Although Peter Jackson's The Hobbit has thus far survived the Seven Publicity Plagues and endured epic trials of casting to achieve the not-insignificant triumph of becoming an actual movie, there is already a new Hobbit controversy brewing, after Warner Bros. previewed 10 minutes of footage yesterday at CinemaCon. The presentation offered attendees not only the first significant look at the film, but also their first experience with the 48 frames-per-second rate Jackson shot it in—and which he and other 3-D proselytizers like James Cameron (who plans to use it on both Avatar sequels) have argued should be adopted as the new industry standard.
Unfortunately for their cause, reaction to the latter was decidedly mixed, ranging from breathless reports in which critics called it "mind-blowing" and actually used the words "creaming in my pants" to numerous complaints that—while the aerial landscape shots of which Jackson is so fond were truly awesome—the overall effect on character-based scenes was a little too realistic. According to those skeptics, the new, perfectly blur-free frame rate robs the film of any "cinematic" quality, rendering it something akin to the too-brightly-lit, obvious artificiality one sees in soap operas or pornography (which, ironically, had no one creaming in their pants).
Variety's Josh Dickey offered perhaps the most diplomatic assessment, saying that while 48 fps "does bring 3-D to a different level," the immediacy is "jarring" and "unfortunately looks a bit like television." The L.A. Times' Amy Kaufman concurred by proxy, interviewing an anonymous projectionist who said it was "too accurate—too clear" and "looked like a made-for-TV movie." And Deadline conducted its own survey of the audience, quoting exhibitors who called it "kinda cold" and deemed it "a little like the look of a soap opera," suggesting that it would be "quite startling" to those who are used to the slight grain of film. But perhaps no one offered a clearer picture of how much he detested the clearer picture than Badass Digest's Devin Faraci:
Here's what The Hobbit looked like to me: a hi-def version of the 1970s I, Claudius. It is drenched in a TV-like — specifically 70s era BBC — video look. People on Twitter have asked if it has that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy, and the answer is an emphatic YES. The 48fps footage I saw looked terrible. It looked completely non-cinematic. The sets looked like sets. I've been on sets of movies on the scale of The Hobbit, and sets don't even look like sets when you're on them live … but these looked like sets. The other comparison I kept coming to, as I was watching the footage, was that it all looked like behind the scenes video. The magical illusion of cinema is stripped away completely.
Of course, that stripping away of the veil between cinema and reality seems to be exactly what Jackson is going for, based on a taped introduction to the screening in which he said pretty much that. But unfortunately for Jackson, while most of these negative reports have been preceded by caveats that this may all be more finely tuned in post-production, the general reaction from attendees—the majority of whom were theater owners—is that they're not sure their audiences are really in the market for this sort of reality, particularly at the movies, and particularly at a movie about fantastical creatures. So this debate seems likely to rage on for a little while, at least until James Cameron finally convinces everyone to adopt his planned upgrade for the human eyeball.