"That movie sure felt like watching a video game."
As I walked out of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey earlier this week, that statement was bouncing around in my head. Bloated, histrionic, pandering and derivative, I found the film to be a resounding disappointment. And it really did feel like a video game.
As we discussed it over a post-movie beer, my moviegoing companion actually mentioned it without prompting. "That was like watching a video game," she mused. "Why was that like watching a video game?" Why, indeed. And what do people mean when they say a movie feels like a video game?
It wasn't the first time someone's made that complaint/comparison about a movie, and it won't be the last. Modern video games have closed the visual gap with the highest-production Hollywood films, and at the same time films have become more computer-enhanced than ever. The visual distance between the two media has been shortened to the point that games are regularly compared with films. It seems appropriate that people would begin to compare films to games, too.
My friend and I weren't the only ones saying that about The Hobbit, either—the comparison has been popping up on twitter and in other reviews, including this one for The Atlantic Wire by former Gawker-er Richard Lawson, titled "'The Hobbit': Like One Bad Video Game.'"
Perhaps the reason that Warner Bros. is forgoing the usual console video-game tie-ins for simple mobile games is because the damn movie already looks like a video game, and not a very fun one at that.
But why is it such a pejorative? "Ew, that movie was like a VIDEO GAME. Gross!" When I say that The Hobbit felt like watching a video game, I certainly don't mean it in a good way. I love video games, so why is the connotation so immediately negative when it comes to film?
Like any cross-media comparison, comparing a film to a video game is a form of critical shorthand. And it's a useful one, as it operates on several levels. The comparison contains within it at least two separate complaints, and uses our common understanding of games as a convenient staging ground for them. The first one is obvious: Visuals. But the second one is deeper, and perhaps more damning. It's useful to understand both kinds of comparison, because both help me parse why I found The Hobbit to be such a bummer.
Let's start with the surface-level comparison: The Hobbit really does look like a video game. Watching the film isn't like playing a game, it's like watching one. (Lawson: "The most special effects-heavy sequences look very much like the non-playable parts of modern video games—the exposition bits that can amp up the graphics because they don't have to worry about the randomness of play." Can't say I disagree.)
I saw the film in 3D running at 48 frames per second, which, to the uninitiated, is the newfangled way director Peter Jackson wishes it to be viewed. 48fps is a dramatic shift from the current cinematic standard of 24fps, and the upshot is that we see twice as much visual data than we're used to seeing. Most critics are not fans of this technique. Neither am I.
To say that The Hobbit's 48fps presentation is a disaster feels too mild. No, it is a flaming abomination. The easiest way to describe the experience is to conjure that moment when you plug in your new HDTV without realizing that it shipped with its motion interpolation setting switched on. That setting speeds up the TV's output to simulate a higher framerate, so the first time you watch your favorite show on your new TV, everything looks… off.
The characters move too smoothly, and everything is too clean. It's like you're watching Masterpiece Theatre, or a daytime soap opera. (Motion interpolation is commonly known as the "soap opera effect.") That's about how The Hobbit feels at 48fps. The framerate-hike serves to grotesquely highlight the collision of hyper-real actors and computer-generated fakery. It's uncomfortable and often goofy, like sitting uncomfortably close to the stage during a theatrical production of Tolkien, praying that the actors won't single you out for audience participation.
The Hobbit's enhanced framerate prompts the video game comparison in a few different ways. Framerates have long been a point of discussion and debate in the video game scene, but in a different way from film. Most console games run at around 30 to 40fps, though souped-up PC games run closer to 60. Framerate tests are used to determine a gaming PC's relative power, and 60fps is something of a gold standard. Players usually tweak a game's settings to attain higher, more consistent framerate—poor framerates can make a game feel sluggish and unpolished, while high framerates feel smooth and responsive. The Call of Duty games famously maintain a 60fps baseline even on on consoles, which is what lends them their eerie, hyper-smooth appearance.
But an increased framerate can also hurt a video game. I remember a couple of years ago, I was showing a friend Uncharted 2 on our apartment's new HDTV. The Uncharted series is famous for its cinematic presentation, but our new TV had motion interpolation toggled on, which made the game quite creepy-looking. Everything moved too realistically, and cinematic sequences that had once safely escaped the uncanny valley were abruptly tossed back into it. We quickly turned off the TV's upsampling and all was well again.
Believe it or not, Valve's classic action game Half-Life 2 also suffers at a high framerate. I recently replayed the game on a decently powerful gaming PC, and had no trouble rendering even its most chaotic battle sequences at 60fps. But the higher framerate in Half-Life 2 combines with the game's realistic physics to make everything feel somehow small, like you're watching miniatures bounce around an elaborate sci-fi toy-theater. The Combine's fearsome striders and terrifying whale-helicopters tumble from the sky like plastic playthings, and everything feels too controlled and immaculate.
The Hobbit has a similar problem. Everything feels smaller, diminished, from the sets to the backdrops to the action sequences. In particular, a climactic chase sequence through an underground goblin kingdom has no tension at all. It felt like I was peering in on a bunch of tiny men running through a tiny little digital set. When it didn't feel like watching a video game, it felt like watching a tiny amusement park ride.
