3D: Fact or Fad

It’s become the linchpin of many a recent review. As Clash of the Titans prepares to take on the first week of April at your local Cineplex, many critics are complaining about the “awful” 3D on display and Warner Brothers decision to retrofit the standard Louis Leterrrier action/adventure with the latest cinematic fad. For many, it is a poor fit, the original filmmaking not pliant enough to warrant the movie make-over. Even worse, the elements “added in” to heighten the effect are cheesy and/or clunky. But the bigger question remains why – why take a standard sword and sorcery spectacle and try to cram it into the latest commercial cash machine? The last three words of the previous sentence seem to answer that question with obvious ease.

With the recent announcement that theater owners will raise their prices on all 3D and IMAX presentations (some as much as 40%!!!), it’s clear that many believe the updated Ike-era ‘gimmick’ is here to stay. But with only two real recent examples of unqualified success (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland) and more than a few quasi-failures (My Bloody Valentine, The Final Destination), the jury remains out on the stereoscopic stunt. Granted, we’ve come a long way from two-tone glasses and badly realized visuals. In fact, most of James Cameron’s billion dollar hit rests on the fact that he purposely created his sci-fi epic to fit within the new ‘Real’ deal. But that doesn’t mean the fad has become fact, and there are several reasons to worry about the idea’s viability.

If you’ve walked through a Best Buy or any other electronics store recently, you’ve seen the latest attempt to significantly lighten your bank account – 3D television. It’s a really weird idea, like laserdisc except with even more limited appeal and supporting software. Initial reports have the image iffy and the overall effect questionable, but the fact remains that in a weak economy with skyrocketing unemployment, yet another media conglomerate believes that a new/old presentation platform offers an unlimited financial opportunity. Really? Aside from a relatively small collective of ballers, celebrutantes, and greed hackers, who can afford $8500 for a tricked out TV? With theaters asking for anywhere between $15 and $19 to experience the often unsuccessful ploy, who’s fooling who?

Here’s the bigger point – not every movie is Avatar. Again, Cameron did indeed create his eco-friendly alien adventure to fit perfectly within the depth of field facets of 3D. All the computer-generated material meshed perfectly, creating a real sense of immersion, excitement, and place. Add in IMAX, which significantly boosts details, and you’ve got a perfect visual storm set to destroy all box office records. Alice in Wonderland is less successful, but still “gets” the way in which 3D can work. When we see Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter walking alone along a vast Underland horizon, the result is truly magical. Yet even director Tim Burton can’t avoid the “gotcha” aspects of the approach, throwing items at the screen like a goofy Goth Dr. Tongue.

Unless the industry plans on making 3D the standard – and they can’t all agree on digital vs. actual celluloid – we are bound to see many more Clash of the Titans and fewer and fewer Avatars. As it stands, we should be prepared for Halloween 3D, Saw VII 3D, Beauty and the Beast (the old Disney cartoon retooled), Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, and – here’s a classic – Step Up 3D among many, many more. It seems like every studio, sensing the co-conspiratorial avarice in the theaterowners hearts, believes there is a stunning opportunity to wantonly rake in the Jack, and so they start turning everything they can into an oddball format only release. Want to see Tyler Perry’s latest, or the most recent Nicholas Sparks adaptation? Well, grab your hermetically sealed plastics glasses and pay up, chump.

Perhaps one of the reasons critics are complaining, however, is that movies NOT MADE for the medium become lost in its limited returns. Recently, a fledgling DVD distributor took F. W. Murnau’s silent vampire film Nosferatu and, through computer generated additions and specious editorial work, tried to turn it into a blue/red 3D title. The reason? They argued that “this was the way the director intended the film to be seen.” Huh? A man making movies in the earliest part of the 20th century wanted his moody example of German expressionism to be viewed dimensionally? The real reason, of course, is money. Just like the major moviemaking big wigs, there is a genuine belief that if you toss the tag onto anything, it will make major bank.

But is that really true? Are Avatar and Alice in Wonderland the examples that set the standard or are they mere anomalies in a situation still untested? How to Train Your Dragon opened big (with an ad campaign suggesting it beats Cameron’s vision) and there are great expectations for many of the titles listed previously. But what if Clash fails? Will people be complaining about the 3D, or the sloppy script? Even better, how many will walk out bellyaching about the optical element, and how many will be tweeting incessantly about the scattershot narrative and nonsensical characterization. Truth be told, Clash may be the best test case to date. It’s a wildly uneven movie, with as many highs and lows. If it’s massive, 3D may have a boxer’s chance.

If it not, however, it may be time to take such treatment from “fact” back to “fad”. It’s impossible to imagine your average struggling family coughing up thousands of much needed dollars on a technology so limited and likeminded. Unlike other advancements such as CG, which can be used for an almost infinite number of things, 3D can only do one – add depth to an image. It can’t repaint the world in photorealistic visuals or conjure up creatures with lifelike realism. Instead, it makes objects farther away from the lens appear just that, and visa versa. Not the most versatile of cinematic variables. Such restrictions suggest that 3D will only last as long as the ideas do – and once you’ve seen one blood-spattered axe hurtling at you in semi-realistic authenticity, you’ve seen them all.

Still, Hollywood is determined to prove the past wrong, Winston Churchill be damned. Who cares if the concept was rejected in both the ’50s and the ’80s as nothing more than an unnecessary theatrical tweak. Captain Eo and a bunch of blue extraterrestrials have shown us the pure polarized light! True, the new version of 3D is almost flawless in its recreation abilities, but even the most perfect pile of crap is still that – crap. Tinseltown has often been guilty of killing the fatted calf and the golden goose long before their feasibility as commercial sustenance has been established (isn’t that right, torture porn?). 3D seems destined to crash and burn without ever once proving its potential – and fading away quickly is the very definition of a whim.