Let me tell you young’ens a story about the ancient year of 1983. I was a very young and impressionable little film freak, but even I could smell the stink from the pile of 3D movies that was hitting the screens. Jaws 3, Friday the 13th Part 3, Amityville, Parasite, Spachunter, Starchaser, Comin’ at Ya!, Treasure of the Four Crowns … and those were the good ones. Yes, for about 18 months, the 1950s sensation was back, and it sucked.
3D was invented as one of several gimmicks created to keep moviegoers distracted from how awesome television is. And then it came back in the ‘80s to try and distract people from those new-fangled VHS machines and high-tech video game set-ups like the Atari 2600. And now it’s back for an extended stay because someone in Hollywood looked around and said “Crap! There are way too many entertainment options these days! We need to dust off our secret weapon! Yes, my brilliant fellow studio executives, we must resort to 3D again. We’re desperate.”
Now, however, we have all sorts of allegedly dazzling technology that will allow 3D to be well and truly “immersive,” which isn’t exactly what the creators of Amityville 3D were going for, so surely this is a welcome return. Computer technology will allow 3D to become mainstream, commonly accepted, and perhaps even awesomely popular! Plus they charge a few dollars more for the 3D screenings! Everyone wins!
Oh, except for my assertion that 3D sucks, and even when it doesn’t suck (Avatar and Beowulf come to mind) (fine, and My Bloody Valentine), it’s a glitzy little light show that exists just to make your tickets 30% more expensive. And the 3D blu-ray? That’s about 50% pricier than the “plain” option. If only a similarly revolutionary new advancement in the craft of screenwriting took place, then maybe we’d be somewhere. As long as our huge leaps in filmmaking lie solely within the realm of technology, we’re missing something. A studio will spend millions to make a film “look 3D,” but they won’t spend a fraction of that to make sure their shooting script is kicking ass on all cylinders.
To use only one recent example of a solid popcorn movie marred by egregiously pointless 3D, imagine the entry-level (or even seasoned) set designer who worked hard for months on Thor, who gets word, well after production has wrapped, that the flick is about to be converted into 3D. That artist would probably be crushed, and here’s why: I saw it in Thor and in Clash of the Titans and even in The Green Hornet: the practical materials on the set are dulled, muddied, and made blurry. Someone’s art, that they took some real pride in, is made a lot less interesting … because of simple, stupid greed. The movie business has always been a rickety balance between art and commerce, obviously, but it’s rare to see a company DAMAGE its own product, all in the name of a quick buck.
The loudest supporters of the 3D trend -- the people who make the movies, slap “3D!” on to the poster, and then stare the most intently at the opening weekend cash haul -- will no doubt point to the few high-end 3D experiences and preach about the “immersive” nature of the experience. And while that may certainly be true with a few movies, here’s a novel response: I don’t WANT to be “immersed” in a movie. I want to WATCH a movie and, get this, ask the writers, the directors, the actors, and the artists to “immerse” me in their story. I don’t want a high-tech book that will immerse me in giant letters, and I don’t need a chintzy-looking 3D presentation to get me there through artificial means.
So to James Cameron, a great storyteller who seems way too obsessed with one small facet of the filmmaking process, I say this: The Terminator is immersive. It has great action and a really clever sci-fi hook. Aliens is immersive. It elevates what we loved about the original film and does so with energy, originality, and strength of character. The Abyss is immersive. It’s just a really cool movie about a bunch of people immersed in something. Nobody seems to mind that they’re merely 2D … and those frankly fantastic action sequences in Avatar? Just as powerful in two simple dimensions. Perhaps even more, because we’re being asked to stare AT a dazzling spectacle, and not being forced to live inside it.
(To Robert Zemeckis … I don’t even know where to begin. It’s depressing to see the director of Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Back to the Future spend so much time with dead-eyed animated characters in charmless 3D worlds.)
“In 3D” is, to me, the same as “Now with louder explosions!” or “Improved wiith new shinier CGI!” These are visual tools that are employed to help tell a good story. They are not the story.