3D Is Going to Ruin Movies For a Long Time to Come

Maybe not forever, but at least for the foreseeable future. After Avatar and Alice In Wonderland it appears that directors have chosen to play with their new bag of gimmicks rather than, you know, bother with a compelling story.

I saw Alice earlier this week, and it is a stunning work of filmmaking. The characters populate a fully-realized and lush landscape that is, in turns, beautiful, frightening, moody, and delightful. You will want to live there, it's that spectacular. Just the Red Queen's castle alone is a Burton-esque masterpiece of gorgeous asymmetry, spindly spires, and towering menace. And the audience will be fully immersed in a foreign and fantastical landscape. But it's 3D realness is populated with 2D characters. They're less actual personalities than lots of paper dolls positioned in an ever-changing diorama. Alice and her gang of wacky cohorts (including Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, who employs more accents than a cocktail party at the UN) are little more than functionaries for a story that is barely there. By the time they work their way to the final battle with the Jaberwocky (who looks suspiciously like Marvel's Fing Fang Foom), it's hard to care what actually is happening while simultaneously being spellbound by the visual intricacies of the affair.

Avatar had the same problem, and it might win a damn Oscar. James Cameron's Na'vi adventure is a revolutionary piece of cinema in that it uses new technology to create something we've never seen before. When our grandkids are watching 3D solid-light holographs, this will be remembered as a landmark on the way to getting there. But the story is a heavy-handed, overly-didactic predictable mess that cobbles together elements from so many previously-told tales that it should be nominated from the Best Adapted Screenplay.

Such is the problem with 3D. It is so mind-numbingly amazing that narrative storytelling hasn't caught up with the technology. The corporate screenwriting borgs are so busy trying to come up with plot devices to highlight all the newfangled whoosiwhatsits—objects being hurled at the audience, flying sequences, falling leaves, glowing Venus Flytraps—that no one is really bothering to tell a tale. The audience will let them get away with it too, their mind clouded and their retinas dazzled by the computer animated squiggles of so many creative minds. They'll keep plopping down their 12 16 dollars without caring about anything other than the spectacle. To be fair, Coraline was a great piece of animation with a lovely story. But it's the exception, and it proves how far 3D has to go.

Eventually our champion 3D movie will come. I wish it would be Clash of the Titans, but, like the original, it will probably be a lot of camp gussied up with some incredible graphical enhancements. We're probably going to have to wade through the empty calories of years of eye candy before someone gets it right. And until the novelty wears off, we'll be swapping our brains for a pair of cheap plastic frames.