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The 3-D Time Bomb

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In my years, I have seen the 3-D movie fad come and go a few times. It’s always the “next big thing” that’s “just around the corner,” but every time we round that corner, poof! The next big thing has packed it in and skipped town. That’s one reason why I remain skeptical that Hollywood’s current infatuation with three dimensions is anything but a passing fancy, not a committed relationship. The movie business will eventually return to its normally shallow, two-dimensional ways.

This current cinematic affair with depth seems to have a bit more staying power than before. Obviously the technology is much improved over early attempts. Early flirtations with 3-D have always seemed a little like a quickie in the back seat with a girl from the trailer park. This new wave at least feels like you and Alma Lou have gotten a room at the Super8. The glasses no longer give me a headache and feeling of nausea like I just woke up from a three-day bender. I have to concede, if this girl is here to stay, you can take her home to meet the folks (as long as she wears something that covers that tattoo on her lower back).

The main reason that this 3-D fling might be semi-permanent is that Hollywood (and the theater chains) have discovered that they can charge a 50-60 percent premium for tickets to movies when they are shown in 3D, artificially inflating the box office grosses. The gargantuan success of James Cameron’s Avatar has seduced the film industry into thinking that any 3-D film is a license to print money. As a result, since the beginning of 2010, almost every movie of the action and fantasy variety has been released as a 3-D movie, even if it wasn’t filmed that way.

When I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which had been converted after the fact to 3-D, the effect was… so what? 3-D added virtually nothing to my enjoyment of the film, which was pretty minimal to begin with. The impact of a third dimension is severely diluted if the image on the screen was not composed with that in mind, with the necessary depth of field. I remain skeptical that a 3-D conversion can ever be as effective as a film shot with 3-D cameras in the first place.

Hollywood learned the wrong lessons from Avatar, that 3-D films were a sure thing, like the girl who lets everybody who says she’s pretty into her knickers (probably because of some serious self-esteem issues, if you know what I mean). The lesson they should have taken away was that it takes a visual spectacle and a master technician like James Cameron to make 3-D even worth the effort. Let any hack make a 3-D movie and you’ll just wind up with things flying randomly at the screen, because everyone knows that is what you have to do when you make 3-D movies, just like every Led Zeppelin cover band has to play “Whole Lotta Love.”

Avatar played none of those cheap tricks with us. The 3-D effect was used adroitly to give Cameron’s imagined world a startlingly immersive quality. Thanks to the director’s skillful use of the third dimension, Sully’s trips through the trees of Pandora were breathtaking and vertigo-inducing. This is good because, without the 3-D effect, you soon realize that you’re just watching a $300 million version of Pocahontas without the narrative depth of the Disney cartoon.

And there’s no way around the fact that the current wave of 3-D is going to be with us for a while. George Lucas is going to start releasing 3-D versions of all six Star Wars movies and Peter Jackson is shooting the two new Hobbit movies in 3-D as well. I’m actually okay with both of those, because I’m now used to Lucas wringing every last dollar out of his credulous fans and because, like Cameron, Jackson is a technical master who will make the 3-D work for his films. Hopefully, like the Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit will also be worth watching in plain old 2-D as well.

About Paul McElligott

  • Heloise

    People will vote with their feet. As I expressed in my review of Inception I made two predictions: that it will be nominated for an Oscar, true and second that Hollywood and indies should take note that a good film with great spec effects would go far. I know inception was not a cheap film but it’s no avatar in terms of budget. Its EV was up there too.

    You are so right to compare how Cameron MADE avatar for 3D not the other way around. And damn it pulled me in from the getgo. Hope Hollywood does not get stuck on the 3D tract for its own sake and for people who like the film–not the fudge.

  • John Boden

    Hi Paul, interesting article.

    Although I disagree that 3D is likely to come to its knees any time soon. As people keep coming to see these films, it’ll be here to stay. The other thing is that people are now going to cinemas and specifically asking to watch a 3D film in the same way that punters would ask for a comedy or a romantic film.

    My main issue with this is that films such as the latest Pirates of the Carribean, which had very little 3D scenes, are charging the same amount as films like Avatar and Tron Legacy. That in my opinion is wrong.

    Anyway, this was a good read :) check out my blog if you get time.

  • El Bicho

    “Hollywood and indies should take note that a good film with great spec effects would go far.”

    That’s a prediction? I think Hollywood already took note of that back when Star Wars came out

  • Paul

    “I think Hollywood already took note of that back when Star Wars came out.”

    The business side of Hollywood has a hard enough time remembering last week, much less 35 years ago.

  • zingzing

    paul, how many formulaic movies have you seen?

  • El Bicho

    Considering Hollywood beats concepts into the ground in an effort to wring every last buck out, not sure that assessment is accurate, Paul. Look at the sequels, remakes, and games properties hitting theaters.

  • zingzing

    the superhero movie! superman! two! three! supergirl! superman 4! resurrected as batman! resurrected as batman again (nipples edition)! (sidestep to catwoman!) resurrected as batman begins! in imax! in 3d! tmnt! tmnt II: the oozing! blade, Blade, BLADE! daredevil bombs! try daredevil again (it’s in the works)! hellboy! hellboy II (the fx edition)! x-men, once, twice, thrice! x-men again! solo wolverine vehicle goes off the tracks! try it again! Spider-man, SPIDER-MAN, spider-man! a new attempt at superman! another attempt at superman coming soon! fantastic four (they had a movie!) then another fantastic four movie! superhero movie in irreverent form, with snot-nosed tweeners (at least twice)! hulk (green)! hulk again (green)! try the graphic novel out! iron man! iron man sucks! green hornet! green lantern! get kenneth branagh involved! and the beat goes on…

  • Callib Carver

    I gotta agree, if you’re not going to do it right, then it’s pointless. James Cameron was able to make avatar a success because he can do CGI, and 3-D. But all the other studios are focused on money. Thus they won’t put the same effort into it as he did.

  • Paul

    “Considering Hollywood beats concepts into the ground in an effort to wring every last buck out, not sure that assessment is accurate, Paul. Look at the sequels, remakes, and games properties hitting theaters.”

    That’s reflex, not memory.

  • zingzing

    oh, good god, paul. you’re kidding.