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.