What is Hollywood’s fascination with creating the illusion of a third dimension within a two-dimensional art form? With the advancement of technology, motion pictures like last year’s Beowulf and this summer’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D are revisiting a practice proven unsuccessful almost every decade for more than fifty years, since the first color 3-D picture in 1952, entitled Bwana Devil. The problem remains that this marketing scheme adds nothing to the given film and instead distracts the viewer from the narrative, making the product about popping images and nothing else. The viewing experience is lessened as a result.
Audiences are asked to endure flimsy and uncomfortable glasses that capture 3-D-specific images projected onscreen, absorbing illusion of depth. The films themselves habitually rely on objects or gestures moving toward the audience for that whoa effect unnatural to the story, quite obviously inserted solely for the use of 3-D (making later, 3-D-less home video viewings laughably awkward). Viewers find themselves waving like gaping dopes at whatever image dangles seemingly before their eyes. It’s one step up from a laser-light show.
Though the earliest experimentation with 3-D dates back to the 1920s, the process didn’t boom until the 1950s with the mainstream advent of color films. The brief 1950s Golden Age of 3-D delivered popular science-fiction and horror titles like House of Wax, It Came from Outer Space, and even, curiously, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder with knives and fists and meteors flying toward the screen. Proving artistically and commercially uneventful, the fad eventually died out, only to make pithy returns in the coming decades. The most famous 3-D exposition launched in the 1980s with Disney theme parks’ Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. A musical sci-fi adventure, the short was the must-see attraction for years until the late 1990s. Epcot discontinued the show in lieu of Jackson’s increasingly sour reputation in the media.
Schlocky horror of the 1980s offered several “Part 3” sequels dependent on the gimmicky device; among them are Jaws 3-D, Amityville Horror 3-D, and Friday the 13th Part 3. The latter title features such uninspired at-the-audience protrusions as a rake handle motioned at the screen, or a yo-yo unwinding toward us—indeed, if these examples were the best uses Hollywood could conceive for 3-D, it’s no wonder the method disappeared again until recently. In 2006 and again in 2007, Disney re-released their 1993 stop-motion animated feature A Nightmare Before Christmas newly remastered in Disney Digital 3-D, earning the company millions in box office receipts. Nevertheless, the result disappoints, looking more like a lively relief sculpture than a film in the round since 3-D was applied after the fact. And yet, Disney seems adamant on pushing 3-D, as Disney and Pixar recently announced several of their upcoming features, including re-releases of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 to precede Toy Story 3, would all be (re)mastered in the company’s newborn approach to three-dimensionality, called Real D.
Upon overview, 3-D’s artistic and financial history has proven the device unsuccessful, despite a number of varying technological advances all creating the same minor illusion. A number of filmmakers are exploring the medium in hopes to compete with the increasing home video market. As theater attendance dwindles, Hollywood is desperate to drive consumers to the box office. Widescreen or letterboxed films were originally conceived to compete with television’s growing popularity, offering moviegoers more picture—a wider rectangle with a grander image versus TV’s square shape. Today, widescreen has become the standard for film. Something tells me 3-D doesn’t pose much of a threat to reform that standard.
Massive IMAX theaters are joining forces with 3-D for an experience solely about visual aesthetics. The bigger and thicker the better, I suppose. Directors have shot specific scenes or whole versions of their films in the IMAX format. Beowulf and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix both debuted on IMAX screens, the latter, strangely, with just its final 30-minutes in 3-D footage. Both resulted in a distracting sense of audience separation from the respective narrative. James Cameron (Aliens, The Terminator, Titanic) is filming his next effort, a sci-fi picture called Avatar, due in 2009, in an expensive self-designed digital 3-D technology. Steven Spielberg is looking into implementing 3-D without the necessity of those silly glasses, using massive plasma screens to project the illusion of tangible scale. But no matter the industry advances, filmmakers are blind to the greater issue plaguing audiences with this cinematic component: 3-D continually fails because the films employing this device lack an engaging story, since the producers are ultimately more concerned about the effects than making a good movie.
Even still, 3-D does little to improve a quality narrative. Recent 3-D titles The Polar Express and Beowulf, both directed by Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis, used computer-generated imaging and motion-capture technology to create an already eye-popping CGI-cartoon. But the experience underwhelms, since as viewers we become too preoccupied with visuals to remember that a story’s being told. Both films come from proven literary texts, and yet they fail to translate because the narrative recedes into the flashy use of the cinematic apparatus. Audiences absorb images and nothing else, fixated on only visual input, whereas film can be so much more challenging. Thus, it comes as no coincidence that the most successful 3-D film of all time remains The Stewardesses, a soft-core porn film released in the 1970s. To be sure, this method does little more than bait visuality, leaving the emotions dormant, not dissimilar from the effect of pornography.
Contemporary audiences will be getting-off on 3-D film for years to come if names like Disney and Spielberg pursue this unsound ploy. Until filmmakers can infuse narrative and the 3-D device with some elegance wherein the two find equilibrium, this fad will remain just that. The 3-D gimmick reduces cinema to its lowest form, mere entertainment whereby flashy effects provide sensory escape, never engaging the mind, never challenging the viewer on an emotional-psychological level. Recalling legendary film critic Pauline Kael’s book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, she defines its title’s meaning as “the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.”