If movies were games, The Hobbit would be running on the most bleeding-edge gaming PC known to man. The irony is that the increased tech actually serves to make the film significantly less appealing.
So the phrase "It looks like a video game," partly refers to The Hobbit's visual appearance. But I get the sense that's not the whole story. If I had seen the film running at a standard framerate, I suspect I would have had similar overall complaints, and my friend would have made the same video game comparison afterward. That's because the complaint is indicative of a deeper problem.
Video games convey drama and consequence in a very different way than other media. In a game, you can die dozens, even hundreds of times, and you'll always be back, replaying the same bit until you win out. As a result, action sequences can feel inflated, and for an outside observer, they can feel shallow. Watching a game, particularly a photorealistic action game, can be confusing and incoherent out of context—why should I care about this? What are the stakes? The main character just took a shotgun blast to the face, got back up, and mowed down twelve bad guys. Where is the tension?
Often in The Hobbit, there's a spectacular amount of crap happening on-screen. Characters tumble all willy-nilly, enemies stack on top of each other, everyone is yelling… but no one appears to be in any real danger. Most of Thorin's heroic band of beardy dwarves are indistinguishable from one another in the heat of the moment, and they all appear to be essentially impervious to physical harm. They fly this way and that, but we never really feel all that worried about any of them. Gandalf is absent for most of the battle sequences, and usually turns up at some culminating moment to wield his godlike powers and save the day. For all its wild action, there's very little actual tension, and I had a hard time finding a purchase.
I felt similarly about many of the action sequences in the Star Wars prequels, particularly the opening space battle in Revenge of the Sith. There are enemy droid spaceships everywhere, the Jedi are zooming all over the place in their starfighters, everything is exploding, lasers are flying off the screen… and yet for all the surface-level histrionics, there's no actual tension. Amazingly enough, the entire sequence is actually dull. We're not worried anyone will die or even be hurt, and there's no specificity to any of it. I remember seeing Episode III in the theater and just kind of spacing out after a little while.
Another example comes from the Matrix trilogy. In the first film, Neo faces down Agent Smith in a climactic fight scene. The whole story has been building to this point. We know Neo's task is impossible, but he's going to try anyway, and the brutal throwdown is all the more exhilarating because the stakes are so high. In the second film, a newly superpowered Neo faces down an army of Agent Smiths. This second confrontation may have a lot of whiz-bang effects and choreography, but it contains a fraction of the tension of their first showdown. And safe money says more than one person mentioned how much it felt like watching a video game.
Much of The Hobbit feels similar. Granted, Jackson's directorial flair and imagination save the action sequences from feeling as bland as those of the Star Wars prequels, but the visual cacophony is similarly devoid of tension. And while computer-generated effects are certainly tied up in this whole thing, they're not wholly responsible: Gandalf's showdown with the Balrog in Fellowship of the Ring was almost entirely computer-generated, and even upon a third or fourth viewing it carries more dramatic heft than The Hobbit's entire three-hour runtime. It's no coincidence that Bilbo and Gollum's famous first meeting is the most enjoyable and watchable sequence of the new film. As they circle one another, trading riddles, The Hobbit stops feeling like a video game and starts feeling like a movie.
Of course, to disparagingly say "It feels like watching a video game" is to ignore the many ways that video games do create dramatic tension. Those of us who play games will be quick to point out that games build tension differently than films. And besides, not all games are so quick to eschew consequence. (Hello, Dark Souls! Paging ZombiU!) But the exceptions to the rule are beside the point: The comparison is shorthand.
Granted, The Hobbit has other problems, as well. (Suffice to say, I have a few bones to pick with Jason's generally positive review.) The source material is less exciting than the main trilogy, and the film is terribly padded—a book of its length has no business being adapted into a hat-trick of three-hour films. There are almost no women in the movie, and it's all so unsexy it makes Fellowship of the Ring seem like the Downton Abbey Christmas special. Thanks to the segmented approach they've taken, there's an unfortunate lack of Smaug, the villainous dragon who, provided Benedict Cumberbatch's performance is as Cumberbatchian as we're all hoping, could well prove to be The Hobbit's answer to Andy Serkis' Gollum.
Perhaps most dismayingly, The Hobbit constantly engages in the most patronizing sort of fan-service. Lady Galadriel whispers into a character's mind as her eerie theme music plays. The camera sweeps overhead as characters battle warg-riders on the grasslands. Gandalf appears on a ridge, the sun at his back, or whispers to a moth and sends it off to summon rescue. And every time, the film gently elbows you in the ribs. Eh? Remember this? You liked this, right? Remember?
I don't make the comparison lightly, but too often in The Hobbit Jackson falls into the same traps George Lucas did while making the Star Wars prequels. He confuses action with excitement, and the result is a film devoid of tension, with no risk and therefore no payoff. That Jackson also indulges in Lucas' tendency to rely on his audience's affection for past material only makes the comparison more apt.
I was sorely disappointed by The Hobbit. What could have been a bittersweet, lighthearted return to Middle Earth feels instead like a self-indulgent faux epic, drowning in bloated spectacle and unearned sentiment. It was almost exactly as satisfying and dramatically engaging as watching a stranger play a video game. And there wasn't even an achievement for making it all the way through.