As an opinionated cinephile, Roger Ebert has every right to dislike 3-D movies. And recently, on his blog, Roger Ebert's Journal, he wrote about such disfavor. Basically, in response to accidentally missing the press screening for the new animated 3-D flick Fly Me to the Moon, he admits that, because of a certain prejudice against the format, he likely wouldn't have enjoyed the movie anyway.
My issue here is not to attack Ebert's opinion or his belief that after half a century of dissatisfaction with the format he's never going to change his mind about it. He's free to express both. And while I disagree and am disappointed, I would never claim that Ebert doesn't know what he's talking about. He's certainly smarter about film than I'll ever be, and his opinions are far more respected than my own.
However, Ebert is also one of the most widely read film critics in the world, and therefore he is a pretty influential person when it comes to the subject of movies. And I would hate for moviegoers to dismiss the new wave of 3-D movies simply because of Ebert's stance on the format. So, I merely intend to respond to his opinion with an opinion of my own, as apparently one of the wider read gushers on the topic of digital 3-D.
My three defenses of 3-D are directly related to three complaints Ebert has with the format. Apparently we just don't see eye to eye on the subject at all. This isn't a surprise, since he actually enjoyed Beowulf in 3-D, while I did not, and he expressed a preferred interest in seeing Journey to the Center of the Earth in 2-D, while I believe it's only possibly entertaining in 3-D. Also, as far as I can tell from his review archive, he hasn't seen the two recent films that I feel showed the greatest promise for the progression of digital 3-D: Monster House and U2 3D.
1. The new 3-D is not the same as the old 3-D. Ebert mentions that the modern version of the format is essentially the same as it was back in 1952. I think he's referring more to the usage of the medium than the technology, but I'd still like to continue pointing out that digital 3-D is in fact very much different than the old analog version, with its iconic blue and red lenses. The new glasses are still disposable -- though IMAX collects its cheap, easily scratched, and uncomfortable frames at the end of IMAX 3-D showings, while Real D permits moviegoers to keep their cooler looking glasses (they look like '80s Ray-Bans, though they won't actually work as sunglasses).
I'm not expert enough to argue for the science behind the newer 3-D technologies, and I haven't had enough perfect experiences to make the desired claim that digital 3-D won't hurt your eyes or brain (Beowulf in IMAX 3-D did give me a minor headache). Heck, I can't even admit to having experienced the old analog 3-D movies in theaters (I think Epcot's Captain EO was my first 3-D movie). All I can do to defend the integrity of 3-D is that technically, the format has improved, and it will continue to be improved as long as moviegoers have the patience to allow for steady progress. After all, other advances in the film medium, from editing to color to sound, were hardly perfect in their early stages. And hopefully, in the next few years, after filmmakers such as James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and the animators at Pixar have given us better movies to watch in even better improved versions of the 3-D format, it will be clear that it's no longer just a gimmick or novelty.
2. The new 3-D is not just about throwing things at the audience. I encourage Ebert to see both Monster House and U2 3D on the big screen, if he indeed missed them. The latter is still playing after 30 weeks, and while the former is not still in theaters, I would hope that with his clout and presumed financial capability, Ebert could arrange a private screening. Both of these films utilize digital 3-D for diorama-like depth more than for flashy, gimmicky and spectacular purpose. U2 3D is a little distracting in its employment of the technology and its picture quality is not always crystal clear, though as one of the first live-action digital 3-D movies, it's an excellent start. Meanwhile, the computer-animated Monster House -- which was not made specifically for 3-D like the new release Fly Me to the Moon was -- featured quality direction from Gil Kenan, and its impressive visual storytelling was merely enhanced by the 3-D. Often I forgot that I was watching a 3-D movie, and when I did take notice, it was only because I consciously recognized the background depth -- not because anything was flying out at me.
Of course, I have no problem with 3-D movies that gratuitously exploit the format with obvious and unnecessary spectacle, like the yo-yo and spit gags in Journey. As I noted in this column last month, certain advances in cinema are permitted to and possibly necessitate such "look at me" blatancy. Sound broke through with a protruding performance by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Brendan Fraser's saliva is merely the modern equivalent of Jolson's blackface: repulsive yet historic. Even if in the future there remain shameless 3-D spectacles, there will surely be room for them, as many of us moviegoers are happy with the occasional mindless entertainment that gives us more fireworks than storytelling. While certain people may see upfront effects as annoying interruptions of a film's plot, there are, as Geoff King points out in his essay "Spectacle, Narrative, and the Blockbuster" (published in the book "Movie Blockbusters"), viewers attracted by spectacle who may experience "character-based narrative development" as the "interruptive dimension."
3. There's no denying that 3-D isn't realistic. I'm not sure where Ebert gets the idea that "there is a mistaken belief that 3-D is 'realistic.'" Plus, I'm sure he appreciates a number of movies that aren't intended to seem to be really happening. But I get his point, and I respect his scientific explanation of how 3-D isn't like reality. 3-D is like a number of film elements, though, that don't have to be about replicating or giving the illusion of how things actually are. Consider how different film sound is from the way you hear real life. Everything from sound effects (particularly those in outer space movies) to the way we're presented specific dialogue in a crowd scene is unrealistic. On top of that, cinematographic elements like focus, lighting and color, as well as editing, can be as different from reality as a seemingly projectile 3-D image. It doesn't mean we can't jump out of the way if it looks like a train is coming at us, or if a cowboy seemingly fires a gun at the audience.
For me, part of the appeal of 3-D is how unreal it is. And I probably wouldn't want to see a 3-D film directed by Vittorio De Sica, anyway. Sure, I may praise U2 3D for making me feel like I'm actually at the concert, yet it would be silly to believe it 100% looks that way to me. Even if the film were shot with a single camera from a single stationary location there would be some kind of fantastical element to it. Still, it's no less realistic than a non-3-D concert film. And any animated 3-D movie is no less realistic than a non-3-D animated movie.
Sure, an animated 3-D movie can certainly be the worst animated movie ever made. I haven't yet seen Fly Me to the Moon, but it has gotten some pretty terrible reviews (including from Cinematical's Jeff Anderson), most of which complain about the one-dimensional story, which unfortunately overshadows the three-dimensional effects. So, maybe we can dismiss this specific little effort at appealing to spectators, but let's not dismiss the whole format just because there's a bad apple or two or fifty.