to liken it to the Ring’s trilogy.
Instead, they film the entire sequence behind a green screen and, rather than paralleling Bilbo’s terrifying encounter with Gollum—the highlight of the film—with a daring escape of their own, they juxtapose “Riddles in the Dark” with a mindless, tensionless CGI set piece. The goblins aren’t frightening, threatening, or interesting on any level. They move awkwardly and they feel weightless when they are beat around by the epic dwarf warriors in our suddenly impenetrable company.
Escape from Goblin Town, although fun to view in the same way a Michael Bay film is fun to view, has no risk and no reward. One frame shows a horde of goblins approaching, the next frame presents a solution. Repeat. While, again, it is sort of visually enjoyable to watch and imagine all the fun Jackson & Co had coming up with different ways to kill goblins, it falls flat when compared to Fellowship’s high-stakes, emotional escape through the mines. It comes off as insulting and indulgent when you trap your heroes just for a quick joke and a jab. It gets to the point where Dwalin says “There’s too many of them, we can’t fight them all,” I think to myself, really? You seem to be doing well thus far.
The Goblin Town segment would all be forgivable, excusable, downright enjoyable if it weren’t such a brazen betrayal of a direct quote from Gandalf not twenty minutes earlier in the film:
“True courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one…”
It’s best summed up and articulated thusly:
“If Jackson meant for Gandalf’s comment to highlight Tolkien’s nonviolent ethic… the rest of his film undercuts it—and, indeed, almost parodies it. The scene where Bilbo spares Gollum in the movie comes immediately after an extended, jovially bloody battle between dwarves and goblins, larded with visual jokes involving decapitation, disembowelment, and baddies crushed by rolling rocks. The sequence is more like a bodycount video game than like anything in the sedate novel, where battles are confused and brief and frightening, rather than exuberant eye-candy ballet.”
So the choice to make Goblin Town a virtual theme park ride completely undercuts the value of Bilbo saving Gollum’s life, and renders Gandalf’s quote meaningless. All they had to do was take themselves seriously and that scene with Bilbo hopping over Gollum would have crushed me like…well like the Goblin King crushed the party of dwarves. Create a sense of peril, a sense of risk and remorse when you are in the throes of battle and then those “cool stunt moments” will actually pay off rather than be cause for eye-rolling. The dramatic moments with Bilbo are well produced and well acted, but ultimately betrayed by the need to indulge in violent spectacle.
By making the choice to have all CGI baddies chasing your CGI rendered heroes through a CGI backdrop, you quite literally dehumanize everything and enter the realm of farcical. You might as well have given Howard Shore a break on this and just dubbed Yakety Sax over the scene…oh wait…SOMEONE ALREADY DID THAT. Thanks for making my point for me, internet.
And it seems a waste of such a talent like Barry Humphries when you pretty much insert his character as a visual gag:
“What are you going to do now Wizard?” exclaims the Goblin King. *Gandalf rolls a nat. 20 and slices his stomach open easily.*
“He’s Been Lost Since He Left Home.” Yeah, Same…
Despite its bloated run time and contradicting themes, the film does end on a high note, managing to pull off an exciting and emotional battle sequence in “Out of the Frying Pan.” But it’s by the skin of its teeth. This story’s climax needed to be about Bilbo solving problems in an unconventional, hobbit-like way (*cough* like in the book *cough*) in order to prove his worth to the company. Instead, while we continue our theme of sacrificing subtlety in exchange for pageantry, Bilbo is given this grandiose moment of charging head on, taking on big bad Azog all by his lonesome, and being the hero that literally any of the other dwarves were capable of being because they charged in right after our suddenly fearless hobbit did.
There’s nothing wrong with having an arc where your character is a coward and he learns to be a brave warrior in the face of adversity, but that wasn’t the character you presented us with Bilbo. The real conflict lies between Bilbo and Thorin, and Thorin convincing himself that Bilbo is useless and slow and won’t serve a purpose in the company. And yes, we do get that moment at the end where Thorin accepts him into the company, and yes it is rewarding and emotional and well acted, but it’s slightly unsatisfying to have Bilbo earn his keep in such an un-hobbit-like way.
Like Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread.
At this point, I’m aware that I’m being pretty muddled with my criticisms. But I think that speaks to the overall conflict surrounding these films. I want to love these films as a Tolkien fan, and there are things to love about AUJ in particular, but there are just too many glaring structural issues with these films for them to be considered well done interpretations of Tolkien.
There is also an entire army of stubborn Jackson fanatics that are downright delusional when it comes to The Hobbit Trilogy, and hail AUJ in particular as an undeniable triumph. I sometimes share that same sentiment when it comes to Jackson’s original Rings trilogy (Don’t you DARE try to point out the obvious and tell me Return of the King has too many endings, you monster!) because, well, they’re my favorite films. I love Peter Jackson. I owe him much, as we all do, when it comes to my love for fantasy and taste for modern cinema. But Jackson & Co made a mediocre film with AUJ, and it was overall met with (deserved) middling results. Much of it was out of their hands, yes, but so much of these bad film making decisions could have been avoided by taking a more minimalist approach and just focusing on the story Tolkien was trying to tell.
Looking back on this Trilogy, the biggest compliment you can give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that when compared to the next two installments, it isn’t that terrible. It’s a film that can be fun at times, but ultimately gets crushed under the needless attempt to be compared to its predecessors. Themes like “home” and “fitting in” and “compassion over violence” are touched upon but never explored more than a convenient monologue to transition into a new segment.
For lighter fans of Tolkien, this film is a fun romp that will at times put a smile on your face. For obsessive Tolkien buffs, it’s a grave insult. But this film made a shit ton of money—like, a whole troll chest full of it—and as far as Amazon making more Tolkien content, I’m a bit worried they’ll put profit before all else. See because this movie, while thematically flawed, and weighed down with gratuitous exposition, does still possess the same entertainment factor found in many of its kind of pop-culture blockbusters, and so people indulge, enjoy, and defend its right to take the paperback it claims to base itself upon and dial it up to 11.
But strap in, because AUJ only covers chapters 1-7 in the books.
To be continued in part II…