Is 3D Really the Future of Cinema?

Avatar was hugely successful, but does it convince us on the need for 3D?

Here’s a question. Leaving aside the behemoth of Avatar for a moment, can you think of a really, really good 3D film where the 3D effects really made it that much greater an experience? In fact, can you even think of a really, really good 3D film? I’m an amateur film buff, and I can’t, with the exception of the odd classic like The Nightmare Before Christmas that has recently been released in 3D, but wasn’t made as a 3D film.

Because, to elaborate, according to a lot of people, especially in the film industry, 3D is the future. Not merely an option for film-makers, but what everyone will shortly be doing. Chief amongst the 3D-vangelists is James Cameron, surprisingly enough, who appears unable to even brook the concept that some people might not be that bothered about 3D, or indeed actively dislike it. For him it is as much the future of film as colour was in the first half of the twentieth century, a complete revolution in the industry that will entirely alter the very experience of cinema.

I am forced to pose the question of whether 3D is that wonderful though. It can be fun, sure, and I have enjoyed 3D films. But none of them were actually especially good as well as entertaining, and frankly I would have enjoyed them without the 3D. I’m thinking of cinematic fare like Monsters vs. Aliens and Journey to the Centre of the Earth here – both good fun, but fairly forgettable. The latter I haven’t even watched in 3D, and don’t see what it would add. It’s fun enough as it is. Besides which, both those films, 3D or not, are only decent entertainment, nothing I would rush to HMV to buy on DVD. Other, sometimes better, films, such as Coraline, get a limited 3D release, and so inevitably the 3D has to be restricted for the sake of cinema-goers like Durham students, as the Gala Cinema doesn’t do 3D. Coraline is a brilliant, amazing, magical film. I tried watching it in 3D once; it gave me a headache and I reverted to 2D.

What especially worries me, though, is the idea that 3D could and should be applied to all films. Star Wars in 3D, possibly brilliant. One of my favourite films, There Will Be Blood, in 3D – wouldn’t work. Unless and until 3D is developed to the point that you can simply feel without effort that you are in the scene as the cameraman, and perhaps even then, there are a plethora of films it doesn’t suit. Just as painting and sculpture are two different things, with different purposes, so are 2D and 3D film.

Unless it makes huge technical strides, I would be inclined to argue, 3D is not suitable for art, merely for entertainment. By that I don’t mean anything snobbish – that “art” in cinema has to mean independent films in a foreign language that roughly three people have seen, though I think there are many great films of that ilk. I believe art, as great as that in literature, is to be found in mainstream films such as those of the Coen Brothers, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Fincher, Miyazaki, and Eastwood. I simply mean films that do a little more than pure spectacle; pure spectacle can be huge fun and is not to be derided, but is a different category. 3D, as it currently stands, is an ingredient of spectacle and nothing more; it cannot add anything to the artistic quality of the film as can cinematography, music, acting, writing, and so on. It works for certain big blockbusters, especially if they’re sci-fi or fantasy based, and not for other genres.

Which brings me, neatly, to the exception I made earlier: Avatar, the Biggest Film Of All Time™. A film that was meant to change everyone’s minds about 3D, and be possibly the greatest event in the history of mankind. Now I can’t argue with its commercial success, and huge numbers of people loved it. However, a very significant minority either weren’t that bothered or actively disliked it. To me, it was passable entertainment, but had an exceedingly clichéd, ho-hum storyline, with a mostly risible script (and not in the endearing classic Star Wars sense), dull acting, and – most vitally – the 3D didn’t add that much for me. The effects were impressive, yes, but I and a number of my friends simply did not find it to be the game changer it was intended as. Interestingly, both the original DVD release and the Special Edition released this Monday are in 2D, suggesting that the 3D is not even that integral to the film, rather underscoring my point about it not adding anything much to a film other than spectacle.

To return to the main narrative, the fact that Avatar left as many people relatively unimpressed as it did – even acknowledging its huge success – and failed almost totally on the awards front, losing to a down-and-dirty, nerve-jangling contemporary war film (The Hurt Locker) at the Oscars, is significant. It suggests that 3D does have some way to go yet, and has also sparked a debate about the technology. Presumably, the idea is that 3D should be used for more than just effects gimmicks (the old jumping out of the screen trick) – it should be an immersive experience, putting you into the world the film portrays. As far as I’m concerned, the technology has a very long way to go before it achieves that, and as it stands should be reserved for those films it suits. Life’s in 3D. I go to films to get away from my life.

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