Just a few years ago, Hollywood filmmakers and moguls could be seen on the hustings, going city to city trying to convince critics, media reporters and theater owners that 3-D would save a floundering movie industry. How better to coax audiences out of their home entertainment centers than with a souped-up visual experience they could have only in theaters — at a nearly 50 percent markup on the ticket price? Their refrain was so redolent of the 1950s it was difficult to believe they were speaking in the 21st century: 3-D! It’s the future! If 3-D is the future, I’m over it. No evangelist was more passionate than reamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who stopped by Washington some years ago on his 3-D crusade. Like a cinematic “Music Man,” Katzenberg brought a sizzle reel of outtakes from the 3-D cartoon “Monsters vs. Aliens,” touting the wonders of its digital 3-D processes and insisting that the visual effect would be the most important development in cinema since the advent of sound.
The sizzle reel fizzled. But while cynical journos smirked behind the new-and-improved shades Katzenberg had handed out, he sang the praises of the coming revolution, predicting that soon every filmgoer would possess his or her own pair, to be grabbed reflexively on the way to the multiplex along with car keys and a debit card. Gone are the days of gee-whiz gimmicks and dorky red-and-blue glasses, Katzenberg enthused, evoking visions of Creatures From Black Lagoons and the popping paddle ball in “House of Wax.” Thanks to high-end production and presentation values, 3-D was on the verge of becoming as subtle and essential a filmmaking element as cinematography and music. Katzenberg has been proved both right and wrong in the ensuing years. As one of those bespectacled skeptics, I’ve been forced to concede that he was correct about the recent onslaught of 3-D movies. His more grandiose point — that 3-D would migrate from being a cheap stunt to a legitimate part of cinematic grammar — has had more trouble finding purchase, although some recent films have admittedly used it to subtle, expressive and exhilarating effect. Still, whether as a commercial lifeboat for a movie industry desperate to get tushies in theater seats or as a simple aesthetic element, the all-important third dimension quite simply has not lived up to Katzenberg’s evangelical zeal.
That sobering reality was driven home over the past several days when two movies — coming from opposed poles of the cinematic spectrum — tried and failed to make 3-D work, albeit for vastly different reasons. “Wrath of the Titans” arrived in part as penance for “Clash of the Titans,” the disastrously cheap-looking 2010 swords-and-sandals adventure that had been so sloppily converted into 3-D that even Katzenberg was forced to admit the revolution might not be completely camera-ready. This year’s sequel, a mind-numbing piece of escapism, at least had the benefit of being filmed in 3-D. But, aside from an odd serpent biting through the screen or Liam Neeson’s Zeus-worthy beard occasionally threatening to break the fourth wall, the benefits of the added effect were negligible. The remastering of the 1997 epic “Titanic” for its 15th anniversary shows how thoroughly 3-D has come to pervade movies in the intervening years — even it it doesn’t always add much. “Titanic,” James Cameron’s 1997 action-adventure-romance-nautical-biopic, celebrated its 15th anniversary with the filmmaker taking it in for a 3-D reboot, with similarly moot results. The meticulous Cameron admittedly spared no expense or detail in making sure his masterpiece didn’t lose any visual luster in the conversion process.
Still, seeing “Titanic” in 3-D makes the experience no more immediate or enveloping than the original; if anything, the glasses give viewers more distance from the events they experienced so intimately and vicariously in the first place. When Katzenberg, Cameron and their fellow acolytes began thumping the tub for 3-D, the movie business was in a precarious state, with piracy, sophisticated home viewing options and competing media like video games and the Web offering audiences more and better reasons to stay out of the theater. For a while there, it looked as if their scheme might work: Ushered in with niche movies such as “The Polar Express” and “U2 3D,” the era of 3-D saw audiences come back, ticket revenues go up and theater chains embark on an ambitious building plan to build 3-D screens. The promise of 3-D was all but fulfilled in 2009 with two developments: Pixar’s glorious family film “Up,” an exhilarating work of art that deservedly became the first animated and 3-D feature to open the Cannes Film Festival, and Cameron’s “Avatar,” the most technologically advanced 3-D movie ever made, which went on to break “Titanic’s” box-office record. With 3-D at the pinnacle of its narrative and aesthetic potential, it seemed, its hold on moviegoers’ eyeballs, hearts and wallets was permanent.
