Martin Freeman in The Hobbit
Martin Freeman in The Hobbit

THE ever-innovative Peter Jackson has again found new techniques to complement the epic sweep of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three planned prequels to his stunning Lord of the Rings trilogy. JRR Tolkien wrote this adventure to amuse his children but his imagined world, colourful characters and compelling narrative not only enthralled readers of all ages, it also inspired him to expand the basic idea into the much longer, more detailed books that followed.

Jackson has so imposed himself on Tolkien’s vision of a parallel universe that he can be regarded a co-creator of Middle-earth, the land described so vividly in the original texts and brought to life so well in the films.

The Hobbit is where it all began and it sees Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) persuaded by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a quest.

The destination is Erebor, a prosperous kingdom that has been destroyed by a fearsome, fire-breathing dragon. Then there are encounters with a bestiary of strange beings, the most remarkable of which is the Goblin King, as mountainous and treacherous as Jabba the Hutt (from Star Wars), played by Barry Humphries, whose prosthetic pendulous chin his Dame Edna persona would find revolting.

Another computer-generated figure is Gollum, featured prominently in the trilogy, a triumph of the craft of motion capture and portrayed by Andy Serkis. It is not really necessary to know the lore and inhabitants of Middle-earth to appreciate Jackson and his team’s visualisations, their choice of spectacular New Zealand settings and their ability to make the confrontations, battles and narrow escapes convincing and exciting.

To this end, Jackson has used the latest advances in technology to achieve a hyper-reality that is occasionally jarring, at least in the 3D version, yet still gives audiences a sense of participation in the many action sequences.

However, it remains to be seen if this exceptional standard can be sustained in the next two episodes because the book is comparatively short and, consequently, its few events will have to be stretched even further, or new ones will have to be invented, if the total of nearly nine hours for the present trilogy is to be justified.

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RIAN Johnson’s Looper is a complicated sci-fi thriller that shifts between two different years in the future. As Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains, in 2044 time travel had not yet been invented but, three decades later, it has become fairly commonplace and, in the wrong hands, a device that gave criminals the means to dispatch their enemies by sending them back 30 years when they could be killed, more or less legally.

Joe, a hit-man or "looper", simply keeps an appointment at a designated, isolated spot, waits for the transported, hooded victim to appear, then shoots him.

This steady, well-paying job has its perks but it also has its downside, particularly when the latest arrival turns out to be an older version of the hired killer. Joe the elder (Bruce Willis) and his younger self hit it off, naturally: they have the same taste in food and, with the aid of prosthetics, there is a credible passing resemblance.

Joe’s existential dilemma is central to the ensuing action as it can be assumed that the future Joe has offended Abe (Jeff Daniels), a gangster with access to the time machine, who has sent him back to receive the ultimate punishment but, confronted by himself, he escapes his fate because both Joes have the same mission.

Deliberately echoing The Terminator’s retroactive errand, the Joes have to find the boy who, if allowed to live, will become known as The Rainmaker, a threat to Abe’s dominance. Cid (Pierce Gagnon), the lad in question, lives on a farm with Sara (Emily Blunt), his mother, and is telekinetic, a gift that will serve him well when fully grown, if he is allowed to reach that stage.

The issue is the possibility of changing history by nipping a menace in the bud. This provocative idea is cleverly and even playfully handled by Johnson, who introduces allusions to other films.

The acting is far better than is usual in this type of action movie and it is a reflection of the respect the players had for a script, which, while self-consciously tricky, stimulates close attention and then rewards it generously.