It all started when Roger Ebert posted this sentence on Twitter:
This was around the time “The Last Airbender” was making its press screening rounds, around the time when word began pouring out not only of the film’s awfulness, but of the low, low quality of its 3D conversion. Critics began chattering over its clumsiness, its inappropriateness, and, most of all, its complete lack of effort. By the time the film opened, the major buzz was all about how this round of “fake 3D” is the most insulting yet.
I missed out on the “Clash of the Titans” uproar – on the advice of my peers, I went to a 2D showing – but got suckered into a 3D screening of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which suffered an spectacularly junky 3D conversion of its own. Even some of the more recent made-for-3D pictures failed to impress; heck, even the 3D print of “Toy Story 3” doesn’t really add much compared to its 2D counterpart.
As a lifelong fan of 3D cinema, I’ve spent the past few years defending the process, only to watch it wilt away once more. But this time, it’s not dying because proper projection is cost-prohibitive (as it was in the 1950s) or because the movies are just plain bad (hello, 1980s!). It’s because for every honest 3D title out there made with the process in mind (“Avatar” is the obvious example, mostly because it’s the best one for showcasing 3D done right), we get three more that were filmed specifically for the traditional 2D format, then altered in post-production (oftentimes hurriedly so) to squeeze out a handful of barely passable depth effects in an effort to appease audiences who flocked to Pandora.
Nobody seems to like these, but the multiplex upcharge for such “deluxe” editions is enough to boost grosses just enough to make these movies look like successes on paper. Hollywood, with its obsession over the box office haul, is the only entertainment industry that calculates revenue and not quantity sold; studios have long been eager to ignore inflation in order to brag about meaningless record-breaking numbers. They don’t care about lower attendance figures as long as the upcharge makes up for the difference.
Which brings us back to “Airbender.” It’s no surprise Paramount would pick their summer tentpole release for a 3D upgrade, especially considering the film’s use of large scale effects and action sequences. But they failed to consider M. Night Shyamalan’s trademark murky visuals – the guy just can’t get enough of muted colors and oppressively drab compositions, even in movies that don’t need them. Considering 3D requires strong projection lighting to work, and considering 3D glasses dim the image slightly, the process works best with bright, vibrant visual palette. Running “Airbender” through the 3D mill leaves us looking at a soupy mess.
3D also needs a full depth of field. Backgrounds must be in focus to allow the foregrounds to “pop out.” But Shyamalan planned his film in a traditional manner, using cinematic grammar to help tell his story, leaving backgrounds (and sometimes foregrounds) out of focus to create visual emphasis. Which is what a director should do – when working in 2D. “Airbender” in 3D simply can’t work in these scenes. (Not so, says one reader; see the comments below for a detailed clarification.)
So, at this point, they don’t even try. Inspired by my colleague Mr. Sobczynski (and my own increasing eye ache), I removed my 3D glasses somewhere around the movie’s fifteen-minute mark. I didn’t miss much. Only one out of, oh, maybe four shots featured any 3D enhancement at all, which means for a good seventy-five percent of the film, the only thing the 3D glasses are doing for you is making the image a pinch darker and muddier.
Of the rest, the vast majority of shots featured 3D effects so minute they did not impair my viewing of the film. If you remember the old red-blue anaglyph 3D, you’ll remember how an object was printed twice, and the larger the “separation” between the red and blue bits, the greater the “depth” effect. (You can tell I’m no expert on the terminology.) Stereoscopic projection is more or less the same, minus the red and blue. In “Airbender,” I’d say ninety percent of the 3D shots contained object “separation” of only the faintest sort, enough to cause only a minor blurring of the image when viewed with the naked eye.
In other words: watch “Airbender” in 3D but without the glasses, and you’ll only have to put up with a little bit of blur every now and then. You’re paying two bucks (or more) so the box office cashier can hand you glasses you don’t need.
And you thought the popcorn prices were a rip-off.
A review of the film itself can be read here.