3-D Fails Another Test

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In two earlier Dorf on Law posts -- "Tech for Tech's Sake," a bit more than two years ago, and "The Third Dimension," last Spring -- I commented on the use of three-dimensional technology in modern movies. (In the original post, I drew an analogy between 3-D movies and a recent trend in the academic legal literature. I have since dropped any pretense that this is anything but a discussion of movies by an amateur film buff.)

Referencing 3-D versions of "Beowulf," "A Nightmare Before Christmas" (which I had also seen in 2-D years before), and "Monsters vs. Aliens," I expressed surprise that a fringe technology that had been around since the 1950's had suddenly become the new fad in Hollywood. On the merits, I concluded that 3-D technology not only was not a revolutionary breakthrough but was possibly even a distraction that diminished the movie-going experience.

For some reason, Hollywood has ignored my opinion, and the rush to release more and more movies in 3-D has only intensified over the last year. The buzz among techies is that 3-D television is not far away (making my recent purchase of a 50" plasma TV look quaint). As a lover of movies and TV, I continue to hope that all of this energy will result in something great, something that justifies all the time and money spent on chasing this new technology. This is, therefore, yet another case where I hope to be proved wrong. (My current view of the Obama administration is another.)

I should state clearly that 3-D technology does continue to improve on a technical level. The images really do look three-dimensional and natural most of the time, rather than weirdly floating in odd juxtaposition to one another (as in "Beowulf"). Even so, the audience still must wear those annoying glasses, which is the next technological hurdle.

It is also notable that there is no longer a price premium for 3-D films, removing one of the possible explanations for Hollywood's obsession with pushing such movies. At this point, it has apparently become necessary to compete with other studios by releasing 3-D movies. A big part of this, of course, is generational. I am no longer in the key movie demographic (by any stretch of the imagination), and children are now growing up taking 3-D technology for granted. There is probably no going back.

Inevitability does not, however, imply superiority. Whereas previous technological breakthroughs -- moving cameras, sound, color, "Star Wars"-style special effects -- were truly and obviously breakthroughs that changed what movies can do, it is my strong impression that 3-D still does nothing to improve (or even change in a meaningful way) the viewer's engagement with a movie.

As always, my opinion is subject to revision based on new evidence. I was, therefore, especially intrigued by the possibilities presented by "Avatar" as an example of a movie that would deliver on the promise of 3-D technology. Being a skeptic of 3-D, I first saw the movie in 2-D shortly after its release (and thus before it had become a mega-hit). I decided that this would be a good opportunity to compare and contrast technologies, so I recently went to see the movie in 3-D. Much to my surprise, I found even with this movie that the 3-D version was no more interesting or entertaining than the 2-D version. The 3-D version was not worse (which was the case for "A Nightmare Before Christmas"), but it was no better. I should emphasize that I really liked the movie in both versions. I am not, therefore, saying that it is a bad movie. It is just not any better in 3-D.

Most readers will have seen "Avatar" by now, I suspect. Although it is not as good as "Blade Runner," the two movies are comparable in having extremely pedestrian plots combined with wildly imaginative fictional settings. "Blade Runner" was based on a very old sci-fi concept about the nature of consciousness and humanity, with a plot twist that one could see coming a mile away. "Avatar" was (and I mean this descriptively) a simple "noble savages vs. white exploiters" story. It is "Dances With Wolves on Another Planet," or perhaps "Dances With Blue Cat People." Given how good "Dances With Wolves" was, however, that is not an insult. It is merely to say that the genius of the film is not in telling a unique story but in presenting a revolutionary visual experience.

Which makes this, I thought, a perfect test case for 3-D technology. In a world with floating mountains, bright purple birds, and glowing plants, 3-D would have its best chance to prove its worth. Surprisingly, nothing in the 3-D version was any more thrilling or more vividly imagined than in the 2-D version. The filmmakers deserve credit for not throwing things at the audience just to make them flinch, which shows admirable restraint (and a lack of desperation). Nevertheless, even the scenes with characters flying on "horseback" were no better in 3-D than in 2-D. (There were great in either version.)

Perhaps, however, this is an unfair test of 3-D. A movie that is so visually riveting in 2-D technology might simply not be open to improvement. If so, however, we have a problem. "Beowulf" was a mediocre-to-bad movie, and 3-D could not save it. "Monsters vs. Aliens" was a pretty good movie, but 3-D did not improve it. "A Nightmare Before Christmas" was an excellent movie," and 3-D made it less great. And now "Avatar" is a visually stunning movie that 3-D could do nothing to improve. Where is the opening for 3-D to do something positive for movies?

As I mentioned above, none of this will slow the rush toward adopting 3-D technology for more and more films. Will it become the case that every movie will be released only in 3-D? Will brilliant films like "A Single Man" and "A Serious Man" be produced in 3-D, "just because"? We do see movies that forsake the use of some modern technologies (most obviously "Star Wars"-like special effects, but also artistic decisions to film entirely or partially in black-and-white), so it is possible that filmmakers will continue to produce films as different (and great) as "Up in the Air" and "Drag Me to Hell" without resorting to the new technology.

One of the best films of 2009, "Inglourious Basterds," obviously could not have been improved by 3-D technology. Even so, its director, Quentin Tarantino, is a genius at mixing visual styles within one film. (See especially the "Kill Bill" movies, which wove together not only color and black-and-white filming but even anime.) Maybe Tarantino will figure out a way to make 3-D both interesting and essential. I remain skeptical but ever hopeful.