A New Decade, A New Dimension

The release date of James Cameron’s Avatar—17th December 2009, or thereabouts, worldwide—is most notable, poking the tip of its toe into the previous decade whilst belonging indubitably to this one, the ‘Tenties’ as it has been christened by my colleague John White. Of course Avatar was released to take advantage of the Christmas holidays, but it came too late for the copy deadlines of many end-of-year and end-of-decade reviews, including my own. And due to its enormous popularity, it’s still showing as I write, well into its fourth month on release. Avatar, therefore, has become the definitive movie of the dawn of the Tenties, a movie that has already established itself as a major landmark in cinema history and is destined to be mentioned alongside the Greats of the past one hundred and fifteen years. Why? Because it marks a major innovation in film narrative or is a particularly fine example of film storytelling? Absolutely no way; it doesn’t even come close. It has its place because it represents a quantum leap up to the next level, not only of SFX and CGI, but also of cinema as a form—a leap that is perhaps nearly as significant as the establishment of synchronised sound and colour. An extravagant claim, you might say, but one that is worthy of examination.

The ways in which talking pictures revolutionised cinema need hardly be mentioned here, save to say they transformed the medium out of all recognition. Suddenly the sound of an actor’s voice, be it in speech or song, entered the equation. Dialogue could now be used to balance and temper action, and the profession of screenwriting really took off. Acting became more naturalistic and an altogether different business. Singing became the next big thing. Al Jolson was in and Buster Keaton was out.

Less dramatically, more osmotically, colour marked the next big revolution. Of course colour has been around in various forms since the 19th century, from frame-by-frame hand tinting, of which Georges Méliès, is the most famous proponent, to the early experiments in additive colour, by the Friese-Greenes and others, to the eventual dominance of Technicolor in the field; but can anyone name a really memorable (fully) colour film predating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937? That was the key moment, the Avatar moment, and after that it all kicked off. The following year Errol Flynn became immortalised in Lincoln green in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and in 1939 those two Victor Fleming masterpieces, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, finalised colour’s coming of age.

Just pause for a moment and imagine those films in black and white…doesn’t really work too well, does it? The Wizard of Oz is particularly instructive, since it is not merely ‘in colour’, with colourful sets and costumes to take advantage of the medium, it is syntactically predicated upon colour. Dorothy’s arrival into the Land of Oz is heralded by an explosion out of monochrome and into colour. Suddenly the sky is blue! Her hair is red! And the Yellow Brick Road is well…yellow, very bright yellow! The message is simple but dramatic: monochrome is ‘normal’ and colour is ‘otherness’.

In a film of seven years later, A Matter of Life and Death, that same formula is used in reverse, with Technicolor dyes bled in and out the film’s emulsion to enable a seamless transition between vividly colourful earthly life and a pearly, monochrome heaven. And not dissimilarly, in another Powell–Pressburger masterpiece, Black Narcissus, Sister Ruth’s transition from the dour, ascetic domain of nunhood into the unfettered, sexualised outside world is heralded by that unforgettable big close up of red lipstick metamorphosing Kathleen Byron’s sensuous mouth. The point is obvious: these films could not exist as they are were it not for colour.

Like colour before Snow White, 3-D has been around almost since cinema’s beginnings, and I don’t propose to turn this feature into an in-depth 3-D history lesson, so I will be brief. There have been several waves of 3-D popularity as the technology slowly improved, from 1950s dual-strip-projected Bwana Devil (a kind of African Jaws with lions instead of a shark), House of Wax and Creature from the Black Lagoon; to the single-strip 1980s Friday the 13th Part 3, Amityville 3-D and Jaws 3-D, with body parts floating right up in your face. For the most part these films were low-grade genre pieces, and the use of 3-D was perceived as gimmicky and tacky, with little to recommend it to the serious filmmaker.

