Avatar was a blast, but the spread of Hollywood's latest trend has one critic more than ready to hang up the 3-D glasses. Here's why.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
I'm a purist when it comes to movies. I've had friends recommend to me “amazing websites” where one can download and burn first-run films for free, but I won't have it. If I can't make it to the multiplex, I much prefer to purchase the DVD, not only because the quality is better, not only because it supports the business I love, but because I'm a geek who appreciates the cover art. I refuse to watch a movie on a laptop, an iPhone, or a Palm Prē (even if commercials for the latter make the laughable claim that the screen is ''unbelievably large''). So when it comes to the wild craze of 3-D movies, I can certainly recognize the merits. A brace for an industry leg that's been crippled by the rapid advancements in home entertainment, 3-D offers an experience that, for now, can't be had anywhere but in the theater, thus drawing people back to the ideal movie-watching arena.
Yet, at the same time, I can't wait for the 3-D phenomenon to whither away and die, just like it did at the end of the 1950s. In general, 3-D is a gimmick, a flashy party favor that purports to enhance the film you're watching, but instead tends to distract from it and diminish its impact. It also encourages certain filmmakers to abandon their better judgment and become something akin to circus ring leaders, confusing true art with gaudy spectacle.
A Christmas Carol
Take, for example, Robert Zemeckis and Tim Burton, both of whom recently achieved success with the 3-D re-tellings of A Christmas Carol and Alice in Wonderland, respectively. Also an ardent enthusiast of performance-capture technology, Zemeckis has been riding the 3-D wave since long before it hit its recent apex. In 2004, his other Christmas tale, The Polar Express, made a killing when it simultaneously opened in traditional format and IMAX 3-D. Beowulf, his 2007 follow-up, used the same techniques and drew similar crowds. A Christmas Carol best exhibits a problem inherent in all three films, and a major woe of 3-D as a whole. It's lovely to watch the London snowflakes as they seem to fall into your lap, and fly with Scrooge above the city skyline as Big Ben whizzes past your ear, but, like so many others of its type, the movie can't resist turning into a widescreen pop-up book, hurling objects in your face in a manner that would look ridiculous in two dimensions. Having an unbridled ball with the format, Zemeckis goes so far as to make a funhouse of Dickens' classic story, making sure the audience gets the most bang for its buck.
Alice in Wonderland
Which is of course what 3-D is all about. As of this writing, Alice in Wonderland is the most financially successful film of 2010 and the biggest hit of Burton's career, despite being one of his worst movies. Garish and muddled, Alice exemplifies the issue of poor clarity plaguing so many 3-D films. The moment alabaster-skinned Mia Wasikowska falls into that rabbit hole (and specifically as she's tumbling down it), what began as a characteristically hyper-real, Burton-esque period fantasy transforms into a messy barrage of indecipherable flying objects (IFOs) and dark, unattractive scenery. Burton doesn't quite find himself on the same plane of funhouse lunacy as Zemeckis, but there's definitely the sense that he's straining to kowtow to a fad, marrying his homespun aesthetic to modern tech-tricks and yielding ugly results. Alice left me longing to eradicate that third dimension altogether, as it didn't bring the movie closer to me, but acted as a hazy visual barrier.
Which brings me to my worst 3-D ordeal. Alice was filmed in 2-D then retrofitted for 3-D, which inevitably cut down on the crispness of its eye-popping abilities and contributed to its overcast look. But, to its credit, the film underwent a lengthy post-production period in which editors and animators at least attempted to grind out the best possible product. The 2010 update of Clash of the Titans, on the other hand, was hastily converted to 3-D in mere months – a last-minute marketing move made by the execs at Warner Brothers. The outcome? An alarmingly dismal picture, like watching a screen draped in a cloak. I didn't notice a single scene being given a more impressive presentation, and in nighttime scenes I had to remove the glasses to save my eyes from trying too hard to make out the images. (Naturally, Clash director Louis Letterier, the man behind gems like Transporter 2, contends that the switch improved the movie.) The conversion practice is the most unfortunate aspect of the 3-D juggernaut, laying a needless, debilitating veneer over what may have been enjoyable popcorn flicks.
Of course, there is one filmmaker who managed to bring artistry and integrity to the format: James Cameron, creator of Avatar, the blue-skinned, multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room. Filmed with revolutionary stereoscopic cameras developed by Cameron himself, Avatar provides an immersive experience like no other, but it's not the simple addition of a dimension that makes it so magnificent. Within Avatar exists a lush, bioluminescent world made entirely from scratch that would still be breathtaking without the aid of 3-D glasses. But with them, we're able to truly see what Cameron did differently. Rather than resorting to funhouse stunts and IFOs, Cameron thought about depth and perspective, and how creating scenes with close, deliberate attention paid to foreground, middle ground and background would pay off splendidly in 3-D without being dependent upon it. Even the less fantastical scenes attest to this, such as when Sam Worthington's Jake Sully first awakes on a space ship amidst a long tunnel filled with other sleeping passengers. I swear that tunnel stretched beyond the theater and into the street.
Cameron, with his biggest-of-all-time bragging rights and heaps of popularity, awards and acclaim, is the obvious culprit at whom to point the finger in response to the rise of 3-D mania. What hath this self-proclaimed King of the World wrought? Yet one man doing it right shouldn't be blamed for so many doing it wrong, grabbing at his coattails and delivering half-assed, counterfeit efforts. Only How to Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks Animation's disarming spin on the boy-and-his-dog tale, displayed anything close to Avatar levels of commitment or majesty, creating near-thrilling simulations of soaring through the air. But most of the movies promising that extra special visual pizazz have titles like My Bloody Valentine 3D. Coming at you this summer are two surefire tours de force: the campy B-movie Piranha 3D and the hip-hop dance sequel Step-Up 3D. (That last one just kills me, as if making gyrating torsos and sweat-covered brows really pop is going to mask what's bound to be a paper-thin plot with a run-of-the-mill romance.)
How to Train Your Dragon
As Roger Ebert recently pointed out, there's nothing wrong with 3-D being available as an option. The fear is that it's being positioned as the norm, the preference, and that moviegoers are being brainwashed into thinking it's the hottest ticket in town. Movie houses are being forced to bump certain films to make way for big, bad 3-D blockbusters. In March, the national average cost for a 3-D ticket rose by 26 percent, an increase which basically insists that what's generally incapable of adding anything to your viewing pleasure (other than interference) is worth anywhere from three to eight extra dollars. Just before Clash cashed in at the box office, Warner Brothers announced that all of its forthcoming tentpole films would be in 3-D, while Disney has nixed the production of traditional movies and DreamWorks Animation has vowed to only put out 3-D offerings. Are old-fashioned, already-endangered adult dramas and art house flicks being edged out for not being 3-D compatible? Is SPECTACLE going to be the only flavor advertised on the marquee? I sure hope not. It's to the point that I dread being handed 3-D glasses when I arrive at critics' screenings. I'm sick of the funhouse. I'm sick of the IFOs. I'm through with 3-D. That is, until the release of Avatar 2.
*This article was originally published in the June 2010 issue of ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.