I'm not going to lie and say that there was no small part of me that actually wanted to see "Step Up 3D" for my own enjoyment. I could claim that I got dragged along to this movie by my wife. Worse, I could try to convince you that I only went to see this movie in the name of research; that I had no passing interest of my own. But really, I just wanted to see a movie with really cool dancing in 3D.
3D launches have been predominantly fantasy and science fiction movies, for obvious reasons. These movies were already spending millions on special effects. So I was curious to see how 3D would make the leap to other genres.
Of course, one of my favorite older 3D movies is also a dance film: an extended Michael Jackson music video, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, for Walt Disney World. But that film was practically a sci-fi movie with dancing. Plus, what I really remember from that childhood trip to Disney World is that I greatly preferred "Muppet Vision 3-D" to Captain Eo.
"Step Up 3D" was directed by John Chu, who apparently did such a bang up job with "Step Up 2: The Streets" that he was invited back for the third round. I must admit I haven't seen either of the two prequels, but I didn't think I would be too lost with the plot. I thought I had seen the first in the series (trilogy?), but in fact my wife reminded me I had seen "Save the Last Dance." That might have been the last time I saw a dance movie in the theaters. I'm still kicking myself for missing the "Fame" remake.
I heard Chu talking in an interview about how they filmed the dance scenes in 3D. He said that the dancers were trying their hardest to choreograph fast moving, complicated scenes, but in 3D playback Chu's eyes couldn't keep up. So, the dancers and director started filming and watching, experimenting with new moves that might look good in 3D.
This is what really drew me to the movie. I like the idea that, in filming a new genre in 3D, Chu uncovered new problems and puzzles with the technology. So much of modern 3D has been rendered by a farm of computers, we don't understand how the problems are going to translate to a big screen. For 3D to be taken seriously, it has to branch out and become more than a comic book gimmick. I'm not suggesting that MTV-style dance movies are the path to 3D enlightenment, but any step in a different direction is worth a look.
Did it work? Oblige me with a plot synopsis first, to give you some clue of the level of talent involved.
"Step Up 3D" is about a creepy dude who wanders New York City looking for young people to dance with. When he finds them, he invites them to live in tents and bunk beds in one small room of his massive warehouse, where he also runs an underage night club downstairs. He's sort of a modern day Fagin, from Oliver Twist.
One day, he finds a boy in a public bathroom engaged in some strange, ritualistic dancing duel with a group of street toughs. He asks the boy to blow off his freshman year of college to dance with him, and the boy happily agrees! Then he finds a troubled young girl dancing alone in his poorly lit club downstairs. He tells her to come live in a tent with a bunch of boys upstairs, and she has nothing else going on, so she agrees.
The girl runs away, then comes back. The boy runs away, then comes back with his friend from high school, who admittedly isn't a very good dancer, but she's good enough for the best team on the underground dance circuit, and she's brought a dozen or so similarly mediocre friends. Along the way, there are two or three dance-offs, and a couple extraneous dance numbers. In the final face-off, the good guys win. It isn't even close.
Surprisingly, I may be missing major plot points, some of which came from the previous films. Apparently, characters came back for the sequel, though their motivation seems to have started from scratch. I want to dance, but I can't dance right now, so I just gotta be me . . . and dance.
Why did I expect this director to find new ground to uncover in 3D filming technique? I didn't. I just wanted to see a movie with some fun dancing. Some of the dancing was fun, but Chu definitely did not know how to film in 3D. Characters were poorly framed. Every dance number relied on dancers facing the screen directly and reaching arms out into the audience. The dancing also felt slowed. Though Chu said that this was a tactical choice to help the audience keep eyes focused through 3D lenses, I wonder why they didn't just film the dancing fast and then slow it down? Even slow motion would have been more impressive.
Was the movie better in 3D? Undoubtedly, but in surprising ways. There were a number of scenes simply walking around New York City, hanging out by the East River or on the rooftops, and these moments were much more alive and scenic thanks to the 3D filming. I think 3D could honestly have a place in a real drama, or at least a genre outside the normal horror and sci-fi realm.
This past weekend, "The Other Guys" made a lot more money than "Step Up 3D." I saw both movies. With my father-in-law in town visiting and babysitting, I was able to sneak off to "The Other Guys" Saturday afternoon. After reading terrible reviews, my wife was not interested. I should have listened, but I'm glad we saved the silly dance movie for an evening movie together. Given the choice between seeing a bad comedy or a bad dance movie in 3D, at least you can be sure a dance movie will have dancing, but a bad comedy might be two hours without a laugh.