I watched The Hobbit the other day, and it was actually better than I’d expected, although that may have been down to my extended campaign of expectation lowering more than the film itself. It definitely felt a bit too long, especially any time the elves are on screen and… talking… very… slo…w…ly because they’re immortal and can speak as slowly as they like without worrying about wasting their lives when they could be doing something more interesting like slaying orcs or going on theme park rides.
And speaking of theme park rides (how convenient!), there’s a scene near the end of The Hobbit where Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves are enjoying some thrills-and-spills escapades – escaping from some goblins and their big-chinned king in a special effects bonanza, with dwarves and goblins flying from bridges which fall seconds later in a huge abyss while axes fly, acrobatics are performed and goblin heads become separated from bodies like a sudden flurry of dandelions – which goes on for a long time, and it made me have a thought, which was: this is boring.
Here’s a short snippet of it, possibly with an annoying advert to sit through as well:
This scene probably had millions of dollars spent on it, and was the work of god-knows-how-many people; storyboarders, artists, animators, CG-doers, camerapeople, etc, and it was certainly very flashy. The whole thing was most wonderfully choreographed and there were loads of bits where the dwarves did clever things like stab a goblin in the face one way, then reach over his shoulder and stab another goblin without looking before somersaulting backwards over a chasm and more stabbing blah bla
You get the idea. It’s a very typical modern chase/fight scene; the heroes are chased through an incredible set-piece, with enemies flying all over the place and hundreds of coincidental lucky escapes packed into a few frantic minutes of film, at the end of which they dust themselves off and come out with some pithy line or raise one eyebrow slightly as if acknowledging the ironic nature of the whole thing makes it OK.
There is no danger in these scenes, beyond mild peril and strictly choreographed CGI shenanigans. There is no risk to the characters, beyond having to recover slightly squashed hat. They’re theme park rides, with all the tension of a warm flannel and cucumber eye mask.
Here’s the hugely over-long wheel scene from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 or 3 (appropriately, I’ve forgotten and I can’t be bothered looking it up):
To be fair, these drama-lite sequences are most often found in what are essentially kids’ films – assorted Pirates of the Caribbeans, The Hobbit, Harry Potter – but as CG has become more prevalent, specials effects have got better and film budgets in general have got bigger then this silliness gets into films for all ages. This is a Bad Thing.
Consider older scenes like the dirt bike vs truck chase scene in Terminator 2, in which a young Edward Furlong rides his crappy little bike along a concrete flood control channel. There are no stupid backflips, or dwarves surfing wooden bridges down valleys, but it’s a great scene; there’s a sense of real danger, that he might not make it – you’re not sure what’s going to happen next.
Likewise, the epic scene in Children of Men where Theo runs through an old apartment block in search of Kee. There’s shit flying everywhere in this scene, and the whole thing is one long shot (it’s actually clever editing, but hey), but despite the judicious application of special effects it feels dangerous. Clive Owen, as Theo, stumbles and cowers his way through the building that’s being shot to pieces around him, and he’s a world away from the smug dramatic immunity of Jack Sparrow or Spiderman or Legolas.
This is a different, but equally good chase scene from Children of Men – contains SPOILERS, if you haven’t seen the film:
<not actually embedding this one because the thumbnail itself contains spoilers!>
I’m sure this scene was closely choreographed as well, but it comes across as chaotic and haphazard (in a good way!) nonetheless.
I think there’s a parallel between these kind of scenes and the semi-interactive scenes in games known as Quick Time Events, or QTEs. QTEs are segments where the player has watch a sequence while occasionally pressing a button to make something happen – dodging a bullet or throwing a punch, for example. They’re generally crap and annoying – “panned by journalists and players alike” – but they turn up in game after game.
Some modern games, like the new Tomb Raider, seem at points like they’re nothing but one long QTE. Some old games like Dragon’s Lair were actually nothing but QTEs; whole games were made where you did nothing but press individual buttons at the right time to make a character kiss the dragon, slay the princess etc etc, using the new-at-the-time LaserDisc format to maximise the amount of time you were idly watching stuff happen.
QTEs (and cut-scenes in general) are infamous for they way they remove all meaningful control from the player. The player-character often suddenly becomes either a super-skilled ninja or a fumbling incompetent, determined by the needs of the scene, and QTEs make this particularly grating because they force you to be complicit in whatever happens.
Developers seem to put these things in games because they’re meant to create drama and help the narrative unfold but what they actually do is remove any element of risk and kill any narrative stone-dead. In the same way as big CGI chase scenes, QTEs are tightly choreographed and there is only one way things are going to work out. If you make a mistake then you die and the thing starts again, usually making you listen to the same terrible dialogue over and over again; there’s no skill, no danger.
I fidget my way through QTEs, only half-listening, the same way I sat through most of the Hobbit. I’d like to see fewer QTEs and fewer pointless CGI-fest chase scenes. Give me danger! Give me uncertainty! Anything but more theme park rides…