“It’s just like real life!”: A Film Critic’s Journey into 3D

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3D isn’t 3D. The technology we experience when we put on those cumbersome glasses and sit down ready to watch the latest effects-laden blockbuster is best described as ‘poke-D’. We observe as various appendages, assortments of objects and shiny tree sprite thingys protrude from the screen. Poke-D is designed to immerse us, yet its actual function jolts us from the cinematic experience; each sword thrust or flying limb appears as a passing annoyance. The following ramble will document my own, rather mixed, experiences with the technology that is set to revolutionise the way we watch movies…apparently.

And what better place to start than with the grand-daddy of them all, the CGI-d behemoth that was supposed to showcase exactly what poke-D could do, the gargantuan, epic spectacle that was James Cameron’s Avatar. I got a headache. Don’t get me wrong, the film was decent enough even if its story was a tad original (Pocahontas in space, if you will), and very long. The problem was that I’d decided to wear contact lenses, so that by the 2-hour mark, each time I blinked, it felt like I had a piece of polystyrene in each eye socket. This malady then proceeded to spread up my optical nerve to my brain, culminating in a reaction that, exacerbated by the overwhelming poke-D visuals, made for a marathon in film viewing. Not to mention that I had seen some clips of the film on YouTube that looked as equally impressive as the finished article.

A few months, and aspirins, later, I went to see Tim Burton’s interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Re-staging the tale with Alice returning to Wonderland (now Underland) to liberate Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter et al. from Helena Bonham Carter’s oppresive and big-headed Red Queen, Burton’s customary eccentric and macabre visual flare meant that poke-D was completely unnecessary. In fact, there’s no sign of the technology at all during the first half hour with the action taking place at a quaint English garden party. Just as well, as I had no desire to see a scone in three dimensions.

Up next was Clash of the Titans, a remake of the 1981 film which boasted superb ‘tangimation’ effects by Ray Harryhausen and Laurence Olivier as Zeus. This version however, as with so many Hollywood re-hashes, smoothed over the original’s enjoyably camp edges with a testosterone-fueled CGI gloss, exemplified by a very shiny Liam Neeson replacing Olivier. Oh, and I hardly noticed the poke-D. This was probably due to the film’s retro-fitting, a process whereby the film is converted to 3D after it has finished shooting. The most interesting aspect of the screening was that, after having learned from my ocular aggravation in Avatar, I discovered I could fit my regular glasses over the 3D ones. Huzzah.

Then, poke-D technology was brought in to ‘soup up’ the latest (and supposed final) chapter in the Saw franchise. Ever the optimist, I entered the screening hoping that poke-D would make the film easier to endure; where blood-splattered flourishes and hacked off limbs flying out of the screen would distract me from the banal scripting and hokey acting of earlier entries in the series . Alas, it couldn’t. Apart from some sporadic offal splurges, it played out in exactly the same way as the previous seventy two installments (or however many there have been, I’ve lost count).

However, regardless of the gripes I have with the technology, the fact remains that it is becoming increasingly difficult to see 2D alternatives of films made for 3D. Earlier this month saw the release of Sanctum in 3D. The project – with 3D evangelist James Cameron’s name plastered over every poster, trailer and T.V. spot – is centred on a group of cave-divers and their desperate attempts to survive deep underground. The film (whose premise of being trapped in a cave seems immersive enough, without the need for 3D) was only being shown in 3D at two local multiplexes, with one of them also exhibiting it in IMAX for optimum migraine inducement. Also, at the time of writing, animated films Tangled and Gnomeo and Juliet are being favoured for 3D projection over 2D, sometimes at a 4:1 ratio.

This evidence seems to demonstrate that, locally at least, the industry (producers, distributors and exhibitors alike) are acknowledging the influence the format is having on audience viewing habits. Following the ascendancy of the blockbuster during the 1970s and the 1980s, the 21st century is the era of spectacle cinema. So, costly mainstream fare like Tron Legacy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Green Hornet continue to dominate at cinema screens across the country.

