Columns / Discourse / November 10, 2010

Check the Reel: 3-D overload

I now know how the deaf and blind feel going to the movies: helpless, isolated, unable to get the full experience.

I understand them because I’ve felt some of those same emotions. I’m neither deaf nor blind, but thanks to a misaligned muscle, I see more with my left eye than my right. My depth perception is limited. I can’t see 3-D effects. I put on the glasses and nothing pops out. Everybody else reaches for the floating objects on screen while I keep my hands on the bag of popcorn.

This used to be less of a problem, with 3-D limited to amusement park attractions and the occasional third sequel to a Robert Rodriguez film, but all that’s changed. I’m sure you’ve noticed. After Hollywood experimented with 3-D several times and in each case left it alone—once in the 70s and again in the late 90s, early 2000s—they’ve embraced it full force after the runaway successes of “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Avatar.” The latter probably contributed to this decision the most, with its $2.7 billion box office receipt.

Now it’s hard not to find a big-name movie in 3-D, with everything—horror, comedy, action, fantasy, animation—given an extra dimension. An effect once known for its novelty has become cinema’s defining characteristic in the last two years, and now it’s spreading to other media. Sony’s selling 3-D TVs, and Nintendo’s next big game system? The handheld, no-glasses-needed 3-DS.

Some people, I’m sure, appreciate 3-D. They find it immerses them more in the film world, making fantasy environments like the jungles of Pandora more realistic. That’s great, but Hollywood doesn’t give a damn about “immersion” or “realism.” Not every filmmaker cares as much about 3-D technology as James Cameron. No, they just care about the extra five or six dollars 3-D adds to your movie ticket, and how much that artificially pads their box office returns.

That might sound incredibly cynical, but how many movies have you seen that truly benefited from, and would be worse without, 3-D? When was the last time you saw a movie where 3-D worked without resorting to cheap novelty tricks like throwing something at the screen? Not many, I’m willing to bet. A lot of movies use 3-D exclusively for the higher price, and suffer as a result. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and the “Clash of the Titans” remake are two such examples. They were filmed in two-dimensions, but then converted at the last minute to 3-D to take advantage of its popularity, but aside from a few objects sticking out, the 2-D and 3-D versions have no differences in quality.

Some critics, like Roger Ebert, point out that 3-D has the unfortunate side effect of muddying up colors. The dark glasses you wear detract from the colors on screen, so fields of green, yellow and blue end up as fields of grey, grey and, well, grey. As any artist will tell you, without a good color palette, a work of art suffers tremendously.

You might think it hypocritical that someone incapable of seeing 3-D is criticizing 3-D movies. I’m not objecting to every use of the effect. In the right movie and with the right tools, it can immerse the viewer even deeper in the film’s universe, but it can never replace good storytelling, acting and cinematography. Audiences are perfectly capable of imagining 3-D without the aid of extra glasses, and I’ve seen countless films with impressive visuals—“Star Wars,” “Scott Pilgrim,” “Citizen Kane”—that didn’t need 3-D to succeed.

It’s hard to go to the movies and pay extra for a special effect I don’t notice, an effect the movie probably doesn’t need. If we encourage a more pragmatic mix of 2-D and 3-D films, people with my problem won’t have to worry anymore, and only the films that truly benefit from 3-D will make use of the effect.

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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