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3D or not 3D?

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The spate of 3D movies continues.

Over the past year, I’ve seen a lot, for better or worse. A few are enhanced by the effect, others are not. In three recent instances, I found 3D to be a genuine boon to the viewer: the mountain-climbing docudrama Everest; the not-so-far-into-the-future science-fiction adventure The Martian; and, most spectacularly, The Walk, a dramatic reenactment of daredevil wire-walker Philippe Petit’s harrowing navigation across the gap between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The subject matter in each was ideal for the format.

In general, 3D diminishes the clarity of the image, even as producers and creators try to make those movies more immersive, virtual-reality-style. That’s especially problematic when a movie is not shot with dedicated 3D cameras, but is converted to stereoscopic 3D from a 2D print after the fact by a proprietary process that can also dilute sharpness. The 3D glasses additionally filter the image, and further dim it to the eye — a shortcoming even in movies initially made with genuine 3D equipment.

Any deficiencies don’t seem to matter to Hollywood. As the industry scrambles to keep up with the comfortable lure of at-home streaming, 3D releases are a financial boon. Hence, the higher numbers of 3D movies these days.

YOU ARE THERE … EVEN IN OUTER SPACE

Did you want to fly into space alongside George Clooney and Sandra Bullock? Your best bet was to do it at a cinema where you paid more to see Gravity in 3D than for the same feature in 2D, especially if you caught it on an IMAX mega-screen. Was it worth it? Well, Gravity delivered on a visceral level in large part due to the “you-are-there” impact. So yes, there are artistic reasons for the increase in 3D movies. After the novelty wears off, quality can prevail.

When I was a kid, I was inordinately excited by the 3D effect, whether on the printed page in a handful of special-edition comic books or on the big screen in what was usually a B-movie with monsters or arrows or rocket ships coming straight at me as I cowered in my seat. By that time, the 3D fad — which was in its heyday during the 1950s — had faded, so my opportunities to be exposed to it were rare. There were the occasional Saturday matinee revivals like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and we had the laughable sequel Jaws 3D, notable only for its use of tech to jack up shark-attack shocks that had become clichéd through over-familiarity.

To achieve the illusion for the comic books, you needed to wear 3D glasses with one red lens and one blue lens (resulting in trompe-l’oeil undermined by bizarre coloration), while the movies, including the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder, typically used polarized glasses. In either case, headaches from eyestrain were common. Happily, I didn’t get the headaches then, nor do I get them now, although the weight of today’s high-tech 3D goggles always leaves the bridge of my nose sore.

The brain-twisting results of this optical trickery have undeniable appeal. And sometimes, there’s subtlety to its use. In Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock adopted the technique to have his actors and sets recede into a stage-like perspective — making the projection like a gigantic diorama. This went against the conventional approach of things leaping off or out of the screen as a startling demonstration of dimensionality, or as a scare tactic. If you go to see a 3D movie, chances are that you’re looking for a trip — and the more radical or wild the trip, the better.

WHEN 3D WORKS ITS MAGIC

The half-assed Conan the Barbarian 2011 remake was a conversion from 2D, but even if it had been made with 3D cameras, it would have been no less feeble. On the other hand, Everest, which takes the viewer on an ill-fated trek up the legendary mountain, is a conversion, albeit a first-rate one that makes splendid use of its location footage and special effects work. While the script is no masterpiece, the visual scope and scale is built-in and improved by 3D.

Then there’s The Martian, an adaptation of the best seller about an American astronaut left behind on the Red Planet to fend for himself when a manned mission goes awry. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), it presents a fantastic mix of practical and computer-generated effects originally filmed in 3D, giving the space-exploration side of the story more verity. You won’t need much suspension of disbelief to buy the idea that lead actor Matt Damon’s character is actually stuck on the surface of Mars.

Ultimately, The Walk provides the most significant justification for 3D in memory, as well as offering the most thrilling time I’ve had in a movie theater in a number of years. From director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future), it is a charming introduction to French street performer Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that turns into a caper flick as he and his confederates design and execute the maddest of plans: breaking into the nearly completed World Trade Center and stringing a tightrope between the two towers so Petit could risk his life by traversing the chasm from one skyscraper to the other.

The Walk is a marvel. Thanks to the magic of 3D camerawork and computer wizardry, the sense of being up on that wire strung across the highest buildings in New York is so real and overwhelming that there were reports of nausea, dizziness, and paralyzing fear coming from film critics at early screenings. I was rooted to my seat and gripping the armrests for the last third of The Walk, my entire body tingling from adrenaline. If you fear heights or have a sensitive equilibrium, avoid this. If you welcome a theatrical experience that’s more exhilarating and nerve-wracking than most amusement park rides, The Walk is a must.

One more thing: I’ve got a little workaround for those who choose to see 3D movies and would like get the maximum out of the event. Go the IMAX route. The higher candlepower needed by an IMAX projector to assure a clear and bold image on the oversized screen manages to counter any murkiness caused by the 3D glasses. You’re welcome.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available on GABnet.net, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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