Traditionalist film lovers, such as myself, must cling to small victories against the onslaught of 3D, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 running out of time for 3D conversion (Part 2, though, is still planned to be released in 3D), and Christopher Nolan preferring the IMAX format for the release of his cerebral workout Inception last summer.

It remains to be seen if the format will last. It should be noted that the industry tried and failed with 3D before, when it attempted to compete with television’s exhibition of film in the 50s. Today, the format is being used to lure audiences back to the cinema and away from their computer screens. But this all comes at a cost. Non-concession 3D tickets can cost in excess of £10 and student tickets a couple of pounds less. Hopefully, if (and that’s a big ‘if’) 3D does become the industry standard for film exhibition, the price will come down, because a tenner for us students is quite an investment.

And so we return to the opening remark: 3D isn’t 3D. A totally immersive cinema experience – which simulations at theme parks came close to capturing in the 1980s – will never be possible until screens are constructed at each of the spectator’s peripheries (above, below, at each side), thus literally positioning the viewer in the action of the film. And who knows how much that will cost? The current fad of 3D is just that, a novelty. If you want to see the world in three dimensions, take off the glasses.

Top 10 Highest Grossing Films 2010

1) Toy Story 3 ($1.05 bn), 2) Alice in Wonderland ($1.02 bn), 3) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 ($831m), 4) Inception ($825m), 5) Shrek Forever After ($737m), 6) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($693m), 7) Iron Man 2 ($622m), 8) Despicable Me ($539m), 9) Clash of the Titans ($493m), 10) How to Train Your Dragon ($493m).

As well as demonstrating the startling lack of creativity in Hollywood at the moment, with seven of the ten films being sequels or remakes, six were shown in 3D. Not only that, but the two top earners worldwide of last year were shown in the format, gaining entry into the exclusive billionaire’s club in the process. This could of course be partly due to the higher 3D ticket costs, but it also provides evidence for the immense popularity of 3D technology. Although, with the exception of Toy Story 3, it’s rather worrying that films as narratively hollow as Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans are earning big bucks.

3D Films in 2011

Captain Jack, the final Potter, Bieber, the return of an overweight panda, and Nicolas Cage breaking out of hell; here’s a list of some of the 3D films we can look forward to (or, feel nauseous to) in 2011:

February – Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Drive Angry; April – Sucker Punch, Rio, Thor; May – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; June – Kung Fu Panda 2; July – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cars 2; August – The Smurfs, Final Destination 5; October – The Three Musketeers 3D, Contagion, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

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2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Great article, couldn’t agree more, especially with regards with the lack of original ideas in Hollywood. The list of upcoming 2011 releases are all either adaptations of known-properties, sequels or remakes. Is it any wonder that the academy voted ‘The King’s Speech’, an independent non-US production, as best film? (Not that awards matter, but still…)

    3D is a gimmick that’s been around almost as long as cinema has existed, and has always been used by Hollywood whereever there’s a reason why people would choose not to pay money to sit in a theatre. In the early ’50s there was a massive increase of 3D releases due to the increasing prominence of television and today is just a repeat of this situation in the age of youtube, filesharing and torrents. There’s a graph that illustrates this well: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_74nckAWBvYU/SCZCUe7kf7I/AAAAAAAAAPM/uRQOzDrE_6k/s1600/3D_releases_graph.gif

    • avatar
      Adam Vaughan on

      Thanks for your comments Nick! It does depress me to look at those upcoming releases. Saw the trailer for ‘The 3D Musketeers’ the other day, and blimey, they fit in quite a lot of sword-poking in 2 minutes.
      Although, I recently saw Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ where, unlike James Cameron’s ‘Sanctum’ released a few months back, the 3D actually achieves the ‘immersive’ effect. Whether it’s just as impressive in 2D as it was in 3D, I’ll have to find out.

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