It should come as no surprise that James Cameron thinks that 3-D is swell. As you may have heard, his last movie was 3-D, and made about $752 bajillion at the box office, the majority of which came from people going back to see it 2, 3, 4, or 37 times in 3-D. So you can imagine that he’s pretty keen on the technology. Now, he’s even claiming that 3-D will eventually phase out 2-D as the default standard format for movies, TV shows, and other video content. He predicts that this will happen in less than 25 years, perhaps even as soon as, “in a couple of years.”
Cameron likens the transition to that of silent movies giving way to Talkies, or black & white to color. It’s an inevitability, to his thinking.
Do I believe him? At the moment, I’m inclined to say no. For as much as 3-D is the fad du jour, there are a great many viewers who find it gimmicky and annoying, and are irritated by the need to wear dorky 3-D glasses for the effect to work. 3-D is hot right now, but the backlash is already growing. Its popularity has gone through waves in prior decades, and has burned out after a few years each time.
Yes, the technology is better now, and this current wave has lasted longer than most previously. But I don’t believe that the technology was ever the significant impediment to 3-D’s lasting success. People just got tired of it after a while, and probably will again.
Personally, I’m of mixed feelings about this. I kind of like 3-D, at least when it’s done well. (Which, admittedly, isn’t often.) Do I think that every movie needs to be 3-D? Not especially. Thus far, it seems to be most effective for animation and action movie blockbusters, but less suited towards standard dramas and comedies.
However, I can’t help worrying that this mindset is too stuck in the past, when it should be looking forward to the future. Lest we forget, prior generations were also resistant to Talkies at first (“Who needs sound? It’s just a gimmick!), or color, or many other filmmaking innovations. Back in 1953, the renowned French film theorist André Bazin wrote an essay arguing that CinemaScope was only useful for “spectacular” films like Westerns and biblical epics, but detrimental to other genres. He simply could not conceive of a use for widescreen photography in any sort of emotionally complex drama. Filmmakers, on the other hand, had their own ideas that soon proved him wrong.
With a little creativity, our own generation of filmmakers (perhaps even Cameron himself) may just find a way to adapt 3-D to all sorts of film genres beyond the typical action and sci-fi epics. I really do believe that there are artistically meaningful uses for 3-D that modern movies have barely begun to experiment with. We may just need one brilliant innovator to make the breakthrough that will show everyone else how it should be done.
Is James Cameron that prophet? I don’t know. The 3-D effects in ‘Avatar’ were pretty effective, I suppose. I appreciated that he used the process more to emphasize depth than the usual gimmicky “Comin’ at Ya!” gags. Still, honestly, I don’t think that 3-D really added anything meaningful to that movie, other than a good excuse to draw audiences to see it in theaters rather than wait for video. Rewatching ‘Avatar’ on Blu-ray, my feelings about the movie in 2-D were exactly the same as my feelings about it in 3-D. The things that worked for me theatrically (Cameron’s dazzling vision of the alien world) still worked just as well in two dimensions. And the things that didn’t work for me the first time (the story, the characters) were still every bit as bad.
I’m still waiting for the movie that will prove to me that 3-D is an essential filmmaking tool. I haven’t seen that yet, not even in ‘Avatar’. In the meantime, I also fear that my hesitancy will leave me behind the curve. I really don’t want to sound like some crotchety old man, muttering under my breath about these darn kids and their newfangled toys.