The next development was that IMAX started to produce 3-D films of much improved quality, mainly for screening in theme parks where the 3-D spectacle would naturally complement the other thrills on offer. Subject matter became of secondary concern to 3-D-ness, and many of these films were short documentaries offering tracking shots across exotic locations and explorations of scientific themes, such as Transitions, Echoes of the Sun, Imagine and Into the Deep. Other theme park 3-D films were more entertainment conscious, for example Captain Eo, featuring Michael Jackson, and Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D.

In 2003 James Cameron created the state-of-the-art 3-D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, using HD video to explore the wreck of the Titanic. I saw it at the IMAX in Disneyland Paris and remember being very impressed with the immersiveness of the 3-D experience, much like a ride, but more of a specialised thrill rather than something that could go mainstream. Cameron, of course, had other ideas. From there things started to pick up. Robert Rodriguez, another techno-geek director, used HD video for his Spy Kids 3D–Game Over and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D. Superman Returns had a twenty-minute section converted to 3-D for IMAX viewing. And Real D Cinema started to come in, streamlining HD video technology and making it much more practical for day-to-day cinema use. Real D movies from the mid-2000s include Monster House, Meet The Robinsons and Beowulf.

Clearly all the technological components were in place for 3-D’s further expansion and the number of higher profile 3-D movies started to increase. Between Beowulf and Avatar there were over thirty 3-D movies released, including shorts and conversions of earlier works—Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, Bolt, Coraline and Final Destination: Death Trip 3D amongst them. But it was with Avatar that 3-D reached it ultimate critical mass: the point where virtually nobody, from your granny who hasn’t been to the cinema since Titanic, to your friends with five kids who can never get babysitters, has been excluded from the new must-see cinematic trip.

So brief history lesson over. Is the new 3-D really such a sea change; is it really comparable to sync sound and colour as an evolution in form? As far as my personal experience goes, yes it is, for as it happened I saw Avatar twice—the first time in 2-D and the second in 3-D—and what I saw wasn’t the same film in two different modes; it was two different films…

Avatar 2-D: A bland, derivative highly predictable sci-fi adventure that is replete with just about every cliché in the book, from the callow hero who learns the ‘real facts of life’ in his journey of discovery, to the New Age-style alien race who embody all that is finest and noble, in contrast to the duplicitous, dirty dealing, imperialistic Earthfolk, led by a gung-ho maniac who makes General Patton and Colonel Kilgore look like pacifists. The ubiquitously made plot comparisons between Avatar and a certain 1990 Oscar-winning Kevin Costner western are accurate to the point of embarrassment, with whole sections lifted virtually verbatim. And as for the vivid colour scheme and the bestiary, that too seems rather old hat, like something from a 1970s prog rock album cover. Without the glasses, one might well consider that James Cameron has lost his cinematic marbles.

Avatar 3-D: The first thing you notice are the bubbles, floating up towards you, and soon after that the intriguing perspective of the suspended-animation chamber where the transported personnel are waking up. After that each new development leaves you with a serendipitous anticipation for the next, and as Jake enters the Na’vi world, you go with him and share his emotions as he grapples with the exciting strangeness of it all. The colours, the surfaces and the textures are all alive in an entrancing, convulsively heightened way that is perpetually hypnotic, and everything becomes, in a word, trippy. The Na’vis’ faces are superhumanly expressive. Scenes of love and death are more touching. The hardboiled Blade Runneresque narration is pithier. The 3-D itself takes you on an expanding journey where scenes of more and more greatly exciting spectacle unfold. In the airborne sequences, the geometry of the aerobatics becomes as much an entertainment factor as who does what to whom, and like in a video game, character and plot take a subservient position to the interactive buzz. At the end of it all, you’re left with that same feeling of delight that, say, a Ray Harryhausen film produced in the 1960s.

What it comes down to is that you only have so much capacity of attention to give to a film, and if much of that attention is taken up appreciating the 3-D then there is less of it available for criticism of shortcomings in other areas. You become much more forgiving of derivative structure, cardboardness in character and overall narrative weakness, because those things are less important in the grander scheme. In a nutshell, 3-D totally changes the parameters of suspension of disbelief.

