In an April 1987 essay for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction about the then-hot topic of “colorization” (the repugnant trend of slapping computer-generated color over black and white classics, ostensibly to render them watchable to a younger generation that disliked b&w), science fiction author Harlan Ellison wrote of the process, “We don’t really need it… It’s like going to see a club act in which a whistling dog performs ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’ Once, it’s interesting; more than once it’s merely a curiosity. That has very little, if anything, to do with art. And pandering to the corrupted taste of a generation of kids for whom movies are nothing more than a prelude to getting laid is loathsome in every way.”
Can we all agree that we’ve reached that point on the 3-D fad? Three new 3-D movies opened last weekend (two remakes and a sequel, for what it’s worth), and all three tanked at the box office. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World opened in third with $12 million, Conan the Barbarian came in fourth with $10 million, while Fright Night came in sixth (behind the fourth week of The Smurfs!) with just under $8 million. The top spot went to The Help; in second place was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a well-performing summer tent-pole movie that is continuing to bring in audiences with solid word-of-mouth; it’s a genuinely good movie, people are telling each other, with interesting characters and a script that does not appear to have been written by seven-year-olds. You know what else ROTPOTA has going for it? It’s not in 3-D.
The curiosity factor is over; it’s a gimmick, a distraction, a nakedly greedy grab for the crumbs of ticket surcharges by cash-strapped exhibitors (along with IMAX and faux-IMAX and “RPX,” whatever the hell that is). That once-serious filmmakers like James Cameron and Ridley Scott have gone all-in on such a crass and frankly frivolous gizmo is depressing (if unsurprising). This is an open thread, so if you are a 3-D lover, please help us understand: what is the appeal? What does it actually add?
On a recent episode of WTF, Marc Maron asked an arrestingly simple question about 3-D: “What’s the best thing that can happen? You go, ‘Whoa,’ and you lean back a little bit. That’s the best that can happen.” We thought of that moment often while watching Fright Night, a perfectly acceptable and frequently entertaining little vampire flick (seriously, it’s actually worth seeing, if for not other reason than for Colin Farrell’s wickedly menacing yet wryly comic performance) that occasionally has to slam on its narrative brakes so that Christopher Mintz-Plasse can throw a rock through a window or Farrell can throw a pebble at David Tennant, which then comes at the audience via the magic of 3-D, and then we can go “Whoa” and lean back a little bit.
The price that’s paid for those moments of utterly negligible interaction is that the inevitable darkening effect of the 3-D projection and glasses frequently renders the movie — which, understandably, takes place primarily in dusk and darkness—into a muddy, dim mess. (And let’s not even get into the theaters that leave the 3-D lenses on for screenings of 2-D films, reducing the brightness of the image by 50 percent or more.) The same phenomenon was widely reported at 3-D screenings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2 (your author saw it, thankfully, in good old fashioned two dimensions), another film whose mood and atmosphere is considerably attached to its expert use of darkness and shadow, which are all but obliterated by the gimmick of 3-D.
And that’s what it is: a gimmick. It was a gimmick when it was first introduced in the 1950s, in an attempt to lure moviegoers back into the theaters and away from their televisions; it was a gimmick when it was first resurrected in the 1980s. In both cases, it faded away, because you can only see the dog whistle “Stars and Stripes Forever” so many times before the novelty is gone. And, proclamations of hucksters like Cameron and Scott aside, it will fade away again.
The question is: when? It may take a while, because (inexplicable though it may be) we still live in a world where the 3-D Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all time, and where some 3-D movies are still very successful. But this summer, those have been films like The Smurfs and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which (let’s call a spade a spade) are less “films” than they are “filmed advertisements for nostalgia.” In its opening weekend, the new Pirates of the Caribbean film did less than half of its business on 3-D screens; Captain America did worse, with only 40% of its $65 million opening weekend coming from 3-D presentations. Given the choice, an increasing majority of the moviegoing public is walking away from the gimmickry (and inflated ticket prices) of this dopey fad.
But we’ll turn the question over to you. How much longer do we have to suffer through the 3-D trend? Are we totally missing the beauty and thrill of three-dimensional filmmaking? Or are you just as exhausted with it as we are?