But it was precisely during the “Up” and “Avatar” heyday that the flaws in 3-D’s aesthetic potential first began to show. When I slid those ungainly glasses down my nose, I saw an image that was at least 20 percent brighter and more vivid: As I toggled between glasses and no glasses, it was clear that the flora and fauna of Cameron’s planet Pandora burst with far more color, detail and luminescence than when they were shrouded by the glasses’ polarizing plastic. “Up” wasn’t as visually compromised, but those multicolored balloons had more visual zing when the glasses came off. And I challenge anyone to remember a moment or scene in the film that worked emotionally, narratively or visually because it was in three dimensions rather than two. It soon became clear that, at its best, 3-D is a needless distraction; at its worst, it compromises far too much visual information and beauty to justify the added spatial depth. Reality finally caught up with my naysaying last year, when 3-D reached both the nadir of exploitative laziness and the height of its potential. “The Green Hornet” exemplified “Clash of the Titans”-level post-conversion grubbery, while Pixar’s “Cars 2” was a rare non-starter for the Tiffany studio; does anyone remember — much less care — that the “Harry Potter” finale was in 3-D? But there were movies that nudged me a little closer to being a 3-D believer: In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog’s roving camera brought the curvilinear wall drawings of the ancient Chauvet Caves to swelling, almost palpable life. With “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese paid homage to his cinematic ancestor Georges Melies with a loving re-construction of Melies’s hand-tinted 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon,” poetically harnessing present-day innovation to celebrate the thrilling first days of the form.
Even Michael Bay — a director not often mentioned in the same paragraph as a Herzog or a Scorsese — proved that 3-D needn’t sacrifice picture quality with “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Sure, it was just a rock-’em, sock-’em toy picture with way too much time and money on its hands. But the movie looked bright, sharp and well lit, with none of the blurring and color-sapping that 3-D so often entails. As it happened, Bay had sent special brightened digital prints of “Dark of the Moon” to theaters, largely to counteract the usual loss of vibrancy. Then he wrote a letter to projectionists begging them to show the movie “at brightness levels specified for the best results.” Earlier in the letter, he explained that he was writing “to . . . counter the recent trend of audiences complaining of ‘dark and dingy’ looking 3D.” Bay’s note to projectionsts points up a perennial problem, not just with 3-D but with cinema in general: Even if filmmakers go to the trouble to use expensive, state-of-the-art equipment and take extra pains with their lighting and set design, it can all look like monochromatic mud if the movie isn’t projected correctly. And, when it comes to 3-D, everyone’s hardworking efforts could come to naught if a penny-pinching studio scrimps on the extra processing it takes to keep the image clean and sharp. With the production-to-presentation pipeline so booby-trapped with opportunities for a 3-D movie to look crummy, why would anyone shell out an extra $4 or $5 for what will likely be a substandard viewing experience? Audiences seem increasingly willing to ask that question: Last year, they voted with their feet, choosing the 2-D versions of “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” over their more expensive counterparts; this year, “Wrath of the Titans” has underwhelmed at the box office, while “John Carter” is on its way to being one of Hollywood’s biggest flops. (“Titanic 3D” is projected to earn around $30 million by this weekend, more than covering the reported $18 million it cost to retool it.)
It’s difficult to tell if the filmgoers’ new attitude toward 3-D is a function of the economy or aesthetics. It’s probably a little of both. But as I watched the joyless exercise of the latest “Titans” movie at my neighborhood ’plex last week, it occurred to me that it’s the very sophistication and seamlessness Katzenberg accurately predicted in 2009 that might be the problem. When I first saw “House of Wax” — a classic 1953 horror movie starring Vincent Price — its out-of-the-screen-and-into-your-lap stunts sent me and my fellow filmgoers back in our seats with delighted gasps. If it was depth of field we wanted, we had “Citizen Kane” and the revolutionary cinematography of Gregg Toland. For thrills, chills and pure how’d-they-do-that? awe, we had 3-D. As an element of style, 3-D has gotten cooler. But it’s also lost its heat, taking on formal seriousness at the expense of showmanship and fun. Consider: This year, not only will we see Spider-Man and Katy Perry in 3-D but “The Great Gatsby” as well, suggesting that spectators may need a dose of Dramamine before they’re borne ceaselessy into the past. “Gatsby” director Baz Luhrmann has defended his choice by pointing out that Fitzgerald was a modernist whose own work was influenced by the emerging medium of film. A convincing argument. But for now, I’ve reverted to my initial skepticism. And I’m hoping that, until we return to 2-D sanity, Daisy Buchanan at least manages to sneak in a quick game of paddle ball.
By Ann Hornaday