My recent replay of “GoldenEye N64” has brought James Bond, my tried and true problematic fave, back to mind. I had begun informally revisiting the Roger Moore films with a pair of snarky recaps, but those are sort of the low-hanging fruit of the franchise for feminist critique.
Instead, I decided to turn my attention to my James Bond: Pierce Brosnan. Being an ‘89 baby, he was the first face I remembered thanks to his 1995 debut. And probably for that reason, I felt as though he was the best of the bunch: he had Connery’s suaveness without the abrasive misogyny, he could handle the lighter scenes without being a Moore-esque goof, and there was an overall air of competence and physicality.
Having already spent a fair amount of time thinking about Goldeneye, I decided instead to focus on my second favorite film of his: The World is Not Enough. Or at least, it was my second favorite the last time I thought about this. After rewatching it, I’m really not sure why. Let me take you on a journey to try and explain.
But it is such a perfect place to start, my love
We open to Bond and his very professional looking glasses strutting down the streets of Bilbao, Spain. He’s led to a meeting in a bank, where he is searched (and yes, he was packing heat). “If you can’t trust a Swiss banker, what’s the world come to?” But…you brought the gun…so…
The main banker, Lachaise, is blathering about how he’s being honorable by returning “Sir Robert’s” money to Bond, after taking out appropriate convenience charges. His assistant, who is horrifyingly credited as “Cigar Girl” because she offered one to Bond, hands our agent a paper and asks if he’d like to check her figures. “Oh, I’m sure they’re perfectly rounded,” he answers, in this kind of weird, breathless way that makes you wonder of Bond might have some sort of sex-addiction problem. She rolls her eyes and you can tell that this isn’t the first time she’s been creeped on at work.
The money Lachaise retrieved had been lost when Sir Robert King tried to buy a report that was stolen from an MI6 agent, who died because of it. Bond is under the impression that the banker would have insight into who killed the guy, and keeps making bizarre insults at the man for being Swiss. Lachaise points out that he’s just a middle-man in the situation, so Bond presses a little button on his glasses that makes his gun fire (it was randomly sitting on the table after his frisk), and in the confusion, takes down every guard. Then after pointing his gun at Lachaise’s head, the dude is like “oh well now that you mention it I know just who killed the MI6 agent” (how.), but oh no, someone throws a knife into the back of his neck before he can talk. The clompy heels let us know it’s Cigar Girl, who is definitely dressing for the job she wants, not the one she has. As you know, a secret-assassin.
Bond can’t chase her though, since the whole kurfuffle drew the attention of the local police, so he has to shut himself inside the room. One of the henchmen he took out pops back up, but someone outside the building has a sniper scope on him, and kills him before he can hurt Bond. I think it’s also supposed to be Cigar Girl, since Bond runs to the window immediately after that happens (like anyone would do with an active sniper…), and the camera pans from building-to-building while the clompy heel sound effect continues.
The police knock on the outside of the door, and Bond gets the brilliant idea to rip a cord from the window, and tie it to one of the henchmen lying on the ground. Then he grabs the briefcase full of money, smashes the window, and leaps off the balcony, like one does. And luckily for him the cord was exactly the right length, and he didn’t go plunging to his death.
Normally this necktie-adjusting-moment comes at the end of a pre-title sequence, but no, we’re transported to MI6 Headquarters in London. There’s a very odd scene of Bond personally stacking money into a vault and looking very pleased with himself, before he heads Moneypenny. It’s super charming and very clear that they both skipped the HR training on sexual harassment in the workplace. Before horrible cigar-puns get out of hand, M calls Bond into her office, where she and Sir Robert King are giggling with each other. He thanks Bond for getting his money back, and then runs off so that he can go touch it too.
M gushes about how smart her friend is, until Bond points out that they just had to send him to go recover over three million pounds for the guy thanks to his blackmarket report-purchasing habit. But then M is like, “oh yeah, this report right here!” so… Does that mean they just helped Sir Robert steal the thing? Why does he get the money back for this?
Turns out it’s a stolen report from the Russians that King thought might help him identify terrorists attacking a pipeline he’s trying to build. Which is more or less the plotline of this movie: Oil Tycoon.
“Interesting,” Bond says, scooping ice into his drink, “But it doesn’t exactly explain why somebody would want me out of their office alive.”
