To 3D or Not To 3D: Can I Choose IMAX Instead?

To 3D or Not To 3D: Can I Choose IMAX Instead?

George Lucas received more money from me this weekend.  I spent about $11 per ticket for a 9:50 a.m. showing of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace with my son.  Not just any version of Phantom Menace though – no, in order to get butts in the theater these days, it had that all-important fixture at the end of its title: 3D!

Now, despite what you might think, I’m not here to rail on Phantom Menace.  Seeing it again on the big screen doesn’t hide any of that movie’s flaws – it just magnifies them.  I’ve almost accepted the travesty of Jar Jar Binks by now, and have instead focused my anger on young Jake Lloyd and Lucas’ decision to start his prequels with a 9 year-old Anakin who says “Yippee!” frequently.  But at least the movie has the podrace sequence and the Darth Maul dual lightsaber fight at the end to make things worthwhile.  Wish I could say the same for the 3D.

Ever since James Cameron struck gold with Avatar back in 2009, Hollywood has bet the farm and invested huge in 3D as a means of saving the industry.  And though it may have worked at first, with movies like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland over-performing at the box office thanks to the extra $3 surcharge, audiences have quickly grown weary and wary of the format.  As more and more movies are released in 3D, and as more theater owners invest in digital 3D projection, the percentage of 3D tickets that audiences are actually buying is decreasing.

Why is that?  If the 3D presentation of Phantom Menace is indicative of anything, and I think it is, that’s because 3D is a worthless add-on to the moviegoing experience.  It enhances nothing.  Oh, maybe for the first 10 minutes you can kind of notice it, but after that, I find that your eyes just get used to the 3D image and ignore it.  Most movies don’t do enough with the 3D image – primarily because they weren’t intended to be shown in 3D in the first place.

That’s really what it boils down to.  What did the filmmakers intend?  Take a movie like Hugo for example.  Many critics have swooned over that Martin Scorsese-directed picture’s use of 3D.  I just don’t get it.  Yes, the 3D is kind of cool at first when Hugo’s running around, up and down all those pipes and tunnels, but it isn’t really noticeable for me after that.  But hey, at least Scorsese shot it with an eye for 3D, and he does some interesting things with the camera that take advantage of the benefits that 3D can offer when done right.

With a movie like Phantom Menace, on the other hand, the 3D is an afterthought.  It doesn’t change the movie or make it more enjoyable to watch.  It may create an incentive to go the theater, rather than just watch your Blu-Ray at home, but you’re still stuck with the same movie.  The 3D just makes the image darker.  It hurts your eyes after a while, especially if you wear glasses or contact lenses underneath the 3D glasses.

But most painful of all is the fact that you’re being charged more for a one-of-a-kind “experience” that you just don’t receive.  I’ve fallen for the 3D trap before and I get burned each time.  3D is not the future of moviegoing, contrary to what the industry wants you to believe.  It’s a cheap ploy.  A gimmick.  And it really only works when used in a deliberately cheesy way – to break the third wall with the audience and throw things in their face.

There are only two 3D movies I’ve seen in the last four years that offered any kind of fun with the format.  The first was the horror remake My Bloody Valentine.  I remember an early kill in that movie where a pickaxe strikes through a man’s eye socket, and the eyeball is hanging off the end of the axe – and right in front of your face.  That got a big rise out of the audience.  The other memorable 3D experience I had was with A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.  Keep in mind the audience for that film, but having those stoner characters blow weed smoke out at the audience was a lot of fun, especially since you feel like you could almost swat away the smoke in front of you.

But both of these experiences take you out of the movie, rather than make you feel like you’re in it.  For my money, 3D can’t hold a candle to a movie shot with IMAX cameras.  That’s the real deal.  IMAX-formatted movies like The Dark Knight and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are the only game in town when it comes to wowing an audience and giving them a moviegoing experience they simply cannot receive at home.  When Tom Cruise climbs outside the Burj hotel in M:I-4, the scope of that screen and how it just completely envelopes all of your senses, gives you a rush.  You feel the height, you sense the danger, and you can’t help but get a little vertigo while watching it.

If moviegoers are going to be forced to pay a premium, and if the theaters and studios want to get more money while delivering a product that satisfies the price point, then they’d be smart to continue making movies in the IMAX format.  And while they’re at it, ditch the 3D!  If you were to tell me that Phantom Menace would be showing in IMAX, and would take up the entire IMAX screen, you can bet that George Lucas will be getting even more money from me.   Though I shudder to think about seeing Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd on a screen that big.


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    Actually I read before its opening that for Star Wars I 3D the studio was hoping for 20 million for its opening weekend and got 23 million. So really don't think the studio saw it as a bust. They got a little more than they were hoping for. So I'm sure the next Star Wars movie being converted to 3d is now a go. I've seen these claims over and over again since 2008 that all the signs point to 3d is on the way out, but it keeps on going forward. I've realized I better not hold my breath for this "Short lived" 3d era that has now gone on for several years since it's kick start with Polar Express 3D back in 2004.

  • Good point Tony. I'm sure Fox is going to move forward with the other Star Wars films getting a 3D release. Really though, I think its success ($23 mil) has more to do with parents wanting to give their kids a chance to see Star Wars on the big screen again. Most theaters didn't even offer a 2D version. I think the stats show that most viewers when given the option between 2D and 3D are choosing 3D less and less. They're realizing it's not worth the extra money. And they're right.

    Nice call on Polar Express. That put the 3D wheels in motion, but apart from the occasional Journey to the Center of the Earth-type film, I feel like 3D didn't really catch on and go crazy until Avatar.

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    IMAX cinemas do 3D. 3D saved all the IMAX screens from shutting down when IMAX invested in the 3D format in the late 80s/early 90s. Shooting in 3D at high resolutions digitally and using the full frame for exhibition is the future for IMAX. Shooting on 65mm film doesn't add to the experience, it isn't economical, it's just a fad for filmmakers who are still in love with film-stock.

  • In reply to Lee Rainberg:

    True. IMAX cinemas do 3D but they don't need the 3D in order to impress. I like your idea about the future of IMAX, but I'm not ready to give up on 65mm just yet.

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