Monday, June 8, 2009

The 3D Renaissance So Far

These days the big marketing gimmick for movies is putting them in 3D. Even though only about 26% of theaters in the country are capable of showing movies in 3D, it seems like every family and horror movie being released in the upcoming months is touting that you can see it in 3D.

Probably the most major difference between today's 3D movies and the ones of old is that they're now shown using glasses with one lens darker than the other, as opposed ones with red and blue lenses (the exception being Robert Rodriguez's Sharkboy and Lavagirl.) Aside from that, filmmakers have tried to assure the viewing public that the current experience is more comfortable and less headache inducing. So, having just seen Disney/Pixar's Up in 3D last weekend, I thought it would be worth giving my take on the rebirth of 3D so far.

Of all the 3D movies released recently, I've only seen four: Beowulf, Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens and Up. So far my overall take on it is "meh." I've seen it done well and I've seen it done badly, but it hasn't yet convinced me that it's the next wave of filmmaking, or that it's worth the $3 premium charged for tickets. Lets look at them one by one:


I'm going to get this out of the way first: Beowulf was a bad movie. Not in that Sam Rami, it's-so-bad-its-good way. This was a slow paced, intellectual musing on that poem we all had to read in English class, trying to masquerade as a big budget epic. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the source material. Clearly it worked for the film The 13th Warrior, which was content with just being an action movie. It didn't work in Zemeckis's Beowulf because it tried to be a no holds barred spectacle with an all star cast, hyper-realistic CGI animation and of course, 3D. However, the scope of the underlying screenplay didn't offer anything so grand to warrant all of this.

Unfortnately, it wasn't just the storytelling that was bad. The 3D had much to be desired as well. I'll give the filmmakers credit that some scenes looked phenomenal in 3D, such as when Grendel bursts into the great hall with smoke and flame. (I'm writing this, assuming that you at least read Beowulf in ninth grade english,). However, for the bulk of the film, the 3D caused me serious eye strain.

If I had to guess I'd say the filmmakers didn't quite nail down how to accurately convey depth perception in CGI. (Instead, it seems they focused more on accurately depicting a naked Angelina Jolie in CGI.) The result was that personally, my eyes didn't shift naturally from the background to the foreground. In other words, if I saw something in the foreground, I had to actively make my eyes focus on it to see it properly.

This problem was exacerbated by the fact that often the filmmakers opted for the cliched effect of having something onscreen jump out at the audience. I found myself taking off the glasses regularly just so my eyes could get a second or two to rest. After seeing this movie, I thought i'd have sworn off 3D movies entirely.


So, despite my experience with Beowulf, I ended up seeing this one in 3D after all. In all fairness, I don't think it was offered in 2D anywhere in Cincinnati anyway. Unlike Beowulf, Coraline was actually a good movie that I would have gone to see in 2D. As a 3D film, it was definitely worth shelling out the extra bucks to see it.

For those of you who haven't seen it, Coraline is about a girl who moves into a new multi-family house that she shares with a few eccentric characters. She then discovers an entrance to a parallel world that is similar to her own execpt everything is strange and surreal.

In Coraline, the 3D effect was more about adding a level of detail to the film than spectacle. It did its job of helping make the viewers feel as if they were actually in the movie without coming off as a gimmick designed to wrangle a few extra bucks out of the viewer.

While the film was filled with fantastic visuals from start to finish, the scenes were the 3D effect stood out the most were often the more subtle ones. For example, in one scene we see Coraline's father sitting in front of the computer, with the image from the screen reflected in his glasses. The reflection looks so genuine that its possible to forget that what you're watching is a 3D effect and not something that is physically in front of you.

Later in the film, Coraline visits her neighbor upstairs in the parallel world. He has a circus of trained mice, and when he first introduces them, they all come out into a tiny circus ring and start hopping in unison. Again, everything from the lighting to the position of the camera makes it appear that there is a tiny troupe of trained mice hopping about, just out of your reach. It looked perfect.

Monsters vs. Aliens and Up

The last two movies on my list I'm going to lump together because they both suffer the same problem. As films, both were great, but as far as 3D goes, the effect was largely unnoticeable.

Where as in Beowulf I found myself taking off the glasses to rest my eyes, in these two movies, i kept taking the glasses off to make sure that I was actually in the 3D showing of the films. There were a few moments in Monsters where the 3D made me feel immersed into the big action sequences, but for most of Monsters and all of Up, the effect was too subtle.

Its a shame because in Up, there were plenty of scenes that should have stood out since most of the movie involved an old man and a kid passing through a lush South American rainforest (while lugging an airborne house and dealing with talking dogs. It's a strange movie.) Unfortunately, for most of the movie I felt that there was no difference between actually watching it in 3D and how I would have seen it in a regular 2D cinema. There was never any moment where I really noticed that there was any depth to what I was seeing. (Physical depth, i mean. Plot-wise, the story was quite deep.)

Upcoming Movies

So what's next for 3D? Well the closest release date is for The Final Destination, keeping alive the tradition of cheap gimmicks to spark interest in unnecessary horror film franchises.

Odds are Disney will re-release The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D once again. Each year I keep telling myself I'll go out and see it, but instead I just end up watching it at home on DVD. I would like to see how this one turned out mainly because it's a 2D movie that was later converted to 3D. If it turns out its good, maybe I'll stop seeing George Lucas's comments about re-releasing the Star Wars movies as threats to butcher the franchise yet again, and more like promises to add something new to a classic.

There's been some buzz about Zemeckis's up coming CGI adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which is rumored to be in 3D. However, it seems like the buzz is more about whether or not everybody will look like CGI wax zombies or if they'll actually look convincing, as opposed to how well the 3D will look.

No, the big buzz has been reserved for James Cameron's Avatar. This is a project he's been working on for the past ten years, and considering that Cameron + sci-fi usually equals a cinema classic, by now people are probably expecting this thing to be the biggest movie of the century. Just to add to the rumors about there being special effect unlike anything ever seen before, you guessed it, it's supposedly going to be in 3D.

If any of the above mentioned films is capable of actually transforming 3D from a novelty to a directorial choice, such as whether or not to shoot in film or black & white, Avatar is probably it. Who knows. Maybe in a year or two Cameron will be on a stage collecting the first Oscar ever given to a 3D sci-fi flick. Or, maybe 3D will go back to just being a theme park attraction.

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