See, both he and M think it was really shady that Cigar Girl helped him escape, and yet apparently they didn’t bother double checking the suitcase full of cash to make sure it wasn’t bugged, or I don’t know, FULL OF EXPLOSIVES?
Yeah, it’s the latter, which Bond finds out when the ice he held starts frothing. At least his alcoholism can be useful from time to time. He jumps up and runs out of the room, while M gets on the intercom and says “Moneypenny, stop King.” But she does jack-all, and Bond can’t run across this ridiculously large building with annoying automatic doors in time, so Sir Robert steps into the vault and the thing blows.
Bond runs to survey the damage, which includes a major chunk of the exterior wall missing, but oh no! Cigar Girl is on a boat chilling on River Thames, this time rockin’ a sweet action-leather suit (now this is how to dress for the job), and she’s pointing her sniper mark at Bond. I wonder if she used Expedia to be able to have beaten back an MI6 agent like this. I also wonder if she knows that she’s the only lead, so maybe turning up and being super obvious wasn’t the best play?
Bond ducks the bullets and then runs through the building in a different direction, where he find’s Q’s office. There just happens to be a boat there on a water track that leads out the building.
So we get one of those great James Bond boat chase sequences! There’s shortcuts across London streets and fiery explosions, though I’m still a little haunted from the days of Billy Bob to truly enjoy this.
Cigar Girl realizes that Bond is going to catch her (why did you come??), so she tries to get away by hijacking a hot air balloon. Unfortunately the million dangly ropes make them the worst get-away vehicle, confirmed when Bond leaps from his boat and grabs hold of one. Cigar Girl realizes she’s done for and moves to shoot the propane tank. Bond is all, “I can protect you, don’t do this!” but she says, “Not from him” and blows it up, while he lets go and falls to a rooftop in what is somehow not his death.
This might feel like a dead end for some, but “him” is a pretty big clue in Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.
Title sequence time! The clever visual motif is oil, while Garbage reminds me that this is a 90s flick still.
Professionalism in the workplace
Time for a Scottish funeral, featuring Bond in a sling! It’s for Sir Robert, and M brought the entire MI6 squad, because that’s appropriate. Charles Robinson, the Deputy Chief of Staff, apparently forgot to read his briefing since Bond has to tell him that the girl M is hugging is King’s daughter, Elektra. All things considered, it was a rather nice atmospheric scene. There’s even bagpipes playing.
Post-funeral festivities include a briefing at MI6’s Scottish headquarters about the attack on their building. Wow, Sir Robert’s funeral must have been thrown together really quickly if they’re only now getting to this. Bill Tanner explains that King’s lapel pin was a replica with a radio transmitter in it that caused the boom (science?), which means there was an insider. Then the genius Deputy says:
“We know it was someone close to King, and our only lead committed suicide on that balloon. But given the size of King’s organization…it could be anyone, anywhere.”
Everyone has access to the dude’s pins?
But horror of horrors! Crashing onto a roof and dislocating a collarbone means that Bond is on the inactive roster. So he does the only logical thing and fucks the MI6 doctor to get her to agree to fake medical information for him. And luckily, Dr. Molly Warmflash (yup.) doesn’t give a shit about ethics or the fact that these two have clearly fucked before. I’m starting to wonder if there is no HR department.
Bond swings by Q-branch so that he can see Desmond Llewelyn off, who introduces him to his successor, John Cleese. Oh the simple times, where the Bond franchise was fond of levity. Gadget of very specific function from the scene: a jacket that envelops the wearer in a giant padded snowball.
And finally to cap off his busy day, Bond decides to do some very basic research on Sir Robert King and his history with MI6, which leads him to all these files on that time Elektra King was kidnapped by a terrorist and ransom money was demanded. The exact same amount of money as was in the briefcase that blew-up.
Bond goes to M who locked the files on the kidnapping and asks for the full story. Elektra was kidnapped, Sir Robert asked for M’s help, the British don’t negotiate with terrorists so rather than pay the ransom they tried to find the guy responsible. I’m not really sure he needed an unlocked file to piece this one out.
We then get yet another MI6 briefing on the terrorist/kidnapper Renard, who they refer to as “the anarchist.” This is never in evidence, and as you’ll see, the guy’s entire scheme revolves around market profit.
