The Virtues of Being Flat

July 23, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

3-D has been around for a long time. Until now, however, it has never been seen cinematically as anything more than a fad. Now, with techniques becoming more sophisticated and digital projectors multiplying like hyperactive cockroaches, we face a proliferation of 3-D titles. But a question lingers: is 3-D merely another legitimate tool in the filmmaker's arsenal, like color and sound, or is it little more than a gimmick designed to fool patrons into thinking their multiplex is a Six Flags amusement park?

Admittedly, viewing 3-D using polarized glasses is an improvement over the old red/green approach. But polarization isn't a panacea. It has problems that reduce the overall experience, and I haven't seen any indications that anyone is interested in rectifying them. As someone who wears glasses, I find the experience of placing the cheaply made 3-D glasses on over my spectacles to be uncomfortable, especially for long periods. They're tolerable for 10 minutes or so, but not for 90. I don't go to the movies to endure physical discomfort. Then there's the issue of image clarity. Seen though the glasses, these movies are dark and murky. Things might appear to fly at the viewer from the screen, but nothing "pops."

The worst problem with 3-D, however, is that it gives the filmmakers a license to skimp on things like story and character development. The reasoning, probably not flawed, is that people are there to see the 3-D in action, and everything else is a secondary concern. What has been forgotten is that while 3-D might be the lure to get customers into theaters, the other elements keep them there. Special effects enhanced Star Wars, but people loved the movie because of its characters and their circumstances. The prequel trilogy has much better effects, but the original trilogy is more beloved. Journey to the Center of the Earth is an example of a film with no redeeming values outside of its 3-D. (What does that say about watching it in a conventional theater?) I fear it may be the wave of the future. But is there anyone who gets a thrill out of riding a virtual roller coaster in 3-D?

I'm not saying it's impossible to make a good 3-D movie. James Cameron is apparently trying this. But the majority of projects in this arena are designed to maximize the "wow" factor at the expense of everything else. The wisdom of doing this is more than questionable since it diminishes what one expects from motion pictures. Sound, color, and widescreen were used to make the theatrical experience bigger and bolder. They were ways to more effectively tell stories. 3-D does not appear to be taking the same path. It is diminishing all the other elements of film for its own benefit. My concern is that in the not-too-distant future, we're going to be inundated by a series of faux amusement park rides. It used to be that video game arcades were in the lobbies. Now, they'll be in the auditoriums. How long before theater seats come equipped with joysticks? (Actually, there was an experiment of this sort back in the early '90s - a choose-your-own adventure kind of thing. The movie got to a pause point, viewers clicked a button on their controller, and the movie progressed based on majority choice. It was a massive failure. But that was then…)

While I acknowledge that 3-D could be a great boon to the movie industry, that's not what I have seen so far. In fact, my experience to date with 3-D has filled me with skepticism. I find it difficult to believe that people will accept so little quality in their movies just because they get to wear dark glasses and see someone spit at the camera lens. During Journey to the Center of the Earth, I found it to be cool for about 15 minutes, tiresome for the next 30 minutes, then virtually intolerable for the remainder of the running time. 3-D needs to evolve, but evolution isn't something filmmakers of these movies appear interested in. Instead, they're rushing product to market without considering what it's doing to film as a communal medium for storytelling.