The article below contains significant spoilers for the film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The second installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, has gotten notably better reviews that its predecessor. That's not to say critics generally believe it to be a very good film, or at all faithful to its source material, merely that it advances the entire enterprise suitably enough under the circumstances -- the circumstances being that, in the eyes of many, Jackson shouldn't have made this trilogy in the first place. Or, failing that, that he should have had the grace to make just a single film in the same lighthearted vein as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
I'm a lover of Tolkien and also a defender of Jackson's first film. In fact, I took quite a bit of flak for my article forcefully justifying Jackson's directorial decisions in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Nevertheless, I'm slightly surprised that this second film about a hobbit's heroism has been received much better than the first. That's because this one is filled with significantly more visual hyperbole than its predecessor, indeed some moments so preposterous in their construction and so outrageous in their deviation from Tolkien's text that they resoundingly deserve a listicle of the sort provided here.
So, without further ado, and accepting that the CGI for Smaug was largely awesome, here's this moviegoer's list of the top five most preposterous scenes from The Desolation of Smaug:
1a. That giant statue of molten gold. During what has been referred to in The Atlantic as the dwarves' "MacGyveresque" battle with Smaug -- a term which, incredibly, makes it sound more plausible than it was -- Thorin's final gambit involves drowning Smaug in a lake of molten gold. Putting aside that Thorin knows, as we all know, that dragons already have inside of them a substance as hot as molten gold, making immolating a dragon with molten gold an impossibility, does anyone know why the massive dwarven totem Thorin stands atop during this desperate attack is filled with molten gold in the first place? And -- moreover -- molten gold that comes out if you just pull a couple chains really hard? Sure, the dwarves had just lit the forges of Erebor -- itself an unlikely feat under the circumstances, especially in the time allotted for it -- but are we really to believe that the second the forges are fired up, elsewhere in the dwarven stronghold a fifty-foot high statue of a dwarven king instantly explodes, presumably killing everyone standing anywhere near it?
1b. Thorin's sledding adventure. Assuming for a moment that molten gold can't melt metal -- and try to wrap your head around that one for a moment -- can we at least agree that it heats it up to a temperature you could cook food with? Well, Peter Jackson does not agree, as he has Thorin use a metal sled to body-surf several hundred yards on a river of molten gold with no indication whatsoever that the trip was uncomfortable in the least.
2. Esgaroth/Lake-town. Where did Jackson get his conception of Tolkien's fictional republic? In the hands of Jackson, Lake-town becomes the domain of an unelected despot whose rule of law extends no farther than a jackboot kicking down doors at midnight. The town is rife with spies spying for no particular reason, as Bard -- their primary target -- is portrayed here as merely a smart, competent bargeman who wishes his hometown wasn't suffering from famine-like food shortages. We see no indication whatsoever that Bard is the ringleader behind a revolutionary Lake-town faction, let alone that he should be summarily arrested by the Master's men during the dwarves' visit to Lake-town as opposed to months earlier. At this point in Jackson's cinematic fan-fiction, Bard has done nothing but argue publicly for the validity of a prophecy most of those in Lake-town already believe in -- a prophecy that says that helping the King Under the Mountain retake his throne will lead to ruin for Lake-town. (To call it a prophecy is rather grand, given the destruction of Dale by Smaug years earlier; really, it's just common sense.) The Master only welcomes the dwarves to Lake-town to spite Bard, in fact, a stratagem that wasn't at all necessary because, as we're later told, the Master could have had Bard arrested on any charge or no charge whatsoever whenever he wanted. Jackson clearly has a vision of Lake-town that owes a debt to the slums of Dickensian fiction, but who knows where he came up with that linkage.
3. Gandalf taking on a reincarnated Sauron and several thousand orcs by himself. Does anyone really know how powerful Gandalf is supposed to be in Jackson's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies? In The Desolation of Smaug, we see Gandalf and the dwarves hot-footing it to Beorn's house to escape twenty-five orcs and twenty-five Wargs. It's presented as a clear-cut run-for-your-life sort of moment. Which is why it's not surprising that, once Gandalf has sussed out that the Necromancer in Dol Guldur is the reincarnation of Sauron -- "reincarnation" being the wrong word here, but it will do for now -- he wisely tells Radagast that they need to apprise Galadriel and Saruman of the situation immediately. Gandalf knows that Dol Guldur is shrouded in a spell of illusion, and that that shroud not only hides the Necromancer-cum-Sauron but also untold legions of orcs. Definitely seems worth a quick confab with the other most powerful beings on Middle Earth to decide what to do and when to do it. Right?