After the kidnapping, 009 shot the anarchist in his head, and Molly Warmflash literally just pops her ass into the meeting at the perfect moment to explain how Renard is still alive. The bullet is apparently traveling down his medulla oblongata and will eventually kill the guy, but until then he’s losing his sense of touch and smell so he can “push himself harder, longer than any normal man.” For some reason he’s not losing sight or hearing too, and my 3-second Google search that told me how the medulla oblongata contains the control centers for the heart and lungs is apparently irrelevant. Dude can’t feel pain, so that makes him scarier. Cool.
M says that Renard already got his revenge by killing King and humiliating MI6, but Bond points out Elektra could also be in danger. Then Moneypenny conveniently pops her ass into the meeting to tell M how Bond’s off the inactive roster, while trying to shame Warmflash for fucking him.
No one cares, so Bond gets sent off to Azerbaijan (after M feels the need to tell him not to fuck the woman he’s assigned to protect, because that shouldn’t be a given or anything), where Elektra is overseeing a pipeline’s construction.
Then my father was wrong
The villagers are protesting, but Elektra King basically flips off her security staff and shows up anyway. Bond watches and is moderately impressed as she and a priest have a meeting in Azeri, where she agrees not to build a pipeline through their church. When she passes on this information to her foreman, he’s all like “but your father approved this route!” and then for some reason looks to her Chief of Security (Davidov) to get that crazy woman in-line. Uh guy, she’s the sole owner now, isn’t she? Elektra doesn’t care though, and says in so many words that her father was an idiot.
And yes, to be clear, as I’m writing about her here now, I realize I’m low-key stanning her.
She then gets yet another doofus to deal with, this time in the form of Bond, who tells her she “may be in danger.” She laughs in his face and points out that she’s currently overseeing a new pipeline through the Middle East (and has very serious competitors), she just had to deal with a riot, and her father was murdered like two days ago, but thanks for the info.
But not so fast! There’s survey lines to check (for what, exactly?). She and Bond set out on a grand skiing adventure. Apparently the strong winds dictate that the helicopter can’t land, and also can’t get anywhere near their destination. So we’re treated to a solid few minutes of Bond and Elektra skiing while happy music plays.
Then we learn that her father really was a fucking idiot, because he built his pipeline over a glacier. Did no one explain to him that they flow?
Bond: So this is where they meet, the two ends of the pipeline. Your father’s legacy.
Elektra: My family’s legacy, to the world.
Honestly, I don’t blame her for the clarification. Turns out it was her mother’s family who discovered the oil here, so her dad was more of the project admin guy. Who did not consult with a single engineer. It also turns out that Elektra’s only goal in this excursion was to be able to stand and look at the spot where the pipelines join for three seconds.
They’re interrupted when a few parahawks with gun-toting pilots drop by. Bond orders Elektra to split off from him so that he can draw them into the trees. What follows is a fairly decent ski-chase scene (ah, The Spy Who Loved Me flashbacks), with fairly decent music, and mercifully no snowboarding.
He outmaneuvers all the parahawks and meets back up with Elektra, but turns out causing them to explode in an area with avalanche warnings can be a little risky. One comes to gobble them, but luckily Bond has that coat-of-very-specific-function and shields them inside a snowball. Then he calms Elektra down from a panic attack and the two climb out.
Okay, pause. I’m sorry to say, I have to ruin the movie for you right here, because it is impossible to explain these events without knowing it. Elektra is the bad guy! Boom! She is actually in love with Renard, her kidnapper (or it later gets implied that she turned him?), and the two are teaming up with the nefarious plan of stealing weapons-grade plutonium and blowing up Istanbul, because that’s where all of her competitors’ pipelines run through. Then her pipeline will be the best pipeline. Really, it’s not that dissimilar to Kananga’s soul food/opium plan: Elektra wants to control the market to be able to jack up prices. Renard, the anarchist, is apparently into helping her achieve this goal. Oh and also she hates her dad and MI6 for doing diddly squat when she had been kidnapped.
