I recently watched ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ just before watching some gameplay of World Of Warcraft and something clicked. My criticisms of the movie were based on assumptions from the ‘old’ way of watching movies and it should really be viewed in a different light, the same way colour film had to viewed differently to black and white films. So why do I think ‘The Hobbit’ is more videogame than movie?
The Hobbit was originally a short(ish) book that has been adapted into a new trilogy, being implicitly marketed as an extended prologue to ‘Lord of The Rings’. Like many people, I was skeptical at this quite obvious cash grab by the studios forcing moviegoers to pay three times for the same story. Then the HFR (High Frame Rate) used in the movies, originally meant to be an experiment on the frontiers of new cinema technology, failed to excite audiences, making action seem fake and the sets look cheap. I didn’t like the HFR either but there was one thing that I never stopped to think about. Rather than criticising The Hobbit for looking like a videogame, why not accept the fact that is does and recognise that maybe movies and video games have more in common than we think.
In the book, each chapter is laid out as traps that Bilbo gets the gang out of. In the movie though these scenes take on a different character, much less prosaic but just as funny with a greater focus on action and slapstick than wit (At the end of the day, a movie relies on action after all). If you frame the movie as a video game like experience then, The Hobbit makes more sense stylistically and narratively. There are so many examples where I have given The Hobbit an out for these reasons. Where did all the orcs suddenly come from in the river scene? How do the dwarves suddenly make a fire in the mines? Even the critical moments of the story play out like end of level bosses. The spiders, the Orcs in Laketown and the biggest boss of them all, Smaug at the end.
According to the logic of cinema these are major continuity errors takes away the suspension of disbelief, but in the case of ‘The Hobbit’ the High Frame Rate has already done this, so you’re left with a fake looking film that’s fun or a fake looking film that isn’t. Thankfully its the former and to be honest, all the better for it as it allows the characters to just be fun with each of their little vignettes in the same way videogame characters grow on you in the cutscenes, despite the fact that they look like awkward walking squares.
Stylistically its the vast size and ambition of the scenes that make it feel like a video game, as well the copious use of CGI and its HFR that remove any motion blur from the action, playing out like a perfectly rendered cut scene from the world most powerful PC, which ultimately makes the texture of the film feel a bit dead and wooden. Theres no flare and everything looks too sharp. Similar to how early morning TV presenters looked like when HDTV first came out, caked in foundation to cover their panda eyes and lost youth.
The thing is, I can see this working for younger audiences, typical movie goers for whom a blockbuster is nothing more but a game you have no control over. In the past decade video games have been taking hints from cinema to give themselves an edge over their competitors and create innovative stories, characters and gameplay that challenges the stereotypical notion that games are just “4 da kidz”. This was the thinking behind the dynamic narrative of ‘Black Rain’ and the biting pop satire of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ amongst others.
As a result we’ve come full circle. As a single game can make more money than a movie ever could, aspects of video games are moving into movies the same way some features of movies moved into games. The meaning and process of this is for another post, another day, but what’s interesting to see is that this is something that has been affecting blockbusters for a while now, at least in terms of post-production. Case in point is the push for VFX artists to be recognised in the Oscars and in the industry overall as they now essentially finish off every film, blurring the boundaries between animation and live action itself.
These are some simple examples but it points to a greater trend where media isn’t as defined anymore by what it is nor influenced by its own medium. As videogames become popular culture and as social media changes the way stories are told, film will also change. Already the term ‘film’ is redundant, only existing because there is a cultural and social tradition of watching long form video in a big dark room (but for how long?). Just like every other medium, film will be affected by natively digital mediums that have created their own language and logic early on, and The Hobbit is an example of this is in action, even if it hasn’t done so successfully.
H/T to Daniel Norris for the poster