The long-standing, intangible appeal of watching movies in the cinema has endured for well over a century. The lights dim, the crowd hushes (hopefully), and the eye is drawn to a screen, projected onto which are narratives that, in their limited timeframe, seem to encapsulate the process of birth, life and death. The quintessential appeal of movies is a mysterious one, hard to pin down and explain.
Also hard to explain is a current fad being sold to us. Namely, that pointy, pointy 3D somehow adds fresh magic to watching a movie. This is complete nonsense -it’s a matter of economics, pure and simple, driving up ticket prices and fooling viewers into thinking they’re seeing some new dimension which adds further immersiveness to the cinema going experience.
Let’s not forget that all films are designed with three dimensions in mind in the first place. They always have been, from the first moment the Lumiere Brothers gave the impression a train was going to come careering out of the screen and into the audience in 1896. There, cinematic space was deployed to magnificent, though tentative effect. At this stage, the whole concept was obviously still in its infancy. Back at the close of the 19th century, cinema was seen as something new as opposed to an art form comprised of various mechanical techniques.
But the argument remains: to suggest that 3D is a revolutionary form of cinema is to put faith in a gimmick that undermines the importance of the moving image. For example, to suggest that the pointing spears and gnashing scorpions seen in last year’s dreadful Clash of the Titans remake were a) more three dimensional than, say, Citizen Kane and b) were more immersive because they poked out of the screen, is fundamentally ludicrous.
Put simply, Titans didn’t gain a new 3D immersiveness because the non-converted version was filmed in three dimensions in the first place. Irrespective of whether the film was good or not (and Titans was far from titanic), it was immersive to begin with. Ever since DOP Gregg Toland developed the revolutionary ‘deep focus’ on Orson Welles’ landmark debut, every filmmaker since has been designing films in 3D. This includes directors like Louis Leterrier. Of course, basic cinematic language had been established long before Toland and Welles set up shop, but it was Citizen Kane that expanded on the rudimentary ideas, Toland developing a method that allowed the foreground, background and middle distance to remain in focus all at once.
So, this new wave of 3D isn’t revolutionary at all because it fails to add anything new to the concept of cinema. But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. While the benefits of 3D are, by and large, non-existent, there are a couple of exceptions. Take Avatar for example, the most noteworthy 3D film to have emerged in recent years.
Regardless of James Cameron’s reportedly draconian directorial style, he is assuredly a technical pioneer, always pushing at the boundaries of cinema, whether it’s the T-1000 reforming itself or the Titanic breaking in half. With Avatar, he famously had to wait the better part of a decade before technology was able to catch up with his vision for the project. Cameron deployed a number of radical devices on the film, including a virtual camera system which allowed him observe the digital counterparts of his leading actors in real time.
The result was a radical step forward where breakthrough technology was used to advance the principles of 3D. Despite its ropey dialogue and clichÃ©d plot, Avatar is the only movie in recent years where 3D has been used effectively to complement the depth of field, most notably in the early scenes detailing the lush flora and fauna of Pandora, where a strange plant or gliding seed from Eywa added extra depth to Cameron’s extraordinary world. The result helped draw us further into a seamless universe where CGI and live action mix together.
That’s not to say that the notion of 3D was any less gimmicky in this film than in others, after the first 30 minutes, its capabilities were forgotten and audiences were once again left high and dry wearing a pair of silly glasses. But Avatar offered a lot more than other so-called 3D movies simply because radical technology was used to plan the 3D far in advance, lending it an attention to detail that, at least initially, drew us into Cameron’s world. On the other end of the scale, Alexandre Aja’s enjoyably trashy Piranha remake sensibly treated the technology as a joke in and of itself, infamously deploying it in gross-out fashion when a severed male member is spat out at the audience by a picky fish. Piranha didn’t cynically try to sell 3D as something new but instead used throwaway gags to reinforce the throwaway nature of the technology.
Of course, this argument isn’t taking into account the presence of IMAX, largely because its exposure has mostly been limited to major cities, denying many UK viewers (including those in Devon and Cornwall) the chance to experience it. And of course, Avatar isn’t the be-all and end-all in 3D cinema. We’ve been here before in cycles and spurts throughout the last century, most famously in the 1950s, a decade which saw the likes of Cinerama enjoy brief moments in the spotlight. But Avatar still has a lot to answer for in terms of accelerating 3D’s popularity over the past year, it’s just a shame that all the films that have followed have deployed it to increasingly redundant effect.
But then, even Avatar’s 3D capabilities were limited. In the end, the film’s lasting pleasures, as with all movies, continue to derive from that mysterious, quintessential appeal of the moving image, one that has endured from the days of the Lumiere Brothers through Citizen Kane up to the modern age. Will Martin Scorsese be able to convince us of the wonders of 3D with Hugo Cabret later on this year? Unlikely. Any pleasure will hopefully stem from what we already know and love about Scorsese’s work. Ultimately, it is the chance to lose ourselves in worlds and scenarios that appeals most, whether a wooden Sam Worthington chucks a sword out of the screen into our faces is negligible. One also has to wonder why we would choose to wear glasses in a cinema, something which conspires to put a barrier between ourselves and the on-screen narrative.
Take that to the bank.