The first time through, this reveal is fairly decent, but on rewatch everything becomes nearly incomprehensible. Bond is the assigned MI6 agent, and he showed her that they know King’s lapel pin was switched, so everything that happens from there on out has to be viewed as Elektra manipulating him to seem innocent. Faking a panic attack to seem weaker is actually clever.
However, we learn that these parahawks belong to the Russian Atomic Energy Department (let’s just call it “RAED”). If you need a refresher, they’re the dudes that wrote the report that was stolen and purchased by King. They’ve also got a scientist named Doctor Arkov who is working with Renard (and therefore Elektra), who we later learn provided these parahawks for this operation.
So, okay, there’s the RAED who had a report identifying terrorists that attacked King’s newest pipeline (which I think was just a separate attack by competitors?), and Renard has teamed up with their scientists. Then 009 stole the report and was killed by Renard’s people, so that Renard could turn around and sell it to Sir Robert King for the exact same amount as he had demanded in ransom for Elektra years ago, probably to prove a point that the guy was willing to shell out for his company but not his daughter. And somehow a Swiss Banker living in Spain employing a Cuban woman got hold of the money again, while King also received the report.
The only rationale for hiring the parahawks for Team Renard/Elektra (Team Drill Baby Drill) in this moment was to make her look more innocent to Bond? Or to kill the MI6 dude who showed up and began poking his nose around? And she was totally fine with this taking place as she was skiing in an area known for avalanches? Because she could have really easily died, especially if Bond didn’t have a coat with a specific function that no one would have guessed existed. She’s just really committed to this duplicity, I guess. Or maybe it’s part of her whole thrill-seeking nature, since her catchphrase is “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive.”
The Night Shift
We’re next treated to a scene of Elektra begging Bond to have the sex while Davidov and her security staff sulk outside her room. Bond turns her down, and then heads to a casino where he dons stupid looking sunglasses that serve as x-rays, which he uses to ogle the women in the room—I mean, to cleverly pin some rando to a counter with his own knife so that Valentin Zukovsky (from Goldeneye!) will agree to see him. Even though the guy had no reason not to see him.
Bond shows Valentin a piece of one of the parahawks from earlier, and the guy identifies it as RAED’s seal (you’d think a British secret agent who we later learn speaks Russian might have been able to do that, but whatever). We also meet Mr. Bullion, Valentin’s adorable henchman who doesn’t trust banks.
I guess this was necessary for Bond to confirm Renard being behind the parahawk attack, or in bed with the RAED, or something. But before Valentin gets into the finer points of Renard working “freelance” now (a freelance terrorist? Is that a thing?), Elektra waltzes her ass into the casino, because she wants to play a really, really fun card game with Valentin. Or wait, no, she gives Bond this reason:
Bond: What are you doing here?
Elektra: The same thing you are. Looking for the people who tried to kill me.
What kind of casino is this, exactly?
Valentin invites her to sit at her father’s chair, and keep his gambling credit line of one million US dollars, and Elektra thinks this is nifty. The game? One card, highest wins.
Elektra loses and Bond gets sad, even though there’s really no reason for him to care what the oil tycoon does with her money. Then she skips back out of the casino, and asks Bond to have the sex again. He agrees, because it has been a whole fifteen minutes so circumstances totally changed. Elektra has an ice kink, and Bond thinks her story of survival from her kidnapping is pretty cool.
We’re also treated to a scene of Davidov and RAED scientist Dr. Arkov meeting with Renard, and if I hadn’t already told you the plot of the movie, this would have been shocking. So let me spoil something else: Renard has teamed up with Arkov because this Russian nuclear scientist gives him the cred he needs to be able to steal a nuclear bomb from a Russian military base in Kazakhstan, where the International Decommissioning Agency is currently working. So this guy is rather crucial to the entire operation. Davidov is some rando who oversaw Operation Almost-Kill Elektra, who fucked up by not actually killing Bond. If that’s what the point of that was.
Arkov points out how the parahawks were supposed to be returned, and that people might ask questions of him, so “maybe we should scrub the rest of the mission.” Because of this completely reasonable and mild hesitation, Renard decides his best play is to shoot Arkov and have Davidov impersonate him, because why would the International Decommissioning Agency verify the identity of the dude who they’re giving a nuclear weapon to? Brilliant. I wonder if Arkov knew that the end goal was to create an oil monopoly.
