It’s an odd time for 3D movies. The eye-poking, HDTV-busting format has already tired out audiences as quickly as it did when Hollywood launched the 3D trend the first two times in the 1950s and ’80s. However, the new tech is substantially stronger than the old days, and movies like ‘Gravity’ prove that 3D can be an artist’s canvas. Now we have ‘Stalingrad’, a massive historical epic from Russia designed for IMAX 3D presentations. There’s no denying that the film is a pretty stunning technical achievement, but “Gotcha!” 3D moments and stirring real life tragedy are an awkward mix.
Judged purely on its technical merits, Stalingrad is certainly an impressive achievement for the Russian film industry. The scale is massive, the combat is filthy, and the effects work (both digital and practical) can stand proudly alongside a Hollywood production. And yet, somehow the whole thing feels painfully dull.
The story is simple. Set in the midst of the brutal five-month street battle in Stalingrad that cost 850,000 lives, five Russian soldiers rediscover their humanity while protecting an innocent young girl who refuses to leave her home. Meanwhile, a Nazi finds a beating heart beneath his Naziness when a rape victim becomes his true love. It’s a script comprised entirely of war movie clichés, and no matter how much spectacle the filmmakers thrust at the audience’s eyeballs, it’s impossible to ever get wrapped up in the story or care about the characters. Despite the pretty eye candy, if you can’t hook an audience’s emotions, spectacle doesn’t mean much.
Director Fedor Bondarchuk and his effects wizards clearly put all their efforts (and dollars) into the battle sequences and pulled off some incredible work. The movie has plenty of pretty explosions and painful, bone-crunching combat scenes. However, something about the 3D presentation creates a distance between the audience and the subject matter. 3D is a wonderful toy for fantasy epics, as it can immerse viewers into an imagined world. The trouble is that 3D effects also ring a bell in viewers’ heads signaling that what they’re watching is a movie and not reality. That’s fine for ‘Avatar’ or ‘Gravity’, but for a film like ‘Stalingrad’ that’s about a genuine tragedy, it pulls viewers out of the experience and feels somewhat tasteless. What we’re left with is a movie that’s supposed to be a painful exploration of wartime tragedy, but one that’s worth seeing only for the machine gun eye candy. In other words, it offers exactly the opposite experience than the filmmakers intended.