3D or Not 3D?

Finding myself nearby Yongsan CGV on Sunday, I decided to make a virtue of being alone and catch one of the current slew of action/horror films that my girlfriend wouldn’t dream of watching. As it happened, my timing was spot on for my least-favoured option, Piranha 3D, a film that, though clearly trashy, had managed to garner a 74 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

One of the main attractions of this film, of course, was that it was screening in 3D. However, this was not the lush 3D of Avatar, but the lesser 3D of Alice in Wonderland, which was converted from 2D in post-production. Whatever one thinks of the story in Avatar – and I thought it was pretty bad – surely few people would deny being dazzled when they first saw it.

To hear Piranha director Alexandre Aja tell it, the decision to switch to converted 3D was forced on them by having to film much of the action underwater. Conveniently, this cut-price aesthetic also jibed with his intention of making a schlocky B-movie homage, in which 80,000 gallons of fake blood were reportedly used, and one of the big draws was the prospect of seeing a scantily (or non-) clad Kelly Brook in 3D.

Now, before I talk more about the 3D, a quick word about Piranha 3D itself. I’m well aware that a film about carnivorous piranhas is going to involve people getting savaged by fish. I’m also sure that there are few pleasant ways to be eaten alive, and it’s not this film’s job to pull punches anyway. That said, the violence in Piranha 3D is absolutely grotesque. Torsos are sliced in two, scalps are ripped from their heads by motorboat propellers, and male members are devoured, and then burped up again, by razor-toothed fish. I’m not sure if it’s a sign I’m growing old and reactionary, or if this film would have prompted the same reaction in me 20 years ago, but – and despite the best efforts of a genuinely solid cast – I found Piranha 3D largely unwatchable.

As for the 3D, though it did add a certain cheesy eeriness to the underwater scenes, it was patently inferior to the effects seen in Avatar. The big cliché when describing 3D content is that the x or y really seems to be leaping out of the screen toward you. For me, Avatar actually delivered this sensation on many occasions, but Piranha 3D – despite enchanting shots of the heroine being sick toward the camera, or some “jocks” throwing a drink at the onlooking main character – definitely didn’t. It was often more reminiscent of earlier attempts at 3D – such as Jaws 3D or Friday the 13th Part III – when the effect was less three dimensional and more multi-layered, like a spacious theatre stage populated by cardboard cutouts.


I’ve now seen four 3D films in total: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3 and Piranha 3D. Of those, just one stood up as an excellent film in its own right – the funny and poignant Toy Story 3 – while Avatar was the only one, at least for me, where the 3D effects were genuinely stunning (but in the absence of a decent story, even they got a bit tired after a while). Though better than in Piranha 3D, the effects in Alice in Wonderland were rarely riveting, and the film itself was the kind of predictable hokum that Tim Burton seems to specialise in these days. And even though Toy Story 3, as an animated film, was able to make use of the best 3D technology, I would argue that the 3D effects really didn’t add a whole lot to it.

So, is 3D a waste of time? Actually, I really don’t think so. Through my work (which involves doing PR for LG Electronics), I also got the chance to see some of the new 3D TVs in action at a tradeshow in Seoul a couple of months back. In the middle of an exhibition hall at COEX, LG and Samsung had two massive, flashy booths lined up right next to each other, and the highlight in each was unquestionably their 3D line-ups. Here, as much as anywhere outside the opening hour and a half of Avatar, I got a taste of what 3D effects can really do.

LG's 3D booth
The Avatar game
Football in 3D
A prototype glasses-free 3D set. Worked OK in a very narrow viewing range.

Though not everything on display looked flawless, the larger sized screens, when showing content actually filmed in 3D, were very impressive. A trailer for the teen dance movie Step-up 3D finished with a dancer flinging his hat toward the screen, which genuinely made me flinch. Best of all, however, were the computer games and the football, two forms of content for which 3D seems tailor made. To trot out some more clichés, the computer game, itself based on Avatar, really did draw me into the action. Irrespective of the so-so gameplay, the graphics and Na’vi character were so convincing I could almost feel the onscreen undergrowth brushing against my legs. The football was every bit as engrossing. Showing a montage of clips from Chelsea games, the 3D effect really gave the impression I was watching a field of oompa-loompa footballers playing the game right in front of me.

Which brings us back to Piranha 3D. When asked his opinion of the new film (whose original version, incidentally, had a sequel directed by Cameron himself), James Cameron said: “I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D.” This drew a sharp response from some commenters. But after seeing a fair bit of 3D stuff myself since the release of Avatar, I’m increasingly inclined to agree with him.

Especially since the release of the much-derided Clash of the Titans remake, 3D has been facing a growing backlash, with many dismissing it as no more than a gimmick. Having seen the best and the lesser sides of it, I think 3D is definitely not going away. But I can see a few things happening:

1)      After the forthcoming flurry of 3D films, the novelty will wear off, and filmmakers and viewers will settle on certain genres of films for which 3D is especially well suited; ie, action, sci-fi, animation and perhaps some horror. The only elements of 3D I think will prove to be a “gimmick” are the lower-quality effects used on the likes of Piranha 3D and Clash of the Titans.

2)      3D will become a standard feature on TVs, especially once a good amount of 3D Blu-ray content hits the market.

3)      But even when glasses-free models come out, 3D content will still only have appeal in certain genres. However, on top of the kind of movies that will attract 3D fans to cinemas, 3D TV will also become popular for all kinds of sports, computer games and perhaps wildlife shows and the like.

So there’s my tuppence worth. And for what it’s worth, I reckon that the forthcoming Tron: Legacy film – which I’m REALLY looking forward to – could be the one that takes 3D properly into the mainstream.

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