Peter Jackson's long-awaited The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starts playing at midnight tomorrow night, and it's going to make 14 billion dollars because every single person on Earth is going to see it, regardless of whether or not it's any good.
Um. Here is my review.
Something I didn't mention in my review—because it's only relevant to a few of the theaters showing The Hobbit in and around Portland—is that Jackson shot these movies not only in digital 3D, but also at 48 frames-per-second (FPS). That's double the number of frames that most films are shot and projected at—and, according to Jackson, the resultant image is the future of cinema. At 48 FPS, images lack the flickering that we're used to seeing when we watch movies, and motion onscreen is significantly smoother. (For Avatar 2, 3, 4, 5, and ∞, James Cameron will be shooting at an even higher frame rate: 60 FPS.) So in order to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the way Jackson intended, you'll need to go to one of the few theaters outfitted to flash 48 frames into your eyeballs every second, rather than regular old boring theaters that'll only give you regular old boring 24 frames every second.
But here's the thing: 48 FPS looks awful.
The screening of The Hobbit that I saw earlier this week was in 3D and 48 FPS, and I'm still kind of astonished how bad it looked—how bright, shallow, and cartoony it made everything from the CG to the live action. Granted, as a film nerd, I might be slightly more prissy about this stuff than the average moviegoer, but goddamn—I'm hardly one of those obnoxious dweebs obsessed with the tech side of film projection, and even I had problems with it.
You know how when you turn on OPB and there's an old BBC sitcom on and it looks cheap and hollow, like it was shot on a camcorder? Probably because it was? That's how The Hobbit in 48 FPS looks: shiny, distractingly bright, and so silky smooth that everything, even the live action, looks like a videogame cutscene. While Lord of the Rings had a textured, lived-in grandeur—even the scenes in those films that were shot on sets have a depth and richness—The Hobbit looks like it was all filmed on sets, and like all of those sets were made out of styrofoam. Yeah, movies flicker at 24 FPS—but, turns out, that flicker did filmmakers a lot of favors when it came to making fake things look real. There's a crispness and level of detail to the 48 FPS The Hobbit that's remarkable and undeniable—it's like high-high-high-high definition—but I'm not sure the trade-off of having everything look like it was made inside a ride at Disneyland is worth it. If all that detail and super-smooth movement only serves to constantly remind you that you're watching something completely fake, what's the point?
That said? Most audiences probably won't even notice. Most new TVs sold come with "motion smoothing" or a similar feature turned on, which has much the same effect that 48 FPS does, and most modern videogames run at 60 FPS. People are used to seeing images that look smoother than the ones they see in movie theaters—so maybe all this caterwauling about 48 FPS making film look like cheap TV will be limited to a few annoying cinephiles, then quietly die down once 48 FPS becomes the standard and everyone starts to think that this is what movies are supposed to look like.
Another possibility: James Cameron will nail the higher-frame-rate thing when he makes the next 15 Avatars. Cameron knows how to utilize filmmaking tech better than anybody; if he thinks 60 FPS is the future, there's probably a reason. That said, I have a hard time thinking it'll make a huge difference when Cameron's behind the camera: It's not like Jackson's any slouch when it comes to marrying powerful, beautiful visuals and cutting-edge technology.
And an upside about 48 FPS: The smoothness of the image significantly reduces the eyestrain that comes from a lot of 3D movies. So if you have problems watching 3D, watching 3D in 48 FPS might be the solution. But even then, there's a drawback: At least with The Hobbit, the higher frame rate also seemed to significantly flatten the image—meaning that any 3D effect was pretty much negated. So. Wait. Not sure if that's an upside, actually.
Via Shawn Levy, here's a list of all the theaters showing The Hobbit in 48 FPS. The local ones:
Portland: Century Clackamas Town Center
Portland: Lloyd Center 10
Beaverton: Cinetopia Progress Ridge 14
Tigard: Regal Bridgeport Village Stadium 18
Vancouver: Cinetopia Vancouver Mall 23
If you're going to see The Hobbit regardless of my review (which, yes, you will), I'd recommend steering clear of those theaters. You might be getting a more high-tech viewing experience, but I'd say it's also an inferior one. If you do see it at 48 FPS, though, drop a comment below, or shoot me an email. Since it's my job, I think about this sort of stuff too much, and I also talk about it too much with other people who think about it too much. So I'd be curious to hear what regular moviegoers think of it—if they like it, if they hate it, if they even notice.