The Third Dimension

January 31, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

One question a lot of people are asking is whether 3-D is here to stay or whether it's a fad destined to fade as people grow tired of it. The answer lies in two arenas: the ability of technology to continually improve the process and the willingness of 3-D filmmakers to challenge themselves to tell compelling stories. It's like when sound came to cinema. Filmmakers used it as a tool to enhance their productions not as the reason for them to exist. A lot of powerful and influential Hollywood movers-and-shakers are betting that this latest generation of 3-D (only a distant cousin to the cheesiness of the '50s) is here to stay and will become the major revenue-producer as we move into the next decade (which begins on Jan 1, 2011 - not January 1, 2010).

The cool-looking but cheaply made plastic glasses are uncomfortable for those who wear spectacles and will continue to be so until such time as clip-ons or prescription 3-D (polarized) glasses are available. (This will happen sooner rather than later if 3-D catches on - I'd spend a few bucks on clip-ons now.) However, that discomfort can be mitigated by an involving narrative. Most of the 3-D movies I have seen to-date have had the distinguishing characteristic of throw-away screenplays. The films rely on 3-D to keep viewers in their seats, never daring to offer anything that might detract from the pure spectacle of the experience. For me, this means a lot of squirming and frequent re-adjustments of the glasses. Give me something meaty, however, and I'd probably forget about the glasses and concentrate on what's on the screen. It's analogous to watch checking. If a movie is good, I might go through the entire two hours without once glancing at my watch. If the film is not working, I'm checking the time every five minutes and lamenting the fact that the hands on my Indiglo Timex are moving too slowly.

Digital is 3-D's best friend, which is one reason why we're seeing such a dramatic ramp-up in 3-D features in 2009 (about ten are on their way). Now that more than a handful of multiplexes have digital projectors, 3-D is becoming available on a widespread basis. (Digital-capable screens have doubled in number during the last 1 1/2 years, from 2% of the total to 4%.) The format has some boosters who are pouring money and sweat into it: Jeffrey Katzenberg (the "K" of Dreamworks SKG), George Lucas (the filmmaker who made American Graffiti), and James Cameron (the co-screenwriter of Rambo: First Blood II) are all proponents of 3-D and if that's their vision for the future, that may indeed be the direction in which we're headed. What's eye candy today may be the norm tomorrow. Back in the '30s, some argued that sound was destroying the artistic merit of film. And, while there's something poetic about the best silent films, I'm not interesting in re-visiting that era. Perhaps my grandchildren will feel the same way about 2-D. (Although, to be sure, audience members didn't need special equipment to hear dialogue the way they do to resolve 3-D images. Someday, maybe we'll have true 3-D: holographic images.)

My Bloody Valentine 3-D is a perfect example of how not to use 3-D: as a marketing hook. There's no possible reason to see this movie in traditional 2-D unless you're into pointless splatter movies (which, admittedly, some people are). The 3-D at least gives it a lurid, amusement park element but that's not why I go to the movies. The film's box office performance - a high peak then a steep crash - illustrates that there's a curiosity factor but it doesn't run deep. The perception of the moment is that 3-D is for kids - that's why it is being used primarily for family fare.

The first "big" 3-D film of 2009 reaches theaters next weekend: Coraline. Due to a major traffic jam, I was unable to make the screening, so I can't provide any insight into how good the film looks, but an attempt has been made to put effort into more than the film's look. The involvement of names like Henry Selick and Neal Gaiman (who wrote the book) would seem to indicate that the project was taken seriously. Strangely, however, marketing for the film has been tepid. Coraline is not being touted as an event. As far as I can tell, it's slipping relatively quietly into theaters.

The same cannot be said about Monsters vs. Aliens, which will explode upon the scene in late March. Two months away, the publicity machine is already in high gear. Jeffrey Katzenberg helmed a cross-country traveling road show that touted the benefits of 3-D. Katzenberg is one of the true believers, which is reason to suspect that Monsters vs. Aliens will be the real deal. (Ironically, the litmus test for whether Monsters works could be whether it's effective in 2-D. ) The next step forward for Monsters vs. Aliens is the Superbowl. A commercial for the movie (airing at the end of the second quarter) will be shown in 3-D. (Note: this won't be the higher quality polarized 3-D available in digital theaters. It will be the old-style stereoscopic green/red 3-D.) Cheap cardboard glasses are available in grocery stores everywhere. Dreamworks is trying to develop the airing of the commercial into an event. That's right - they're marketing a commercial. But it's a smart thing to do: Not only will it raise awareness of the film but it will add a dimension to how people consider it. There's a difference between saying a movie is in 3-D and showing it.

Of course, one should not expect the TV commercial to come close to the movie in its 3-D impact. The glasses are barely tolerable for the 90 seconds when they'll be used Sunday night, the red/green lenses distort color, and 3-D effects on a TV screen cannot compare to those in a movie theater, where the screen is more than ten times larger. But immersion is not what Dreamworks is searching for; it's awareness. And the millions of dollars being spent on Sunday should accomplish that. NBC and SoBe are piggybacking on this. The latter has a 3-D commercial being aired during the same break as the Monsters vs. Aliens trailer; the former has converted its Monday night episode of Chuck into 3-D. It's unclear whether the 3-D spot will make its way in an official capacity onto the web, although that would make sense. (I was unable to get a definitive answer.)

With apologies to Katzenberg, however, the big day for 3-D may be December 18, 2009. That's when James Cameron returns to feature filmmaking after 12 years with the highly anticipated Avatar. It would not be a stretch to say this is the most hotly anticipated motion picture since The Phantom Menace. Little is known about it at this point, but one thing is clear: this is Cameron's full frontal pitch for 3-D. Few have been more ardent in their support of the format than Cameron. According to him, Avatar will show the true potential of what 3-D can do, and will open the way for theaters to once again offer an experience that cannot effectively be replicated at home. (This, by the way, presumes that Avatar is ready for the December release date. Cameron's previous movie had to be delayed six months because it came in late and over budget.)

What about the future? A lot hinges on the performance of these three films. If Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Avatar are successful, the 3-D revolution will be in full swing. An increasing number of family friendly features and would-be blockbusters will arrive bursting from the screens. (Although it will probably be a very long time before a Jane Austen adaptation gets that kind of treatment.) George Lucas has already tossed out the idea of transforming the Star Wars movies into 3-D, perhaps for theatrical release in another year or two.

Decades ago, 3-D was never seen as more than a cheap gimmick, not much more legitimate than "Smell-O-Vision." It was expensive, unwieldy, and prone to causing headaches. But technology has evolved 3-D as it has evolved nearly everything else. There's no doubt that we have reached a point where 3-D, used properly, can enhance the motion picture industry. The question remains whether filmmakers possess sufficient wisdom that, in the pursuit of a more intense theatrical experience, they don't gut the elements that make movies more than virtual amusement park rides.