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3-D in the movies: Getting in too deep

Though 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' and 'Avatar' show the technique's fabulous side, increasingly its use is a commercial rather than a creative choice.

July 04, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • With "Avatar," the 3-D technology added to the viewing experience. That's not true for every 3-D movie.
With "Avatar," the 3-D technology added to the viewing experience.… (WETA / 20th Century Fox )

It's bad enough that animation, action, fantasy and horror have been hijacked by 3-D mania. But the ground shifted for me when Werner Herzog's breathtaking documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," a Zen meditation on ancient cave paintings and peoples, came with a bulky pair of 3-D glasses and a bloated ticket price.

What I didn't get was a better moviegoing experience. The artistry of black brush strokes on cold stone brought those stampeding horses to life, not the legacy of a thousand greasy fingerprints I was forced to gaze through. I don't blame Herzog for trying, it was an interesting experiment and if anything it's the boundary-pushers, James Cameron chief among them, and tradition-breakers who've historically taken 3-D to new artistic heights.

Even B-movie horror meister William Castle was going for a better boo with the rudimentary 3-D of his 1960 campy thriller, "13 Ghosts." It's hard not to wonder how Kubrick might have reimagined "A Clockwork Orange" if he'd had all the 3-D tools available today or to have hopes for the inventive Peter Jackson's 3-D vision of "The Hobbit."

I'm not suggesting that 3-D can't be fabulous or shouldn't be something that filmmakers employ — Michael Bay just scored a big one for the team in his visually immersive and explosive "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." The technique brought an eerie hyper-reality to the stop-motion animation of 2009's "Coraline," and its midnight garden coming to bloom was glorious in all its multidimensionality. With Cameron's "Avatar," I admit to finding the pull of that blue magic irresistible in ways that simply didn't translate when I watched it on DVD at home.

It's equally clear that 3-D technology is not going anywhere, as a tidal wave of ads are pushing everything from 3-D TV to 3-D video on cellphones, turning it into a made-for-the-masses gizmo. Classic is an ad that features a frustrated dad, his kids' pingpong game and a 3-D cell. Not content with the "action" he snatches a paddle and slams the ball at the camera, something he's sure will "play" better with 3-D.

Here's what typically happens. The most exquisitely realized 3-D moment of most 3-D films comes in the first few minutes when the very proud studio, beating its 3-D chest, has its title floating "miraculously" in midair. As for all the objets d'art — the swords, spears, fireballs and the lot — that require countless hours of work to ensure that they come barreling through space towards us? I have yet to see even one person duck at anything being "hurled" from the screen. Well, there was the 4-year-old and the popcorn incident, but that's another story.

Not that long ago, 3-D films were an anomaly, two or three a year was the norm in the U.S., so the artistry question wasn't as weighty. In 2008, there were only five and the 3-D "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus" and "U2" concert films should barely rate a count. By the time we close out 2011, the figure will top 40.

What's troubling in the move from unusual to ubiquitous is that the choice to go 3-D has increasingly become a commercial rather than a creative one. We all realize that making movies is a for-profit business. Instead, let's talk about the fear factor. There is the worry that a studio saying no to 3-D might offend a filmmaker it seriously can't afford to offend. But more often, it's fear that "we the audience" want, desire, even demand 3-D in this technocentric age.

So does that mean it's up to us to somehow stop the madness? Or are studios simply not listening to the actual word on the street?

I ask because I asked you, or at least some of you. Not a scientifically rigorous test, but illuminating none the less. And for the doubters, it's one you can easily replicate. Ask 10 people you don't know to name the last three movies they liked, and let's just assume we get lucky and there was one 3-D movie in the group. Then ask them why they liked it. In my survey, 3-D did not make the top five reasons for most. It only began to creep into the list with 12-year-old boys, and even then it was more an "oh yeah" than "must have." What did matter was the fundamentals — a well-acted story cleverly told.

Which brings me to another gripe about the 3-D grip. It's an ego thing — the ultimate form of studio swagger. That I could live with, the industry always has been and always will be an egocentric swampland, but it leads to a narcissistic belief that 3-D will carry the day. It will not.

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