Film Reviews

Depth Charge

The history of 3-D in the movies is half a century long now -- the first major 3-D feature, Bwana Devil, was released in 1952, and there were experiments with the concept earlier than that. There have been dozens of other attempts scattered throughout the decades since, and although some individual films have been very successful commercially, 3-D has never really caught on as a serious cinematic medium. It's a gimmick that's never risen to the level of an aesthetic technique.

But it hasn't gone away, either. The idea of movie images that seem to emerge from the screen, that have depth as well as height and width, is just too enticing to give up, for both audiences and producers. The trouble was that every time you'd trudge back into the theater and put on those ludicrous glasses, even as late as the 1980s for features like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone or Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn or Jaws 3-D or even one of the Friday the 13th films, the result was almost always drearily the same -- dim imagery that went blurry if you didn't hold your head at just the right angle.

If the movie was any good, the 3-D effects seemed to interfere with it; if the movie sucked, the 3-D didn't help, even if it was relatively well-done. The couple of 3-D films that have some small claim to classic status, such as House of Wax or Hondo or Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, are so regarded in spite of, rather than because of, those scenes clumsily staged for the sake of the effects.

In the '90s, 3-D finally retreated from the multiplexes, but it found a home -- IMAX Theatres. Numerous fourth-wall busters have been produced for the wide-screen format, another successful specialty act that's profitable within its narrow aim -- basically, displaying its own amazing technology. But so far, whether in two or three dimensions, IMAX has generally proved too ponderous to work in service of its material. Except perhaps in concert films and in Fantasia/2000, the material serves to showcase the format.

IMAX movies are sort of fun to watch once in a while as a goof, but in the end, what you nearly always get are just lots of big pictures, often beautiful but lacking any narrative urgency. It's like the world's biggest coffee-table book. So you might find the idea of a 3-D IMAX movie about as aesthetically promising as trying to create a new graphic art form by combining the Etch-A-Sketch with the Spirograph. That's how it sounded to me, but the format's first experiment with three-dimensional computer animation, Cyberworld 3D, won me over.

Cyberworld 3D is a showcase movie, too, certainly, but it's a showcase of techniques that suggest real possibilities in the hands of film artists. An Intel presentation, it's a collection of animated shorts and excerpts from various filmmakers reformatted for the IMAX screen and strung together along a framing device involving a cyber tour guide voiced by Jenna Elfman.

This "plot" is too cute by half, but it's also easily ignored in favor of the shorts, most of which are splendid and leave you excited about the future of this sort of film. The first, called Monkey Brain Sushi, a fast-track tour of some unfathomable workshop staffed by half-glimpsed anthropoids, truly gives you an unnerving sense of being physically in the middle of the action, rather than just watching it. The trick, of course --along with a lot of technical crap I don't grasp -- is simply that the picture is finally wide enough. The screen is no longer a cramped proscenium through which certain straight items may be awkwardly thrust; it's your entire field of vision. Other Cyberworld 3D selections, like the Japanese Flipbook/Waterfall City, a tour of a Maxfield Parrish-like futuristic cityscape, are more pictorial, but their brevity prevents the usual IMAX ennui from setting in. Later on, there are more familiar offerings: wide-screen renderings of the 1994 video for the Pet Shop Boys' "Liberation," the bar scene from the DreamWorks movie Antz, and a hilarious computer-animated segment from a 1995 Simpsons Halloween special. The most enchanting part of the program, however, may be a French short called KraKKen: Adventures in a Future Ocean, a graceful depiction of bizarre and lovely marine creatures based on the artwork of Dougal Dixon, which speculates on what evolution may bring in the future.

The least enchanting part of the experience? The heavy high-tech goggles that must be worn. If you felt like a dweeb wearing the cheap sunglasses back in the old days of 3-D, these'll really leave you feeling like somebody who didn't go to the prom. Developing less dorky eyewear should be next on the IMAX to-do list.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead