We're coming up to three years since "Avatar" became the biggest-grossing film in history, and any thought that 3D film, which James Cameron's picture helped to revive, was a flash in the pan seems to have been wishful thinking. The top two slots at the current U.S. box office are taken by two 3D films that couldn't be more unlike one another: "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," a colorful, star-studded animated sequel, and "Prometheus," a dark, live-action sci-fi horror from Ridley Scott. And yet they happily sit side-by-side, raking in the cash without cannibalizing each other's 3D screens (not to mention those of "The Avengers" or "Men In Black 3," which are still very much in theaters). And these are hardly outliers: when you include the stereoscopic re-releases of "Titanic" and "The Phantom Menace," eight of the all time top grossers were released in 3D.
And yet the medium still proves highly divisive, online and in the real world. Fears last year that domestic audiences were actively rejecting the format seem to have eased off, but it's still easy to find audiences complaining about the added expense, poor presentation and shoddy conversions — anecdotally, we certainly know more film fans who actively avoid 3D releases, preferring to see them in 2D screenings, than those who eagerly anticipate the next stereoscopic release. But we're coming to an interesting fork in the road, where the format isn't merely a vehicle for CGI-driven action fare and animated fare, but also dramas from major filmmakers. Following Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," two of the major fall releases are Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" and Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," both of which are prestigious literary adaptations that wouldn't necessarily be obvious choices for 3D transfers. Even Jean-Luc Godard is shooting his next film in the format.
Clearly filmmakers are enthused by the possibilities from what they've seen from the likes of Cameron, Scorsese and Scott. But even three years on from "Avatar," can the technology really match their ambitions? That's the question raised by Rian Johnson, director of "Brick" and the upcoming "Looper," and one of the smartest young filmmakers around. On his Tumblr, Johnson (who's been a notable digital refusenik, posting some brilliant and technically insightful pieces on things like the Red camera), admits that he's someone who'll go twenty minutes out of his way to avoid a 3D screening, and yet says he agrees with two statements from the pro-3D lobby: "3D is the future of cinema" and "The introduction of stereoscopic photography is analogous to the introduction of color." And yet the filmmaker is less than enamored of the actual reality of what we have. And we thoroughly agree.
Johnson quotes Martin Scorsese as saying that, "It’s like seeing a moving sculpture of the actor and it’s almost like a combination of theatre and film … it immerses you in the story more,” and admits that to hear what he's talking about, "It's hard not to be thrilled by the possibilities." And yet, Johnson says that "None of it has ever held any water for me, simply because what they describe does not match up with my personal experience, and with what I see on the screen. To my eye stereoscopic does not create living sculptures, it creates artificial dioramas. It doesn’t immerse, it distances…" The "muddy, eyeball-half-nelsoning reality of stereoscopic movies" has never lived up to the wondrous 3D world described by people like Scorsese, Cameron and Peter Jackson.
And that's certainly been our experience. Almost invariably, post-converted films look like pop-up books, even when they're well-planned: we were actuallly impressed by the way Barry Sonnnenfeld shot "Men In Black 3" for the format, but we never felt immersed, we felt "oh, that's a cool 3D moment." Natively shot 3D is certainly preferable, but even when it's well acheived — "Hugo," "Prometheus" — we find ourselves seeing "ghosting" (blurring round the edges of characters or objects). And perhaps most importantly, the difference betweeen what you see with 3D glasses and what an ordinary 2D screening shows with cinematic tools like focus and perspective seems so minimal that we wonder why they bother. Film is essentially 3D — as Christopher Nolan says, "The whole idea of film is that it's three-dimensional on a two-dimensional plane." Stereoscopic cinematography is the same thing, just with a little more artificial depth, and the bells and whistles — the glasses, etc. — don't immerse us, they take us out of the film.
But Johnson is right that the idea of a truly 3D, truly immersive experience is an exciting one. But what he has in mind is closer to the work of artist Patrick Jacobs, thinking of stereoscopic photography not as an attempt at creating reality, but as an artificial artistic technique akin to hand-painting black-and-white film frames, as Georges Méliès, the central figure of Scorsese's "Hugo" did. And that seems to be a good way of coming to terms with something that clearly isn't going away for the moment. But as a way of bringing down the barrier between film and reality, we concur with Johnson that the dreams of filmmakers are a long way off from the technology that exists today.
Does 3D work for you? Does it enhance your moviegoing experience? Sound off below.