This plan gets even dumber when Bond, sneaking out of Elektra’s bed, follows Davidov, kills him, and decides to impersonate him impersonating Arkov.
He lucks out in that a) Renard is not there himself, and b) Renard’s henchmen also don’t care about verifying identities, even though they were outright told Davidov would be replacing Arkov.
Henchman: What happened to Davidov? I was told to expect him.
Bond: He was buried with work.
Bond is taken to a Russian military jet, where the men on-board ask for “the grease.” Turns out they are new pairs of sneakers, and that explains the Russian involvement, or something.
They land at the ICBM base in Kazakhstan, and Bond—err, “Dr. Arkov”—is introduced to Denise Richards…I mean, an atomic physicist named “Dr. Christmas Jones.” And boy does Denise play the part of a rocket scientist convincingly.
Colonel Akakievich (commanding officer at the site): Don’t bother. Not interested in men. Take my word for it. This year we decommissioned four test sites. Not even a glimmer.
Christmas Jones: (to Bond) Are you here for a reason? Or are you just hoping for a glimmer?
She checks Bond’s paperwork while he asks basic questions about nuclear testing sites that give away his ignorance on the subject, and then he skips down into the underground testing chamber. There, Renard and his buddies (with their new sneakers) are in the process of taking an atomic bomb. Glad the Decommissioning Agency and Russian military let them go ahead and start that process before the RAED scientist who placed this order even showed up.
Bond is able to attack Renard and holds him at gunpoint, while the guy does that thing all Bond-villains do and explains the plot.
Renard: I did spare your life at the banker’s office. That’s right. I couldn’t kill you. You were working for me. You delivered the money, killed King. Now you brought me the plane.
He also tells Bond that Elektra is going to die in 20 minutes if a “certain phone call isn’t made,” and proceeds to brag about how he got to rape her during the kidnapping fun times. Bond figures he’s bluffing and goes to kill him anyway, though as he’s about to, Renard pulls out Elektra’s catchphrase too.
Also, a wild Christmas appears with the colonel. She figured out that the guy who knew nothing about atomic testing sights isn’t actually a nuclear physicist, so she Google image-searched Arkov, unlike every other person on the site. Bond tries to explain how Renard’s men are the imposters stealing the bomb, and Colonel Akakievich thinks everything is shady enough to ask everyone to get up to the surface. Renard and his people begin murdering everyone, even though Bond had just got done telling him “firefight will bring down half the army from above.” Lucky for them this never happens.
Bond grabs Christmas Jones and leaps into a pit in the middle of the room, and despite the fact that they’re being shot at and a terrorist is trying to steal an atomic bomb, she is entirely fixated on figuring out who Bond really is. It’s odd; she more or less acts as if she sees this shit every day.
Cue an action montage where Bond fails to stop the theft of the bomb, and Renard attached a bomb to the underside of the elevator so that as he goes to the surface, it detonates (did he know this was going to happen? Was he planning on blowing up the place anyway?). Bond hops onto a little pully and rides ahead of this giant explosion, while Christmas watches with mild interest until he tells her to close the door.
Then the two escape the exploding building while she continues to hound him for his name. I appreciate her ability to multitask, but is this really the time for that?
Oh, also, one of Renard’s men removed the locator card from the bomb so they can’t track it. This is very important to the plot later.
Doesn’t exactly take a degree in nuclear physics
Bond goes back to Elektra’s digs and accuses her of having Stockholm Syndrome because Renard found her catchphrase nifty. Oh, also, there was a moment where he grabbed Bond’s shoulder and it hurt him, because remember how the guy is injured and shouldn’t have been on the active roster?
Elektra: So he knew where to hurt you, is that it? You had a sling on your arm at the funeral. And I didn’t have to sleep with you to find that out.
I really hate that he’s right about her, because she makes exceedingly good points and calls him disgusting for assuming she’d fall in love with her rapist due to a few words. I also forgot to mention, but while he was gone, she video conferenced M to tell her that Bond fucked her and left her and she’s scared, so M is en route.
Elektra begins shaming Bond for using her as bait to get to Renard, just like her father and MI6 did before, and God, why did movie have to take this set-up and instead go in the direction of “oh Elektra is actually the bad one, and she won Renard to her cause (not the other way around) because she thinks her father is the pits”? Whatever, she gets a very conveniently-timed phone call about an attack on her pipeline, so she and Bond head to a pipeline control center where M meets up with them. She and Elektra headnod at each other.
