Adding "3D" to a film's title has been an easy way to fill more cinema seats at higher ticket prices. Nicholas Barber suggests this could soon change ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
You wouldn’t expect a film with the title “Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy” to be advertised all across London, or indeed anywhere except in the windows of certain specialist DVD shops. But the posters are there to see, dotted around underground stations in the West End, all because the film’s name includes a certain number and letter: 3D. The film’s use of the latest stereoscopic technology is what gives it a dash of respectability. “3D” implies that there might be something innovative about what's on-screen. It suggests, at least, that it has higher production values than anything on late-night pay-TV. And it’s not just dodgy Chinese soft-porn that benefits from the 3D cachet. The technology is used regularly to revive moribund horror franchises, such as “Final Destination”, and to legitimise such sub-Pixar cartoons as “Animals United”. 3D puts marketing muscle behind any film. But it might not do so for much longer.
The current wave of 3D films started rolling with “The Polar Express” in 2004, but it wasn’t until “Avatar” became a box-office phenomenon in 2009 that the technology’s commercial future seemed assured. Since then, the format has become so common that it’s now a surprise if a new cartoon isn’t in 3D (the 2D nature of “Rango” became a big discussion point). Most live-action blockbusters have jumped on the bandwagon. By my reckoning, there have been 35 3D releases in British cinemas so far this year.
And yet, just two years on from “Avatar”, there are mutterings that the bubble has burst. “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Cars 2” made more money from 2D showings than from the alternative format, suggesting that audiences are tiring of it. The chatter on film websites tends to be against 3D, and critics can’t stand it. Roger Ebert makes anti-3D digs at every opportunity. Mark Kermode devotes a chapter of his new book, “The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex”, to the evils of 3D. The prevailing view among critics is that 3D is merely a way to bump up ticket prices—usually £2 more than for a 2D showing—and to foil piracy. Film a 3D movie on your mobile phone and the blurry double image will be well-nigh unwatchable.
But why the hostility? Much of it comes down to being forced to wear cumbersome plastic 3D glasses in the cinema, but it’s not just a question of comfort. These dark glasses also dim the image, making every scene look as if it’s taking place at 5am, while fast-paced action sequences are often marred by a nasty stroboscopic flicker. These problems are especially salient in “post-conversion” films: whereas some films are shot using expensive 3D cameras, others are shot conventionally and then converted to 3D in post-production. These are the ones that look like the slides in an old View-Master toy: instead of seeing the undulating contours of the real world, you get several distinct flat planes, one in front of the other. The effect can be disastrous. In the recently released “Conan the Barbarian”, for instance, parts of Ron Perlman’s beard appeared to float an inch in front of the rest of it.
After too many of these films, viewers are bound to condemn 3D as a William Castle-type gimmick on a par with vibrating cinema seats. But just as critics have railed against the use of CGI to no avail, it may be wishful thinking to claim that 3D is on the way out. Martin Scorsese’s next film is in 3D; so is Steven Spielberg’s. Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog have both used the technology for documentaries, and both have said they couldn’t have made them any other way. None of that suggests that 3D is a flash in the pan. The technology’s evangelists—notably James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg—are hoping that it’s comparable to the switch from black-and-white to colour. In other words, we may grow so accustomed to the new format that 2D starts to seem old-fashioned. They may be right, but first they've got to work out how to get rid of those dark glasses.
Nicholas Barber is a film critic who writes reviews for the Independent On Sunday and previews for Intelligent Life. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie", a film about diversity that stars a bunch of pretty white people.