Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Dread 3-D

Tonight, NBC airs its much-touted 3-D episode of Chuck. This Friday, Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline arrives at select theaters in 3-D, just a few weeks after the 3-D remake of the ‘80s slasher film My Bloody Valentine, and a few months before Monsters Vs. Aliens. A lot of old Hollywood hands, from James Cameron to Robert Zemeckis, have become zealous advocates for 3-D, with Cameron quoted as saying, “We are born seeing in three dimensions. Most animals have two eyes and not one. There is a reason I think. … When you are viewing in stereo, which is what we do, more neurons are firing. More blood is pumping through the brain.”

Back in August, esteemed film critic Roger Ebert fired back against the 3-D prophets on his blog, saying,

Ask yourself this question: Have you ever watched a 2-D movie and wished it were in 3-D? Remember that boulder rolling behind Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? Better in 3-D? No, it would have been worse. Would have been a tragedy. … There seems to be a belief that 3-D films are not getting their money's worth unless they hurtle objects or body parts at the audience. Every time that happens, it creates a fatal break in the illusion of the film. The idea of a movie, even an animated one, is to convince us, halfway at least, that that we're seeing on the screen is sort of really happening. Images leaping off the screen destroy that illusion. There is a mistaken belief that 3-D is ‘realistic.’ Not at all. In real life we perceive in three dimensions, yes, but we do not perceive parts of our vision dislodging themselves from the rest and leaping at us. Nor do such things, such as arrows, cannonballs or fists, move so slowly that we can perceive them actually in motion. If a cannonball approached that slowly, it would be rolling on the ground.

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I tend to side with Ebert in this fight, though not because I necessarily agree with him that 3-D is less realistic. I mean, I do agree with that, but given that I’ve never thought of the Indiana Jones adventures as cinema verité, I’m not sweating the additional spectacle so much. No, my complaint about 3-D is much simpler: I can’t really see it.

Through most of my youth, I had exceptionally good eyesight. My older brother started wearing glasses in early adolescence, while I’d sometimes show off my keen vision by reading signs across the room, or trying to make out the words on a billboard before anyone else in a car with me could. And then one day in 1997, I went to the DMV to get my license renewed and when I stuck my head against the little Viewmaster-like machine that administers the eye test, I noticed that whole left half of the image looked blurry. And not just blurry—translucent. I popped my head up and said to the woman behind the counter, “There’s something wrong with your machine.” She told me to try again, and by straining my eyes I was able to make out enough to pass the test. Then a few weeks later, I was driving through town and saw a sign up ahead that appeared to be a big cut-out cat, and words that looked to me like, “Cat Supply.” When I got closer, I realized it was a boot, and “Boot Repair.” The next day, I made an appointment with an optometrist.

I’ve been wearing glasses for 12 years now, and over that time, my prescription hasn’t changed, even though every time I go to the eye doctor, I never really feel like the big lens machine gets my vision exactly right. (The doc says “Better or worse?” but he always seems to stop just short of the point where I’d say, “Perfect!”) Nevertheless, when I got my first pair of glasses, the effect was astonishing. Suddenly I could make out the leaves on trees again, where before they’d been such an indistinct mass of blurry green that I hadn’t really noticed them. I spent the next week constantly lifting and lowering my glasses, marveling at the difference. And the first time I went to the movies, the picture was so vivid that I had to leave after a half-hour and take a walk around the lobby, because I was getting queasy.

And yet as I adjusted to my glasses, I started to notice some persistent flaws in my vision. I still don’t see that well at night when I’m driving, and the headlights of oncoming cars often disorient me briefly, making it hard for me to make out the curvature of the road I’m on. (Think of the optical illusion of a drawn cube, and how sometimes you can perceive the middle point of the cube as being in the foreground, and sometimes in the background. That’s how it is with me and roads and night, after a light flashes in my eyes.) And when it comes to movies, a lot still strikes me as blurry, including pans of any speed. Even the slowest pan across a room looks like an indistinct streak to me.

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So 3-D is not my friend. For one thing, my head is too big for most 3-D glasses. I try resting them on top of my regular glasses, or beneath them, or taking my eyeglasses off altogether, but no matter what I do, the 3-D glasses always feel like they’re just barely hanging on. I spend long stretches of any 3-D movie fiddling with the glasses, trying to get them to fit right. And even when I do get them passably secure, the image on the screen still looks blurry to me. My poor depth perception and shaky persistence of vision makes 3-D a dicey proposition. This past week I watched Shout! Factory’s new DVD of the legendary 3-D sexploitation film The Stewardesses, and while I was able to get the 3-D to work reasonably well with a little trial-and-error, I felt a lot like I did when I got my first pair of glasses. I kept lifting and lowering, lifting and lowering, not trusting my own eyes.

I have friends who insist that the 3-D experience makes some movies better. A film critic pal of mine watched The Polar Express in a regular screening room and found it boring, then watched it again in 3-D and thought it was magical. I’ve heard the same said about other 3-D animated features, though I enjoyed the likes of Beowulf and Bolt even when they weren’t leaping towards me. Would I like them better if they were more “immersive?” Hard to say. But I will say that I’m hoping this new 3-D fad dies as quickly as the one in the early ‘50s. I know part of the point of reviving 3-D is to give audiences a reason to get out of the house and enjoy a spectacle. But if 3-D becomes more common for multiplex blockbusters, I’ll be looking forward to the next step in the movie business—when I can watch movies on opening day on my TV.

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P.S. Have you seen this?

Will this be the future of personal video-viewing, with our iPods attached to these goggle devices, and images floating in front of our faces? And will this technology work for the weak-eyed?

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