Opinion: On the subject of 3D cinema - SciFiNow

Opinion: On the subject of 3D cinema

On Michael Bay, James Cameron, Piranha 3D and the relationship between story and aesthetic.

The debate over 3D cinema, and its future, continues and not just between fans and non-fans, cynical media commentators and critics, but between the very filmmakers responsible for bringing these three-dimensional theatrical ‘experiences’ to our multiplexes. Michael Bay has been in the news for it, and you only need to remember 3D champion James Cameron, whose mega-hit Avatar woke the world up to this ‘new’ cinematic invention, and the industry to its profit-making potential, hitting out at 3D release Piranha 3D, a contemporary reworking of Joe Dante’s cult Seventies original. This version, starring Elisabeth Shue and Kelly Brook, according to Cameron at the time, “cheapens the medium” and “reminds you of the bad 3D horror films from the Seventies and Eighties.”

While it is unlikely that Piranha will be troubling the Oscars, it highlights a debate at the heart of the 3D revolution. There are those that proclaim it a format to make the cinema-going experience more immersive, but those that claim that it is a mere gimmick, an opportunity to throw things out of the screen towards an audience but with little use past this. Avatar used its 3D presentation impressively, there were few critics or audience members who disputed Cameron’s achievements, but there have been other films to use the format to less successful results; you need look no further than My Bloody Valentine’s protruding pick-axe, or The Final Destination’s grisly death scenes for proof of this. Indeed, this latter approach to 3D has been at the heart of the format in each various guise it has taken over the years, despite filmmakers as diverse as Cameron and Alfred Hitchcock proclaiming otherwise of its creativity-enhancing potential, and it is an impression that is difficult to shake, particularly when looking at the use of the technology in films so far released in this current 3D reboot.

There is another problem with 3D as it is currently adopted, though, and one which is less about the way that it’s employed, and more about the way in which it is produced. Avatar was shot in 3D – Cameron’s beloved format was central to the film from its inception – yet others have not been designed this way and have had their extra-dimension added, post-filming, via a 2D to 3D conversion process. Louis Leterier’s Clash Of The Titans is the most conspicuous of these culprits and the results that are produced via this 3D treatment are less than impressive and make for a 3D experience that is neither ‘immersive’ nor in-your-face exciting either, the 30 per cent loss in colour and clarity affecting this Gods and monsters remake especially. Even Bay, hardly a purist devoted to the art of storytelling, has voiced his concern over the conversion process and its merits.

The trend for conversions illustrates one of the main reasons for the current glut of 3D films arriving in multiplexes. After Avatar swallowed up all the money in the movie-going world, studios realised the potential that had been untapped, or certainly not been tapped to its fullest. 3D presentations of films allow higher ticket prices to be charged, the inherent financial advantages here being clear to see. Even Titans, which was universally panned by critics, was a box office hit, scoring nearly $500 million, a feat which is in no small part achieved by its 3D re-fit. For studios too there is an anti-piracy advantage to 3D that while understandable, fuels the fires in the naysayers that 3D’s real raison d’être are these two reasons alone.

The truth of the matter is a combination of all of this, that 3D benefits the studios’ coffers and helps combat piracy, that it can be used to make a film more immersive, if employed in the right manner, but that its gimmicky attraction will be a large component of its appeal too. This, though, will not be forever sustainable without solid storytelling behind it, which is something that far too few current 3D films can honestly attest to possessing. Even Avatar.

This article has been edited from its original form in the print edition of SciFiNow.