Bond hands M the locator card (important) and tells M his suspicions that Elektra is the lapel-switching insider.
M: She kills her father and attacks her own pipeline? Why? To what end?
For some ungodly reason Christmas Jones is hanging out at this King Industries center, and tells them that there’s no sign of the bomb in the area (what?).
But oh no, there’s an unresponsive observation rig inside the pipeline, and Bond deduces that Renard stuck the bomb on it. “So now do you believe me?” Elektra asks him. Smooth, very smooth.
Bond decides that he’s going to go deactivate the bomb by hopping onto an observation rig himself, and Christmas volunteers to come with him since she actually knows how to do that and he doesn’t. They get inside the pipe and Christmas takes the controls, since operating it “doesn’t exactly take a degree in nuclear physics.”
The bomb catches up to them, and Christmas goes to defuse it, once again being cool as a cucumber.
Bond: You’ve defused hundreds of these, right?
Christmas: Yeah, but they’re usually standing still.
Bond: Yeah, well, life’s full of small challenges.
She notes that half the plutonium is missing so it can’t “go nuclear”, but there’s plenty to still kill them if the triggering charge goes off. Bond tells her not to deactivate it, and two jump off the rig which they let explode.
Back at the control center, we find out that the charge blew up a 50-yard section of the pipe. With Bond supposedly dead, Elektra decides now is a great time to show M her father’s real lapel pin and reveal that SHE WAS THE INSIDE WOMAN. MWAHAHA!
Turns out she wasn’t thrilled with M’s “let Elektra rot” advice during the kidnapping, and meant for the bomb that killed her father to take M out as well. However, she realized that she could use Bond as another chance to murder her, because she…foresaw that he would ditch her after sex and M would be willing to fly to meet her out of guilt?
We cut back to Bond and Christmas climbing out of the pipe, Bond patting himself on his back for faking his death. Christmas is confused why Renard only put half the plutonium in the pipeline, and pulls out this little bitty metal box, which supposedly contains 6 kilos of the stuff. This confuses me, because if she is holding the plutonium, that means she took away the stuff that would have made the explosion really bad. Sure, the triggering charge blasted 50 yards of pipe away, but had she and Bond truly failed to deactivate the bomb, wouldn’t a lot more of it have been damaged? So shouldn’t Elektra know that something was really fishy?
Bond remembers the one loose end: that time that Elektra happily wrote Valentin a check for one million dollars in the world’s worst card came. If they had just rigged a round of blackjack instead, I wonder if Bond would have been stumped. As usual, Christmas doesn’t seem to give a shit about anything but Bond’s backstory.
Christmas: By the way, before we go any further, I just wanna know… What’s the story with you and Elektra?
Bond: We’re strictly plutonic. What’s your story? What are you doing here in Kazakhstan?
Christmas: Avoiding those kind of questions, just like you.
I really want an alternate version of this script where she’s like, “I’m decommissioning nuclear weapons? For my job?? You met me at the test site I was cleaning???”
However, in this version, she needs to get the plutonium back or someone is going to “have her ass.” Is there a reason she’s responsible instead of the Russian military who didn’t bother to vet the people that wanted to take the bomb?
The insurance company is never going to believe this
They go to track down Valentin in his cavier factory (oh, did I forget to mention that’s his business now?), while Renard and Elektra reunite in Istanbul. He lets her rub some plutonium, and then she shows him how she stuck M in a cell.
He and M have a nice little chat about who is more to blame for Elektra being all murdery, and then he tells her that the entire city is going to die. He then sticks a clock on a stool just out of reach and tells M to “watch the hands” because shit is going down at noon the next day. Once he leaves the room, M discovers that she has the bomb locator card in her pocket! This becomes an entire subplot, as she finds a cane in her cell (?), which she tries to use to drag the stool with the clock towards her.
But it’s not like this is her only play and the entire fate of Istanbul is in her hands, so naturally she gets impatient and knocks the entire thing over. Wrecked.
