My favorite moment in The Desolation of Smaug, part two of Peter Jackson’s epic expansion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, came when the titular hobbit and his thirteen dwarvish companions were buried under a load of fish. The moment provided humorous relief to a bit of mild tension, but that’s not why I liked it. I liked it because it felt real, unlike so much of the rest of the film. The dead, limp weight of the fish; their cold, slimy bodies; the dark stink of the burial; the simultaneous indignity and ingenuity of it — it all came through.
Jackson used to be quite good at conveying that feeling of reality, which is so crucial when you’re making a movie about trolls and dragons and wizards and other unreal things. It made it easier to bear with his (frequently tedious) flights into CGI-enabled fancy. But as his stay in the airy realms of fantasyland has grown longer, his tether to reality has frayed to the point where a load of fish constitutes the chief thread. It’s a pity.
The Desolation of Smaug opens with a bar scene: the wizard Gandalf and the dwarf king Thorin meeting at the Prancing Pony in the rain-soaked town of Bree. There, Gandalf urges Thorin to take back his homeland by uniting the dwarves under his rule; he is the true king, after all. Thorin reminds Gandalf that the dwarves swore allegiance only to the one who held the Arkenstone, which is dumb. You’ll swear allegiance to a guy, but only if he’s got a big fancy jewel? I’m pretty sure that by that point, you’re really swearing allegiance to a big fancy jewel. But dumb is pretty much the order of the day when plot and spectacle are put in charge of character. We need a reason to send a hobbit into a room with a dragon at the end, and so we need a special gewgaw for him to go after.
But never mind plot and spectacle; let’s stick with the Prancing Pony. That way, we can play the Desolation of Smaug drinking game. It’s sure to test your endurance, though not quite in the same way as the movie: every time Gandalf the Grey speaks portentously, take a drink.
Every time things hinge on a special gewgaw — ring, stone, arrow, whatever — instead of a character, take a drink.
Every time orcs are inserted to prop up flagging drama, take a drink. Every time the orcs stop attacking for some reason, take two drinks. (“The ten of you take word back to headquarters. You other two come with me and fight the elvish killing machines.” Makes sense!)
Every time the light looks like something from out of a Thomas Kinkade painting, take a drink.
Every time Jackson makes his camera swoop crazily about just because he can, take a drink to help steady your lurching stomach.
Every time someone mentions that the dwarves need to reach the door in the side of the mountain by Durin’s Day, take a drink.
Every time you see a living space — elvish or dwarvish — where no one would ever want to actually live, take a drink.
Every time the dialogue provides a clear setup for a big one-liner — “You have no right to enter that mountain.” “I have the only right.” “I thought you were an orc.” “If I were an orc, you would already be dead.” etc. — take a drink.
Every time you hear an anachronistic political notion put forward — dangers of isolationism, uprising of oppressed masses, etc. — take a drink.
Every time pretty elf girl Evangeline Lilly gets all actory, take a drink. (Trust me, I’m thinking of you here.)
Every time Legolas the elf fires a bow while rolling or jumping or leaping or running or looking the other way, take a drink.
Every time dwarves transform from bumbling goofs to awesome fighting machines or vice versa, take a drink.
Every time the dragon Smaug transforms from intelligent serpent to dumb, thrashing lizard or vice versa, take a drink.
The end result is that you’ll almost certainly be too damaged to appreciate the effort that Martin Freeman puts into his portrayal of Bilbo or to complain about Smaug’s bizarre decision-making process. All you’ll notice is that the dragon looks pretty darn cool, and he talks like Benedict Cumberbatch, and, yeah, he looks pretty cool.