3-D Revisited

March 12, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

After seeing Coraline, I was hopeful that the hype emerging from the major studios about 3-D being the "wave of the future" might have a basis in reality. Granted, 3-D wasn't used perfectly in Coraline, but it seemed to be at best an enhancement and at worst a neutral feature (one that at least didn't damage the movie-watching experience). I was enthused enough that I spent $30 for a pair of clip-ons with circularly polarized lenses. Thus armed, I could eliminate one of the biggest impediments to my enjoying 3-D movies: physical discomfort. Then came Monsters vs. Aliens. (I will refrain from writing about specifics since the movie has not yet opened and the review will not be posted for another two weeks.)

One cannot write off any cinematic advancement based on one failed experiment (or even a few) but Monsters vs. Aliens does not bolster the case that 3-D is the greatest motion picture innovation since sound or color. Since the Superbowl commercial, Monsters vs. Aliens has established itself as a 3-D standard-bearer; consequently, I expected this to provide incontrovertible proof that 3-D is more than a gimmick. Sadly, "gimmicky" is the best descriptor I can come up with to describe the implementation of 3-D in this production. I'm having trouble deciding if the movie doesn't work because it relies on 3-D to the detriment of all else, or whether the 3-D is so distracting that everything else is suppressed. In either case, the problem with Monsters vs. Aliens is that it's in 3-D. Those who see it in 2-D (where it will be more readily available) will likely have a very different impression of the film.

All of this raises one serious concern about 3-D that I haven't previously discussed in my ruminations about the subject: can 3-D, by its very nature, be so distracting that, instead of making the experience more immersive for the viewer, it has the opposite effect? One thing I noticed during Monsters vs. Aliens is that I was not connecting with the story or the characters. It was as if the film's 3-D elements had erected an artificial barrier. Sure, it was fun to see things flying out of the screen, but the more obvious the 3-D effects were, the less I was "into" the film.

The first time I was introduced to 3-D via circular polarization was in the 1990s at Universal Studios Florida. The attraction was "Terminator 3-D," a 10-minute short featuring the stars of Terminator 2 and directed by James Cameron. It was pretty spectacular, but it was never intended to be a fully realized cinematic experience. It was an amusement park ride. And that’s how I felt about Monsters vs. Aliens, except that it was about ten times too long for what it offers. Maybe it's that the Coraline filmmakers had a better idea of how to incorporate 3-D into a movie. Or perhaps Dreamworks has gotten it right and the point of 3-D isn't to make a movie better but to transform it into something where the "Wow!" factor trumps all other concerns. As I child, I always preferred novels to pop-up books, although the latter had a limited, ephemeral entertainment value; maybe that's how I feel about movies.

Cameron's Avatar is looking increasingly like the acid test for 3-D, although the temptation exists to see it in a "regular" theater, where I can absorb the story without being worried about 3-D as a distraction. If my experience with Monsters vs. Aliens is an example, it indicates that the 3-D experience can be damaging. So is it better to see a movie like this in 2-D then, if it's any good, go back and see it again in 3-D? Does that sort of double-dipping make any sense? Shouldn't 3-D provide more, not less?

I can understand the studios' love affair with 3-D. There's a surcharge of about $3 on tickets (some of which comes back to the theater, but a portion of which gets passed along). Kids, who are interested in shiny things, are automatically more interested. And, perhaps most importantly, piracy becomes a non-issue. No need to worry about someone sneaking a video camera into a theater. Not only won't the 3-D be rendered effectively, but the images will be unwatchable. For the time being, 3-D is virtually pirate-proof, and that's something Hollywood loves.

I'm in the position of believing that if anyone can do something positive with 3-D, it's Cameron. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, I believed that of Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose whistle-stop, pro-3-D tour around the country last year got me excited about seeing his vision of the future brought to the screen. I didn't expect the Emperor to have no clothes. So, following Monsters vs. Aliens, we're left with a handful of second-rate 3-D features dotting the landscape between now and Christmas - then Avatar. And if even Cameron can't get it right, at least we can look forward to George Lucas once again tinkering with his babies and bringing us Luke, Han, and Darth in glorious 3-D. May the Force be with him.