Bond and Christmas arrive at the caviar plant in his super-conspicuous car, because what’s the good in faking your own death if you don’t undermine it right away? We then learn that Mr. Bullion is actually working for Elektra, and he calls her to let her know the situation.
She’s in bed with Renard who is pissy that she enjoyed the sex she had with Bond. This was a much needed scene. She orders Bond dead.
Back at caviar-ville, Bond for some reason orders Christmas to sit on a couch and look alluring for Valentin, even though the guy would have walked into the room anyway. Before the two men can discuss the million dollar payoff, a bunch of King helicopters with tree-trimming blades show up to murder them. The wharves get torn up, Bond’s car is sawed in half, and somehow Valentin ends up falling into a tub of his own caviar where he almost drowns even though that stuff is mega-salty. Still, it was a useful plot-device to get Valentine talking. And we learn that Christmas eats her caviar with sour cream!
We also learn that the payoff was thanks to Valentine’s nephew in the navy smuggling machinery for Elektra. They gang sets off to Istanbul to check in on good ol’ Nephew Nikolai at the Federal Security Bureau’s office. They piece together that the dude was delivering a submarine to her, which is where they’re going to jam in the plutonium and create a nuclear explosion “making it all look like an accident” and wiping out the competing pipelines. What an unnecessarily complicated get-rich-quick scheme for an already-rich lady. Or is this about revenge? Or the supremacy of Azerbaijani oil, because Elektra feels more connected to her mother’s side of the family?
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
I hope the clock subplot was keeping you on the edge of your seat. Elektra pops into M’s cell and says “Good morning” before realizing that she had literally no reason to do that.
Before she leaves again, M asks her what the time is, and Elektra helpfully puts the clock on the bars of M’s cell before peacing out. M then connects the locator card of the bomb to the wires inside the clock (that’s convenient) while epic music plays, even though the only thing we’re watching is a septuagenarian pulling out a battery.
This makes something go beep at the Federal Security Bureau’s office, and Bond, Valentin, and Christmas learn that it’s coming from Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul. To add three seconds of tension, Mr. Bullion tries to murder them all with a bomb; Bond and Christmas get away, only to be captured three seconds later by Bullion, and it sort of looks like Valentin died.
Meanwhile, at Maiden’s Tower, Renard tricked Nephew with poisoned snacks! The entire crew is dead, so now they’ve got the sub and the plutonium. He goes to say goodbye to Elektra, who’s about leave the city by helicopter (she’s kind of cutting it close), and they have a kind of awkward make-out session. Cute.
She heads inside to find Bond and Christmas. Despite the fact that the entire city is about to blow up anyway, Elektra orders Christmas to be taken to Renard, but not before talking about how she and Bond were former lovers. I guess this love triangle is slightly less terrible than the one between Bond, Moneypenny, and Dr. Warmflash.
Then she has Bond shoved into a torture chair with a neck-breaking garrotte in it.
Elektra toys with him for a bit before revealing that she turned Renard with her evil ways!
Elektra: I’ve always had a power over men. When I realized my father wouldn’t rescue me from the kidnappers, I knew I had to form another alliance.
Bond: You…turned Renard.
Elektra: Just like you, only you were even easier.
I have no clue what to make of this. We could chalk it up to her point-of-view bias, though the narrative seems to want us to take it at face value, since it’s followed up by the reveal that Renard wouldn’t hurt her to “make it look real,” so she cut off of piece of her ear herself. I guess we can talk about the power-dynamics between a kidnapper and his victim, though it does very much seem as though she did all of the planning for this operation and Renard just did the leg-work for her, so I just…I don’t know. It’s the James Bond franchise; of course the first true female villain is a wily femme fatale with a past trauma that’s entirely unexplored (and even discounted).
Pierce Brosnan sells the hell out of a dude about to get his neck broken, though. Oh and at some point Elektra is all “I could have given you the world,” and Bond responds with the name of the movie, which is also a callback to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s actually (“Orbis non Sufficit”), and it’s so awkwardly delivered that I half-expected Ron Howard to pop up and go “hey, that’s the name of the movie!”
There’s sudden gunshots, and Valentin storms in looking “for a sub. It’s big and black, and the driver is a good friend of mine.” Elektra just fucking shoots him, but as he’s on the ground about to die, he aims his walking stick/gun (don’t ask) very, very, very slowly at Bond, and fires, breaking one of the arm cuffs. Despite this being wildly deliberate, Elektra just shrugs and assumes it’s all fine, which she tells Renard over a walkie-talkie.
