3D films, just like all the films we see at the cinema, are fundamentally about story telling.
It’s about immersing yourself for a hundred minutes (and increasingly for as much as double that) in another world, in a story that hopefully will help us to better understand the human condition.
The screen is the key to our immersion in that world. Anything that distracts us from that, a neighbour eating popcorn, late-comers searching for a seat arriving after the film starts, grown men two rows in front of you fiddling with their smartphones, is noise that distracts from the film-maker’s message.
The list of possible distractions is growing: gone are the days when rustling packets and slurping straws were the chief culprits.
Film-makers themselves are getting in on the act. They’ve stopped short of insisting that audience members watch films with their hands over their eyes. But increasingly they are insisting on something almost as bad: 3D films.
There are many reasons not to like 3D films. Film critic, Roger Ebert, produces a pretty comprehensive list in his 2010 post, Why I hate 3D and you should too.
For me, the biggest reason is that 3D films stop me engaging completely with the story. The film is darker, I have to wear uncomfortable plastic glasses for up to 3 hours, and I can’t quite get my eyes to do the 3D thing constantly.
No director can seem to resist the little gimmicky flourishes that 3D films encourage: A long snouted animal that suddenly turns its head square on to the camera; a spear or arrow shoots directly at the audience; a plunge off a cliff that sends the stomach hurtling into your boots.
Even Life of Pi has moments like this: cue the CGI tiger leaping directly at you. But unlike most 3D films, Life of Pi wins praise even from Ebert for the way 3D is deployed.
Mark Kermode, another critic of 3D films, also acknowledges that Life of Pi is the best 3D film he has ever scene. But still, he sees 3D as a form of window dressing. In his review of Life of Pi (see below or link to the BBC’s site), he likens 3D films to reading a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland. It’s great for a while, but eventually you realise that the story is that’s keeping you reading.
So why is there a glut of 3D films at the cinema right now?
Ebert says it’s because the film industry is under threat. And when that happens, it reacts with new technology: sound, colour, widescreen, and now 3D.
It will take time before the latest experiment with 3D films works its way through the film business.
My favourite example from last year was a 3D film of a stage production of the the opera Madame Butterfly. The 3D effect was pretty much limited to the characters standing up-stage or down-stage from each other.
Weirdly, and against expectations, this whole effort worked rather well as a 3D film. Maybe this was because of the limited use of gimmicks. No flaming arrows from Madam Butterfly.
In the mean time, stand by for more 3D films at a cinema near you.