As film — literal film, light through celluloid — is hurriedly phased out and replaced by digital projection, one of the most popular arguments in favor of the transition is image consistency. Every time a film runs through a projector, it gets damaged. The longer a print stays in circulation, the worse its image degrades. Digital movies, on the other hand, experiences no such decay. A file is a file, and you can play it once or one thousand times and it will look exactly the same at every single viewing (assuming you don't, say, accidentally delete the entire movie). It is a model of consistency.
3-D, on the other hand, is the epitome of inconsistency. From screening to screening, and even from viewer to viewer at the same screening, no one experiences it the same way. If you get the perfect seat at a screening with perfect projection, you might get a big kick out of the 3-D effects. But how often does that happen?
Not too often. And it seems to be happening less and less frequently at press screenings. In fact, there's been a rash of recent incidents involving press screenings of "The Avengers" that were marred by bad 3-D projection. In Boston, Eagle Tribune critic Greg Vellante complains about the dim image and murky colors at his "Avengers" screening, and as he notes, Boston was also the sight of another plea for projectorial sanity last year, when the Boston Globe's Ty Burr wrote about the lack of light at local 3-D screenings. And in Los Angeles, Movieline's Jen Yamato filed a dispatch on a "near-disastrous 3-D screening" at the city's upscale Arclight Cinemas. Arclight uses special active shutter 3-D glasses that work with an infrared signal broadcast inside the theater to switch shutters inside each pair of glasses and do other things which I do not pretend to understand which result in the illusion of three dimensional imagery. At Yamato's particular "Avengers" press screening something went wrong with the glasses, which sent numerous critics scrambling to the lobby to find a functioning pair. Yamato says she spent "15 minutes" running back and forth "sorting through literally dozens of pairs" until she found one that worked. Good luck trying to fairly and accurately review the movie after that.
Things can go wrong at any screening. Films can break, projectors can die, bulbs can burst, and fire alarms can go off. But 3-D is just so much more accident and imperfection prone, that you're stacking the deck in favor of failure. What's worse, the studios are stacking the deck in favor of their film's failure with critics. And that's dangerous. In the case of Vellante, he decided his experience had been too compromised to write something. But other folks reviewed the film, and bashed the 3-D (like James Verniere of The Boston Herald). Odds are, if you dislike the way a movie looks you're more inclined to dislike everything about it.
It's in the studios' best interest to present critics with the best projection possible so they can get the best reviews possible. At the moment, that doesn't necessarily appear to be 3-D projection. Granted, they're releasing these movies in 3-D and they want people to see them in 3-D because that's a more expensive ticket than 2-D. But if they can't even get it right at the press screening, when the eyes of the distributor and the media are on them, what hope do they have to get it right at an 11 am Tuesday afternoon matinee when no one's paying attention?
Read more of Greg Vellante's "Critic, Smash!" and Jen Yamato's "'The Avengers' and the Case of the Near-Disastrous 3-D."