the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-poster-bilboTaken with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, the three Hobbit movies are a staggering achievement. They manage to be true to the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s rich, mythological fantasy world of Middle Earth, while also giving way to the grotequeries, humor and unbridled capaciousness of imagination evident in the non-Tolkien work by writer/director Peter Jackson & his frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Hobbit series has the added advantage over The Lord of the Rings with Guillermo del Toro’s influence. He was originally slated to direct, and undoubtedly his knack for creating believable (and frightening) fantasy designs is one of the reasons The Hobbit film series has taken the creatures and locations to an even higher level. The specificity of the battle-scars and lack of dental hygiene on some of the nasties in this film is quite astounding.

The story, on the other hand, I don’t find as engrossing. Perhaps it is because Jackson et. al. have withheld no furbelows in stretching out Tolkien’s slimmest tome to the same length as his most epic work. As I realized when watching the first film of the series — or Jackson’s King Kong for that matter — one has to give over to the utter extremity of the storytelling. The heroes will not just cross through a treacherous mountain pass, they will witness fighting rock giants. They will not just escape their orc pursuers in barrels, but have an extended cartoony battle in doing it. Here, the logic of more-bigger-longer has never made more sense. Tolkien has arranged for a battle of not two, not three, not four, but five armies (maybe even six or seven, depending upon how you count it). I can think of no directing/writing team that is more up to such a task baroque.

This penchant for excess has spilled into the cinematography, as each of these films has been released in a 48fps/per eye HFR (High Frame Rate) edition. I saw the first film and had the same response as nearly everyone else: it looks like European television. (No surprise, that broadcasts at a rate of 50fps.) There had been claims that the “soap opera” look had been reduced as of the second film film. I skipped that one, but decided to do one last check in for number three. Short verdict: nope. Still doesn’t look good.

Due to the nature of modern digital projectors, 48fps is a practical number. I have heard James Cameron is pushing it to 60fps/eye for the next Avatar films (probably for similar reasons). I doubt it will be much better. There is too much negative cultural association with watching television at these frame rates, and the prop-makers and makeup artists and set builders haven’t quite mastered the art of making their work believable at that level of verisimilitude.

The disproof of the concept is in the marketplace. There were fewer theaters showing HFR versions of The Hobbit here in L.A. One of them is the former Rave IMAX screen, now rebranded as Cinemark XD. I don’t remember if this theater had shifted over since I was last there, seeing The Dark Knight Rises. In any case, this is a far different experience than a 70mm physical film print. It doesn’t get much more digital than HFR.

I believe HFR smooths out the strobey-ness of the motion in 3D. That said, I still noticed some, mostly in the “real” parts of the image. Smaug the Dragon flying over Rivertown was smooth as silk. The edges of the frame appeared quite blurry, and I saw a fair amount of ghosting in high-contrast areas. I don’t know if this is down to bad stereography (unlikely), the glasses I was wearing (possible) or the curved nature of the giant XD screen (most likely).

I’m picky about these sort of things. All the general consumers who set the default HD TV to “motion smoothing” definitely aren’t. These chuckleheads no doubt would prefer a 48fps Hobbit. Notwithstanding the colossal waste of resources in doubling render times for VFX, I’m fine with that. Reasonable people can disagree, and I definitely appreciate Jackson and Cameron pushing this envelope, even if it isn’t quite postage paid just yet. I remain open minded. Whether I’ll shell out again any time soon to see a movie that looks like 1990’s PBS Masterpiece Theater… well, that’s for the victor of the Battle of Five Frame Rates to decide.