Sunday, 15 December 2013
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson, 2013)
One preliminary flashback aside, this second chunk of Hobbit-story runs in a straight line from Beorn to Bilbo stealing the cup (except that Beorn is apparently not Scandinavian, but rather, judging by his accent, either Polish or Ukrainian; and except that Bilbo steals no cup in this film). Since we all know what's going to happen in this instalment, Jackson seems to have made the brave, or bonkers, decision to jettison conventional 'narrative suspense' and replace it with the more meta 'in what ways and with what catastrophic results are the film-makers going to stray from the novel?' suspense. To that end we get no magic Mirkwood stream, no sleeping Bombur, no talking birds, no cup-stealing; but we do get (a) a whole new character, Poutie the Elf, played by Lost's Evangeline Lilly. This comely green-tight-clad maiden is loved by Legolas; but the Elf King has forbidden her to reciprocate, on some kind of flimsy 'for he is an Elf Prince and you are merely the Pig Scratcher's Daughter' pretext. So, obediently, she falls in love with one of the dwarfs instead. I'm not sure exactly which one. Perhaps this guy:
Also added are: (b) a whole lot of Bard backstory, although at no point did Jackson avail himself of the opportunity of having this character attempt to enter a Laketown hostelry only to be told, 'Nah, you're BARD'; (c) alas, more Radagast with bird-shit in his hair, and (d) a whole extra storyline about Gandalf deciding, rashly, to attack a castle full of warrior orcs, wargs and Sauron himself, single handedly. Indeed, 'rashly' hardly does justice to this insane, kamikaze narrative diversion. It is a sequence that depends upon Gandalf acting wholly out of character, without point or hope of success. On the plus side, it did result in a nice bit of magical combat, and a neat moment where the pupil of Sauron's Great Eye turned into that marching feller from the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" video.
In sum: as pretty much everybody has been saying, this second film was quite a bit better than the first film in the trilogy, although too long and with too high a quotient of Silly. I enjoyed it, mind.
One thing struck me with great force; and it is a matter I have not seen discussed in any of the reviews or other accounts of the movie. It was the sheer quantity of gold stored under Erebor. Really, there was loads, not least in the form of gigantic slag-heaps of coins and cups, millions of cubic metres of the stuff:
(For comparison: the Giza pyramid, 140m high, constitutes a structure of 2.5 million cubic metres. This heap is surely at least as high as that, but much wider and more extensive). In addition to this quantity of gold there are also vast amounts of the metal lying ready in quick-start smelting furnaces: enough to supply large rivers of molten gold flowing for thousands of yards, and to construct an (apparently) solid gold 'dwarf king' statue larger even than Smaug. Millions more tonnes of the stuff! A couple of things occurred to me regarding all this. One is that, although the coins on the top of the heap would indeed be loose, as the film shows, the weight of the gold itself would have long since pressed the bottom of the heap into a solid mass, rendering it impossible of portage. But more to the point, it has implications for the economy of Middle Earth. Gold in our world is valuable because of its scarcity: all the gold ever mined in human history amounts to 165,000 tonnes, with perhaps another 100,000 tonnes still to be dug out of the earth. Middle Earth is (a) clearly much, much more liberally supplied with the metal, and (b) considerably less densely populated than our world. The unavoidable implication is that gold would be all but worthless in such a place. 'Unless,' I pondered, thinking again, 'unless gold is scarce in Middle Earth, but only because so much of the stuff is locked inaccessibly away in Smaug's lair. If that's the case, then Smaug is actually doing the world a favour, and "liberating" all that gold would disastrously deflate all Middle Earth currencies, causing decades of economic depression and collapse.'
One more worry. A metre of gold weighs something like 20,000 kg. Middle Earth, since it pulls the same gravity as Earth, must have a mass of 5.97219 × 1024 kgs.* 5 million cubic metres of gold all in one place, would represent approximately 1010 kgs. Such a hugely disproportionate concentration of weight would surely throw off the orbit of the world! What would happen to our world if some magical force suddenly dumped 1010 kgs at one point on its surface? It's an xkcd sort of question. I'm guessing the answer is: nothing good. [Update: I am corrected on this point in the comments below].
* It occurs to me that the ease with which e.g. Legolas is able to leap from pinnacle to pinnacle, slide down the trunks of elephants and to fire arrows whilst standing on the heads of dwarfs inside bobbing barrels etc. implies that gravity may be less on Middle Earth than our Earth. If so, that only makes the extraordinary concentration of mass represented by Erebor even more orbitally disruptive.