No. Gandalf, knowing that the entire Dol Guldur complex is a booby-trap, rushes in headlong and finds there exactly what he should have and indeed did expect. What was his plan? What was his purpose? Did the being who'd days earlier run from a platoon of Warg riders suddenly think he could take on and defeat Sauron and an entire army of orcs and Wargs? The more likely explanation is that the asking price for more than two seconds of screen-time from Cate Blanchett, and any screen-time whatsoever from Christopher Lee, was just high enough that this fanciful Gandalf-Sauron tilt -- which, needless to say, appears nowhere in Tolkien's The Hobbit -- seemed like a good investment of Jackson's CGI monies. Of course, in Tolkien's original material the attack on Dol Guldur was a massive enterprise planned for months and involving a reasonable number of combatants for the forces of good.
4. Thorin's transformation. Minutes after the dwarves open up the back door to Erebor and send Bilbo down to the treasure vaults to burgle the Arkenstone, Balin admonishes Thorin for being unwilling to send his party into the Mountain to save their hobbit companion. Never mind that Thorin will shortly thereafter inexplicably reverse himself and urge his dwarven companions to take on Smaug solus; what really troubles me here is Balin saying to Thorin, "You're not yourself!" My first reaction upon hearing this was, "Really? He seems fine." But as the source material for the film calls for the Arkenstone to be a corrupting influence on any who hold it -- as Thorin's father learned the hard way, and as Smaug conveniently reminds moviegoers in his unaccountably long chat with Bilbo -- Jackson needs Thorin to get bug-eyed and fast. (Apparently, this is still the case even though Thorin hasn't held the Arkenstone yet. How else to make the case that -- wink wink, nudge nudge -- the Arkenstone is an analog for the Ring of Power?)
Once Thorin changes course and sends his dwarven band into the Mountain, his first act as band-leader -- when, for a moment, he is inexplicably alone on a staircase and encounters Bilbo -- is to threaten the hobbit's life at swordpoint. Really? Even if he'd been driven certifiably insane by mere proximity to the Arkenstone, which would be preposterous, Bilbo at this point in the adventure is far and away the Companion Thorin should trust most. He has no reason whatsoever to think Bilbo has found and is hiding the Arkenstone, as finding it in the treasure vault without first getting immolated by dragon-fire was a fool's errand in the first place.
5. Jackson's cinematic selfie. The first person to appear on-screen in The Desolation of Smaug is Jackson himself, hooded and chewing a carrot. What else do you need to know about this arguably bloated fantasy-genre enterprise than that the director's first directorial decision was to penetrate his audience's suspension of disbelief? Though the on-screen selfie takes only a second or two of the film's nearly three-hour run-time, it puts an unsightly stamp on the final product that no amount of sword-and-sorcery can dispel. This whole project, Jackson assures us in the first seconds of the film, is mine -- my precious. It's a telling rebuke of the sort of humility we normally associate with film adaptations. What's worse is that The Desolation of Smaug is filled with so many visual echoes of Jackson's other Tolkien-inspired films that the director's heavy hand really never leaves the screen -- hardly a ringing endorsement for any auteur. The result is a piece of Tolkien fan fiction that occasionally delights but more commonly seems either distastefully cartoonish or self-interestedly smug. Indeed, The Desolation of Smugness wouldn't have been a bad subtitle for this one, as never has a film with so much source material to work with been so grandiloquent and gleeful about deviating from it.
Narrowly missing the list: An elf-dwarf love interest that not only never appeared in Tolkien's texts but is antithetical to the world Tolkien created; Smaug's sudden inability to smell dwarf-flesh following his initial encounter with Bilbo (in which he brags about that exact skill-set); the alacrity with which the dwarves give up on their quest when they can't find a keyhole at the appointed time (a resignation we actually do find in the dwarves in Tolkien's The Hobbit, but rarely elsewhere in the Jackson films); the creation, from whole cloth, of a top lieutenant to the orc leader Azog -- an imposing character named Bolg, whose only role in the film is to look menacing and lead troops ineffectually.