Even if you dazzle me with shapes and colours, I can still see there isn’t a story here.


The Era of the 3D Movie:    A Few Reservations
Well, I guess that what we’re living through now is the dawn of a new age of filmmaking.  Forgive me if I don’t sound all breathy with anticipation.  Speaking as someone who already felt, by and large, jaded by the CG content flooding so many pre-3D movies, I’m more than a little sceptical about the impact that this new technology is going to have in shaping the movies of the imminent future.
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This isn’t a matter of dogged purism.  I’m not resistant to change of itself.  Technology should evolve.  Technological advance is a good thing, and I’m all in favour of anything that can help expand the way in which we can tell and view stories through the medium of film. Exceptions [Sin City, Pan’s Labyrinth, Batman Begins, The Matrix] prove that visual effects can be used as an effective tool for storytelling, to add tone and style that help flavour the film, or to show events that couldn’t have been set up for filming any other way.  It can be a fantastic  device in the hands of a skilled filmmaker, who recognises that it is just that: a device.  But even prior to the 3D revolution, there were too many of that other breed of directors, that other kind CG-ed films.  The kind of films that relied on the viewer to be sufficiently captivated by the visual input that they’d sit through a movie that was otherwise sadly inadequate.
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It would be amazing to see a film that got it all right, that managed to meet all the criteria of good, classic filmmaking, and, as an added bonus, had all that fiendishly sophisticated technical wonderstuff.  However, I’m not hopeful.  At least not for the immediate future.  After all, how long have we been threatened with a true porn/mainstream crossover movie, with a strong plot and meaningful dialogue between [no pun intended] thoroughly fleshed-out characters, capable of standing up to serious cinematic analysis?  If such a film exists yet, I haven’t seen it.  And don’t mention Baise Moi.  No.  Really, don’t.
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Given that we’ve had a whole lot longer to get to grips with the science of screwing than special effects, we could be waiting a while for the first movie to successfully combine the potential of 3D technology with all the elements necessary to creating a solid, story-driven film.  Just as the story quality of many films made close after the advent of CGI seemed to suffer, by relying on visual effects as a smokescreen to veil a weak or defective plot, or by allowing CGI to dictate the direction of the story, with screenplays constructed solely to take the viewer from one dazzling, retina-scorching sequence to another, it seems likely that the first wave of 3D releases will balls up in similar ways.  It would be nice to think otherwise, but it seems most probable that we’re headed for a spell of movies that will have little substance beyond their eye-candy value.  I’m expecting a lot more movies like Avatar, that hope the reader will be so awestruck by the saturating levels of visual input that they won’t notice the absence of just about everything else that’s needed to make a film work.
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This trick is almost guaranteed to work on audiences under 12 months old and/or the chronically stoned.  All those colours and shapes can be pretty mesmerising when you’re still learning or struggling to remember how to focus.  It’s why babies stare at mobiles for hours, and why you spent 20 minutes looking at that screensaver with the tropical fish swimming across it on Friday after you smoked that half a joint your daughter doesn’t know you found in her room yet.  And of course, babies and critically wasted people are more acceptant, less sceptical: their boundaries are less defined, so they have no disbelief to require suspension.  Everything is, or at least seems, to be new to them.  With a convenient absence of any real, functional frame of reference, it won’t matter to them if a plot is contrived, clichéd, illogical, nonsensical or even non-existant.  They won’t care if the characters of 3D films are depressingly two-dimensional.  Hell, they won’t even notice.  They’ll just be enthralled by all the vivid colours zipping about before their eyes.
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However, I’m assuming the makers of 3D movies aren’t going for that stoner/baby demographic, seeing as I don’t think babies would be able to see the screen over the seats  in front of them, and stoners wouldn’t be able to sustain the necessary level of high throughout the showing in a non-smoking cinema.  Unless the stoners are supposed to bring space cake with them, and the babies then sit on their laps…?  Anyway, let’s say it seems unlikely.