Apart from Cameron, no filmmaker today realises this better than Tim Burton, that impresario of the innovatively weird. In 2006, when Real D had established itself, he saw the commercial potential there and retooled his 1993 stop motion animation The Nightmare Before Christmas into 3-D. The nature of the film, with its spindly characters and gothic settings, leant itself to 3-D conversion very well and it achieved a whole new lease of box office life.

When it came to Alice in Wonderland, Burton used a medley of techniques—regular live action, real-life actors against green screen, real-life–motion-capture hybrids, and fully animated CG elements—all to be pieced together in post. As for 3-D, Burton and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shot the live action in 2-D and converted afterwards, whilst using proper stereoscopically rendered 3-D for the CGI. This was a valid creative decision, and in no way was it a last-minute piece of retrofitting to cash in on the 3-D trend; most of the film is green screen anyway.

Like with David Cronenberg’s version of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, huge liberties were taken with Lewis Carroll’s source material, and in both cases the filmmakers’ method was to put the material into a blender and extrude movies that lived on their own completely altered terms. That said, Burton’s Alice superbly reinvents Carroll’s hallucinatory world for the Tenties, combining the best of traditional adaptations from the Disney cartoon onwards, to the much more weird and off the wall, such as Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 version.

From Who Framed Roger Rabbit onwards, I’ve always had a slight problem with real-life and animated elements blended together; I’m always looking at the joins and comparing the spatial relationships of the different planes, and so I’m not fully involved in the movie. At a stroke the 3-D layering of Alice solves all that, enabling Depp’s delightfully deranged flesh-and-blood Hatter, Alice herself and the two Queens to co-exist with the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and so on in an environment that sparkles with improbable verisimilitude and draws us inside, convincing us of its singular 'reality'.

Along with Avatar the 3-D usage here has changed the game, and the various tricks of Alice—the changes of Alice’s scale, the Red Queen’s enlarged head, the marching armies of playing cards and chess pieces—immerse us in a surreal wonderland experience that cancels out other misgivings. As with the colour in The Wizard of Oz and Black Narcissus, these films are syntactically predicated upon 3-D, and in 2-D they are just not the same.

It has been quickly grasped by the industry that people are flocking to cinemas purely for the buzz, the fix of 3-D, and in a world where home entertainment has impacted upon cinema attendance, that’s a really important factor. Unfortunately the rattling of cash registers is leading to precisely what Avatar and Alice are not—hastily converted movies where the 3-D is an afterthought rather than an integral creative element.

The recently released Clash of the Titans is just such a movie. A remake of the 1981 Ray Harryhausen epic, replete with gods and monsters, Titans should have made for an ideal 3-D extravaganza, but with a crudely bolted-on conversion that doesn’t properly stereoscopically integrate with the CGI, it instead gives us the nightmare flipside of the Avatar experience. Elements are layered in space but in themselves have a flatness that is actually emphasised by the 3-D, so that the overall effect is of a cardboard-cutout puppet show. And indeed scenes such as the fights with the Medusa and the Kraken, which should have sparkled with in-your-face aliveness, just come across as lacklustre and disappointing.

James Cameron has come out and raged against such cheapskate practices, saying there is no easy path to 3-D excellence and cutting corners will most likely get 3-D a bad name again. With a whole slate of new 3-D summer movies in the wings—including Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3 and Piranha 3D—the medium will be further put to the test; and additionally with the big franchises of yesteryear, such as Star Wars and LOTR, poised for 3-D conversion, the only way is up. And then there’s 3-D home entertainment, destined to be the next big thing to follow HD. 3-D is at this moment impacting on filmmaking decisions at a rate so fast it’s hard to keep abreast. For example if LOTR is going to be converted then making The Hobbit in 2-D, as intended, hardly makes sense anymore. The whole thing is a rollercoaster, which can only get faster and faster and gain more and more in momentum. Welcome to Cinema in the Tenties!

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