3D is the past/ present/future

How do I know 3-D’s big right now? The Jonas brothers are doing it.

And so is everyone else. DreamWorks Animation recently announced its plan to produce all its upcoming films, such as the fourth Shrek and the second Kung Fu Panda, in this medium. James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Robert Zemeckis’s “A Christmas Carol” will also be 3-D. The list goes on, unfolding right out of the screen and onto your lap.

The trend is obvious, and so is the business impetus behind it. Give ‘em something novel, market it as groundbreaking and hope it catches on. The 3-D boom might be news, but the urge to sell big is anything but.

Flashback:

It’s the ’50s. Everything’s about TV. The film industry, faced with declining ticket sales, is in dire need of a new gimmick. The times call for something more revolutionary than sound, more spectacular than color and, most importantly, more impressive than that stupid box in your living room. They call for THE THIRD DIMENSION. And a pair of really uncomfortable plastic glasses.

End of flashback:

It’s 2009. TV is firmly established as the leading source of self-inflicted entertainment, while 3-D is still struggling to become mainstream, having been caught in a cycle of oblivion and revival for the past 50 years. Something fell flat.

Maybe audiences weren’t ready for the technology. That’s possible, but not likely, given the ease with which much more radical switches (from silent cinema to talkies, for instance) had been embraced in the past. Instead, it was the technology itself that wasn’t ready to deliver. It was so painfully imperfect (literally — people got headaches) that it often impoverished, rather than enhanced, the image quality. It was also so demanding and tricky, logistically, that theaters eventually figured they could spare the extra expenses and labor and just do widescreen. That, at least, was spectacular.

Nowadays, most of these problems have finally been solved by digital stereoscopic projection. It’s less cheesy and not as unpleasant on the eyes. Not to mention it actually looks good. “Beowulf” in 3-D might’ve not been a dramatic masterpiece, but boy, was it stunning.

Thus, 3-D is close to achieving its main goal: undeniable visual appeal. It’s logical, then, that the film industry is again trying to cash in on it, now that it’s better equipped for success than ever. After all, it is an entirely different experience than the “regular” movies. An indisputably better one, publicists have proclaimed.

Not necessarily. For directors, learning how to exploit the technology’s possibilities in truly creative ways remains a challenge. As a reference, just watch “My Bloody Valentine 3-D,” a recent example of banality that evokes the third dimension by pointing a pick-axe at you, constantly. The scary part? The ticket cost $14.

Here, talentless direction is only half the problem. The other half — something which this film illustrates beautifully, albeit inadvertently — is the ease with which 3-D lends itself to certain visual cliches. It’s not difficult to figure out what gets the most reaction out of an audience, and even less so to repeat it countless times in slightly modified form. Sure, it’s excusable right now because everything’s still new and exciting. But how long before that personal-space-invading bloody knife or spinning bullet becomes just as commonplace as any other cheap horror trick?

But there is still hope that 3-D effects might escape perpetual corniness. They have more or less done so in animated features. So far, this is the one genre in which 3-D has truly made a difference for the better. The symbiosis between the two is effortless and aesthetically pleasing, and it’s not a coincidence that the resurgence of 3-D is currently largely rooted in animation. Since cartoons already represent an altered reality and require a mindset of suspended disbelief, 3-D gimmicks run less risk of appearing ridiculous or campy. Instead, they just fit right in, invigorating the imagery, and the result can be as mesmerizing as “Coraline” or as thrilling as “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

Still, almost every recent 3-D film is easily as effective in its flat version. Some might even be better. That’s hardly surprising. After all, 3-D is not meant to bring about an aesthetic revolution. If it does, that’ll be incidental, since it is, first and foremost, a commercial venture, and as such, its primary purpose is to deliver maximum entertainment, not to make a statement.

That’s why the realm of 3-D will always be that of the lowbrow. Blockbusters need all the extra thrills they can get, but would there be any point in adding a couple “in-depth” experiences to, say, “Revolutionary Road?” Would having the illusion of standing “next to” Meryl Streep somehow make her “Doubt” more intense? There’s no need for distracting visual treats in drama — God knows, you don’t want it to be more real than it already is. Case in point: Viola Davis’s snot-covered face. Ew.

Not being Oscar-friendly is definitely not the biggest challenge 3-D needs to overcome, though. There’s another problem: You can’t try it at home. Until 3-D DVDs and 3-D TV become possible, 3-D will just be a fad, an added attraction. Something to watch for when it comes back in 50 years.

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