I saw my first 3-D movie a few days ago: Toy Story 3. I'd missed the brief, late-70s 3-D craze; it didn't last long, it wasn't supposed to be very good, I wasn't very interested. But these days, it seems as if every kids' movie, action movie, or fantasy/sci-fi movie is coming out in 3-D as well as 2-D options, so I figured I'd give it a shot.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I didn't like it that much. It wasn't that it made me queasy or headachey (my main fears beforehand); it was that for me, it detracted from certain important elements of the viewing experience without adding enough compensatory benefits. First, the glasses darken the screen slightly, which I found bothersome. More important, the 3-D elements tend to deflect attention from the total composition of the shot; as a film guy, I like to see the whole screen, not just the single element that pops off the screen. And finally, to my thinking, those "eye-popping" elements (as they're always billed) didn't provide enough pop to justify their existence; they appeared moderately three-dimensional, but nowhere near as much as I'd been led to believe. And since only individual elements of any given shot possessed even that modest degree of three-dimensionality, the effect was ultimately counter-productive, emphasizing the flatness of everything else and in so doing destroying the illusion that was supposedly being achieved.
But even if they do figure out ways to improve or perfect the illusion, I wonder at a deeper level why we're so gung-ho about 3-D movies to begin with. Is this really something the culture needs, or even desires? Has there been a stampede or a crusade for movies that mimic reality? On the whole, I'm concerned that the lines we conventionally drew between the actual and the virtual, the real and the fantastic, the worthwhile and the frivolous or merely entertaining, are being assaulted: when people spend more time talking or texting on mobile devices than interacting with the people in front of them, when email supplants face-to-face communication and kids can name infinitely more brand logos than indigenous plants in their neighborhood, when our very bodies and the ground they inhabit take a back seat to immersive, but unreal, experiences, I worry about the profound consequences for our ability to live as a society, to engage in meaningful and intimate relationships, to care for the earth, to be truly creative, reflective, and wise. I addressed these worries a while ago in a short story, "Your Name Here," which concerns a society that has fashioned a virtual heaven, and in a creative nonfiction essay, "Positioning," which explores the implications of virtual technologies for our experience of space and place. I raise these worries again in light of the BP oil spill, the ongoing collapse of world markets and local neighborhoods, and the effects I've perceived in my own life of over-reliance on mediated reality.
Life has always been 3-D. Maybe movies shouldn't be. Maybe we need to keep stable and intact the lines between what is and what merely seems to be.