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Also, I want to make it clear.  I’m talking about hideously stoned, here.  Just a bit hazed over and giggly won’t cut it.  I mean the kind of stultifying, near-catatonic grade of fucked-up where bits of your body sever communications.  I’d had more than a couple of smokes when I watched Avatar, and I was still massively underwhelmed.  Even pretty mellowed-out, if I hadn’t been on a comfortable sofa underneath a duvet, I’d have gone off and found something else to do.  Admittedly, you could argue that my viewing experience doesn’t meet the proper scientific test conditions, for the following reason:
I saw it at home, not at a cinema, and not in 3D.  So no, I didn’t get the experience of being fully immersed in the events of the film.  I didn’t get the full wrap-around visuals, the impression that I could just reach out and touch the planet’s luscious foliage, the sense – so to speak – of having truly been there.  I didn’t soar across panoramic views on a giant multi-coloured space-pterodactyl.  I didn’t run with the blue people.  But – you know what? – I’m okay with that.  Because when I see a movie, I expect to see a movie, not 150-minute-plus fireworks display.  What’s more, I’m expecting to see a decent movie: one that tells a story – its own story – well.  Because, whether it’s supposed to be a deep, cerebral, layered affair  [The PrestigeOne Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest], a sophisticated thriller [The Usual Suspects, Chinatown], a whimsical comedy [Baseketball, Little Nicky] or a high-octane action flick [Crank, Die Hard], if the story doesn’t stand up, then the structure won’t hold.  It doesn’t have to be complex; in fact, simple is better than convoluted, but it needs to be different, to find some new idea or angle, and it needs to address the basic needs of storytelling, like plot and characterisation.  And that said, all the high-tech visual wizardry in the world, doesn’t add a scratch in terms of story.  Even if the viewing experience was so utterly real that I got hayfever from the flowers that I was expected to care so very deeply about, the truth remains that ‘the Avatar plot’ had its shortcomings in this regard.  The plot was… okay, when it was Really, don’t.  Pocahontas.  By Dances With Wolves, we’d picked up the tune and were starting to sing along with the chorus.  Watching Avatar, it felt like I was being reminded that I still knew all the words to a song I’d long ago grown sick of.  Governments and military and corporations = bad; nature and peace and spirituality = good.  Nobody needed to go to all that effort to reiterate that, did they?  As for characterisation: the only potentially interesting facet in the protagonist is the fact that he’s lost the use of his legs, and the one time he can have that mobility again is when his consciousness is inside the body of blue thing/human hybrid.  Yet within the first twenty minutes, after some shallow probing of the idea, this entire line of thought is abandoned and ignored for the rest of the film.  The love interest – and remember, as a viewer, you’re supposed to be able to vicariously love her, too, or at least understand what it is about her that’s so spellbinding to the protagonist – comes across (to me, at any rate) as flawlessly bland with elements of stroppy, patronising and unreasonable.  No perceptible effort has gone into making the bad guy general anything more shaded or complex than a clichéd spoof of a villain, more in keeping with the tone of Starship Troopers, and definitely out of place in a film that so presumptuously seemed to believe it ‘had a message’.  So anyway, yeah, screw you if you wanted to discount my take on Avatar, just because I didn’t see it at the cinema in 3D.  If anything, the way I watched it spared me from being suckered in by all the fancy SFX bullshit designed to cloud the viewer’s judgement and stop them from realising: ‘Hey… South Park was right.  This is just  Dances With Smurfs.’
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This wasn’t actually intended to be an Avatar shredding session, but it’s a pretty obvious film to talk about if you’re looking at the trend towards the prioritisation of special effects over content and structure.  Plus, Cameron’s face annoys me.  It is, however, by no means the only movie guilty of this shift in values, or the first.  Star Wars: Episode 1 [The Phantom Menace] is another fine example of  cinematic technology gone spectacularly out of control, with the barest of attempts made to hide the fact that the whole shoddy film hinged on overloading viewers’ optic nerves with a saturation-point embarrassment of contrived visual effects, and utterly disregarding the need for even the most basic linchpins of narrative structure. However I shan’t even begin to go into that one, as the Episode 1 review to end all Episode 1 reviews has already been done [*** view part 1 here ***].  However, like pretty much all technology, the more advanced the industry’s special effects become, the more potential there is for it all to go horribly wrong, especially in the wrong hands.  What the hell George Lucas is going to do with the powers of 3D filmmaking in his grasps, I hate to imagine, but I fully expect it will be very, very ugly.
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Whether senseless quasi-plot is more or less offensive than unnecessary and unremarkable rehashing is a matter of personal opinion.  Either way, a movie is ultimately a medium for spinning a yarn, and no matter how glorious it looks, if it fails to do this one thing convincingly, then it’s failed.  If I wanted to geek out over cutting edge technology, I’d go online and look at all the amazing, state-of-the-art gadgets that I will never be able to afford.  If I just wanted to look at something pretty, I’d go into Stratford and stare at girls.  If I wanted to be amazed by miracle of seeing things in three dimensions, then I’d open my fucking eyes.
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Something else that filmmakers seem to forget is that CGI, however revolutionary, will never be able to compete with ‘real’ footage for impact and immediacy.  The most frantic, death-defying computer-generated car chase will never be as exciting to watch as a slower, less extreme one filmed with real cars and real people.  To see this in effect, check out Tom Cruise’s hover car getaway in Minority Report, then contrast it with the car chases in Death Proof or Duel.  It’s easy to feel similarly jaded about epic CG battles, like those in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  As somebody else pointed out to me once: ‘It’s all just a bunch of pixels.  If the computer crashes they’re all dead, so why should I care?’
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Also, while it might seem like a more realistic way of faking it than earlier methods, like miniatures, puppets or stop motion animation, the results achieved using CGI frequently come across as polished to the point of characterless sterility.  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou would have lost so much in terms of charm and identity if it had gone the obvious route of computer-generating the film’s creatures.  So clearly more advanced isn’t always better.
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Maybe once we’ve had a chance for the novelty of 3D movie-viewing to wear off, we’ll start seeing the technology properly applied in a way that benefits the film.  Until then, I imagine we’ll be offered a lot of very sophisticated and expensive kaleidoscopes to look through.
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