Bond frees himself, grabs a gun, and begins to chase Elektra up some stairs, pausing to free M from her cell. Once he catches the lady, he orders her to call off Renard through the walkie. She says into the speaker, “Renard… DIVE, Bond is—” and Bond fucking shoots her to stop the warning.
Now, I have to imagine Renard heard this? But he doesn’t question it, so he lowers the submarine below water, while Bond does a beautiful swan dive, and boards the thing. Once there, he finds a guard and demands to be taken to Christmas. Oh right, she’s a thing.
He comes up with the plan to raise the sub to the surface so that it’ll show up on satellites and “bring out the navy,” but unfortunately the genius pulls the levers in the wrong direction, forcing the sub to take a nosedive to the bottom of the Bosphorus Strait. Like, we have seen Roger Moore of all people successfully steer a sub.
The impact with the bottom causes things to flood, because Bond messed up that badly. Meanwhile, Renard turned the plutonium into a rod that can fit inside the reactor, and if he shoves it into the reactor, everything blows up. I have no clue if the rest of his crew knows that this is his plan, but it’s nice of them to have come along for the ride if soo. He locks himself inside the sub’s reactor, and we’re treated to an action sequence that revolves around Bond swimming outside the sub to a hatch, and Christmas having to press a button as the room she’s in floods.
Once inside the reactor, Bond and Renard fight for a bit, and then Bond finally reveals that he killed Elektra.
Bond: Are you really gonna commit suicide for her?
Renard: You forget, I’m already dead.
Bond: Haven’t you heard? So is she.
Despite this being obvious thanks to the previous walkie-talkie incident, Renard flies into a rage, gets the better of Bond (thanks to the guy’s dislocated collarbone), and locks him under a grate. To be fair, it’s not like Renard can call this off at this point, he is legitimately going to die with the bullet in his head anyway, and maybe the person slated to inherit King Industries after Elektra is like some COO she was really fond of or something.
As Renard goes to shove the plutonium stick into the reactor, Bond luckily finds that right next to him is a digital pad that controls whether or not reactor rods can go shooting out. I shit you not.
He activates it and fires the rod through Renard, killing him. “She’s waiting for you.” That was actually more on the touching side of things, considering.
However, between the sub’s crash landing and whatever the fuck sticking the rod in that far did in the first place, the hydrogen level is “too high” and the sub is about to blow. Bond and Christmas make their way to the torpedo bay and launch themselves to the surface. Mission fucking accomplished.
It’s a James Bond movie, so all that’s left is the celebratory scene where M tries to thank him, but Bond is too busy fucking to accept the call! This one features Christmas puns.
Bond: Always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey.
Christmas: Was that a Christmas joke?
Bond: From me? No. Never.
Christmas: So isn’t it time you unwrap your present?
See, he and Christmas changed into formal-wear and poured themselves glasses of champagne without bothering to make contact with MI6 to confirm that they’re alive. So reasonably freaked out, M, Bill Tanner, Moneypenny, and John Cleese use a body heat scanner to find him. And catch him in the act. Oh tsk tsk.
Then the movie closes on the best exchange in cinematic history.
Bond: I was wrong about you.
Christmas: Yeah? How so?
Bond: I thought Christmas only comes once a year.
Aaaand that’s the show!
To the job in hand
I can’t believe I’m saying this…I found myself missing the Roger Moore films. Sure, the racism and sexism of those were an anvil to the head, but at least that made it obvious to spot. I’d think even the most closed-minded individual would find the film with the premise of “all black people are evil” concerning.
With this? It was the first Bond film that attempted to give us a female antagonist, but it did so through concerning tropes, a lack of follow-through on rather heavy subjects floated, and, as usual, a plot that is more and more illogical the longer you think about it. I will give a half-hearted clap for their attempts to make Denise Richard’s character useful, and a full golf-clap for a guilt-driven M.
But can we please get another attempt at a Bond film with a woman as the antagonist? Or with a woman as Bond? Or a woman in the writing room? Anything?
Okay, maybe not anything.
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…