Film lovers hold the theatrical experience as a precious thing. No wonder, then, that purists hate “HFR,” the new high frame rate projection of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” It exhibits the first installment of a new trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations at twice the normal speed of a traditional movie; 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the usual 24. Critics have been almost uniformly unkind to HFR, calling it “distracting” at best and “flat-out unwatchable” at worst. A lot of my colleagues have recommended you see “The Hobbit” first in 24fps, and then if you like it, to go back to check out the HFR — if you check it out at all.
I think that’s completely backwards. “The Hobbit” is a mess, and it’s way too long. It’s 100 minutes of movie dispersed through 169 minutes of runtime, like a tiny pat of delicious butter spread across an entire loaf of bread. There are a million interchangeable characters, pointless frame stories, endless digressions, and just a fraction of a plot.
The only advantage of “The Hobbit”‘s three, endless hours is the time it gives your eyes to adjust to the high frame rate. It is distracting and, yes, maybe even borderline unwatchable at first. But by the time the dwarves are running for their lives from a mine full of goblins, 48fps begins to show off some strengths to combat its weaknesses. Even if it’s a mixed bag, it’s a mixed bag I would recommend if you’re going to see “The Hobbit.” If you’re planning on enduring this thing, you may as well have a potential revolution in projection technology to consider while you do it.
Every bad thing you’ve heard about HFR is absolutely true — at least initially. When the film begins with an extended prologue about the history of the dwarf civilization, it looks like you’ve accidentally bought a ticket to a special episode of “Masterpiece Theater” directed by Benny Hill. Jackson is establishing the whole emotional subtext of his story — the way the dwarf nation became a sad, nomadic people after their eviction from their beloved mountain — but you’re too focused on the way the denizens of Middle Earth are running around like silent movie extras on methamphetamine to notice.
At 48fps, the world of Middle Earth also looks a little bit cheaper than we remember it from “The Lord of the Rings.” That’s because the gloss of classic 24fps celluloid helped mask the seams between digital and practical, like the layer of cheesecloth they used to put over the camera lens to give leading ladies of the 1940s and ’50s that perfect complexion. HFR’s high-definition digital photography is bright and clear — and totally unforgiving. If an actor wears a bad fake nose, it shows. If they stand in front of a set, it looks like it. At times that can make it harder to suspend your disbelief. It doesn’t look like we’re watching Bilbo and Gandalf on a grand adventure; it looks we’re watching Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan playing dress-up.
Interestingly, though, HFR has the exact opposite effect on the computer generated actors. Gollum, the ring-crazed nutjob who previously hounded the Fellowship of the Ring and now challenges Bilbo to a lengthy game of riddles, seems even more astonishingly lifelike that he did in Jackson’s first “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Whether Azog (Manu Bennett), the evil orc who hounds Bilbo and his cohorts is a makeup effect, a computer generated image, a motion captured animated creature, or some combination of the above, I have no idea. All I know is he was a perfectly convincing creation.
In other words, HFR, at least at this point, reverses the traditional dynamics that have defined cinema for over a hundred years: it makes fake people look real and real people look fake. In a movie landscape already dominated by digital characters, that’s an advance that could be a double-edged sword (that glows blue in the presence of evil). Hollywood blockbusters need more humanity, not necessarily more CGI. Instead of doubling down on the caliber of the imagery, filmmakers should focus more on the caliber of their storytelling.
That’s certainly true of “The Hobbit,” which is less a movie than a special effects showcase. Still, as a special effects showcase, it’s one of the most impressive in recent memory. It’s also the best showcase for 3D I’ve ever seen. The extra dimension looks terrific in HFR — far better than any 24fps presentation. Typical RealD 3D at 24fps is a flimsy, shoddy illusion, easily broken if you tilt your head, or move your glasses, or if the projector isn’t properly calibrated. It’s dark, blurry, and generally pretty bad.
HFR 3D, in contrast, is an immersive experience. You could tilt your head, shake in your seat, move around, and the extra depth holds firm. And even though much of “The Hobbit” is set at night or in dark caves, the image is never too dim to see. In fact, many of the darkest scenes — like the one where Bilbo and the dwarves rescue their stolen ponies from a band of trolls — are the best-looking ones in the entire film.
If this is as good as HFR is ever going to look, maybe I could join my fellow critics in dismissing it as a failed experiment. But this is just the first time the format has been used on this scale, and it can only get better from here, as our eyes adjust to the workload of processing all that extra visual information and as the technology improves as well. HFR’s certainly not ready to become the new industry-wide standard, but it’s got plenty of possibilities. A CGI animated movie would look spectacular at 48fps — and I think the push-pull between the real and the artificial it lends its imagery could be used to effective thematic effect in a movie like, say, the next “TRON” sequel, where human beings venture into the world of computers. It’s not quite there yet, but HFR might evolve into the ideal tool to take us there and back again.