What I Learned From a Year in 3D

As SlashGear's self-appointed movie reviewer, I've seen about a half dozen 3D movies this year on behalf of the site, and another half dozen on my own recognizance. After Avatar, it was clear that 3D was more than just a fad, that the new technology was a potential cash cow and definitely here to stay. But has it finally become mainstream? Is this really the year that 3D finally took off, or was the glut of 3D movies just another flash in the pan? After enjoying some of the best – and suffering the worst – that 3D has to offer, here's what I've learned this past year.[Image credit: Matt Neale]The Obvious Lessons

I'm just going to lump these obvious lessons into one group so I can get onto the more interesting ideas. Yes, 3D movies mostly suck. 3D adds little value to even a good movie, and completely decimates the worst of the bunch. For every Avatar and Tron: Legacy, there is a Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland, or worse. Remember Piranha 3D? I didn't until I started researching for this column and going back through my old reviews.

The worst 3D movies have been converted to 3D after the fact. Actually, these were all so very bad that they should really be legally required to market themselves differently. Perhaps as 2.5D movies, or Diorama movies, since they more closely resemble a strange mix of two-dimensional figures placed at depth in a 3D space than anything you'll experience in real life.

The other problem with 3D movies is the ticket price. At my local theater, a Cinemark branch, they usually hit you twice with a 3D tariff. First, you get the 3D surcharge, which is an extra $2 or so, depending on where you see the movie and at what time. But most big 3D movies are also IMAX features (XD at Cinemark), and so you're paying an extra $2 or more for that privilege. Don't get me started on why the current incarnation of IMAX is a huge rip-off (and destroying the once fabled IMAX brand). Needless to say, you'll pay an extra $4 or more to see Jackass 3D on opening weekend.

The best 3D doesn't poke you in the eye

The best 3D scene I saw in any movie this year was, surprisingly enough, in the movie Step Up 3D. It was not your quintessential horror or sci-fi 3D movie, but rather a dance film. It was awful. The acting was atrocious. The dancing was exciting at best, frenetic and poorly filmed at worst. It was a great concept, I'll give it that. A dance movie makes for a fun and unique 3D experience, for sure. But it wasn't a good movie, 3D or not.

However, there was one scene that caught my eyes. It was a simple rooftop shot of New York City, laid out like a panoramic landscape. Seeing the huge city in three dimensions in the theater gave it a depth I had never experienced before in a movie. It added real distance to the buildings. A very real sense that the characters were just small pieces in a much larger cityscape. New York, in movies, often feels like a painting of famous landmarks and buildings. In that one scene in Step Up 3D, the director managed to place the audience in the middle of a breathing metropolis in a way that was fresh and fascinating.

The worst 3D movie effects try to throw something off the screen into your face. The best 3D effects try to immerse you in a world with depth and substance. While this may seem more obvious in the 3D fantasy worlds of Tron: Legacy and Avatar, it works equally well in a huge, establishing shots in real world cities. I would like to see this used more. It seems 3D is most successful when it's the least self-aware.

This was not the year of 3D

Not even close. I've seen plenty of year-end wrap-up stories claiming that, with the plethora of 3D garbage hitting the screen this year, the technology and effects had finally come of age. This is nonsense.

The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were two notable milestones in the use of color in major motion picture releases, but even those movies came decades after the first color movie was released. Still, even after the watershed year of 1939, when both of those movies were released, color was not even close to becoming mainstream. By the mid-1950s, color movies still made up about half of major motion picture releases.

Sure, if half of all movies today were released in 3D, we would say the technology had finally hit the mainstream, but I think there are better ways of judging the acceptance of 3D. Could a 3D movie win an Academy Award? Avatar was nominated (and robbed, I believe), but it did not win. But being the Best Picture of the year isn't the appropriate milestone, either.

Tipping the scales

I want to see movies where 3D is simply one aspect of the artistic nature of the cinematographer's device. I want the 3D to be an afterthought, not a key selling point. I'm sure theaters will still try to charge more for tickets, but I would like to see a movie released that was filmed in 3D as a nod to the future of filmmaking, and not as a new-fangled immersive trick to be played on our eyes.

I want to see a sports movie in 3D. A boxing movie, or a baseball movie. I want to see a thriller in 3D. Not a horror movie, a bank heist. I want to see a romance in 3D. A movie where characters walk the streets of New York or Los Angeles or Seattle and kvetch and moan about how two people can't possibly get together in this big world in which we live. Then, show me that big world sprawling before me in three dimensions.

That's when I'll finally say that it's the year of 3D. I would like to see serious directors embrace 3D not with projects that are built around the immersive effect, but which use 3D as simply another way to set the scene.

Most of all, I'd like to see a movie released that doesn't advertise its 3D nature in huge letters on the marquee. As long as 3D movies have to call attention to the 3D effects, and as long as moviegoers have to steel themselves to unwrap those cheap 3D glasses and endure the occasional stereoscopic headache, 3D has not come of age.