I know. We’ve been here before, but I think the point still needs making, and I know I’m not the first, or only, cinephile to make it: but can we just stop with the 3D now, please?
It being the awards season, I’m doing my usual January mop-up of “awards movies” that slipped through my net, or else have not yet been released. (People are always asking me to comment on awards nominations and make predictions; this is easier if I have seen the films! If I hadn’t lost my voice, you would have seen me on BBC News possibly twice last week, but I’ve not been terribly well since making the foolhardy decision to stop working for a week over Christmas.) This week, valiantly, I’ve seen previews of Lincoln, Django Unchained and Flight, caught up with The Impossible and Argo, and I have Zero Dark Thirty booked in for Monday. Yesterday I finally saw Life Of Pi.
Why didn’t I see Life Of Pi when it came out in December? Apart from the demoralising Coldplay song all over the trailer? Because Life Of Pi is presented in, and was designed to be seen in, 3D. This, I understand, is because it’s based on a Booker Prize-winning book which is mainly about a boy trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and was thus considered a tricky sell, and might explain why it took a decade to get to the screen. So, for all its “arthouse” credentials – directed by Ang Lee, and accordingly taken very seriously by Sight & Sound, who put it on the cover of their December issue – it’s been cooked up and marketed as a magical holiday “event” movie. By presenting it in 3D, instead of a film about a boy on a boat based on a book, it becomes a spectacle you cannot afford to miss this Christmas/New Year; an “OMG” moment. (Incidentally, the print I saw yesterday came with a teaser imploring us to “share our feelings” about the film on Facebook and Twitter, which irked me to my boots.) Result: it’s been garlanded with nominations: three Golden Globes, 9 Baftas, 11 Oscars.
Now, my local cinema has been showing it in 3D and 2D, so the option was there, and I was grateful for that. (They were equally accommodating with The Hobbit, although my reasons for not having seen that yet are because I don’t have the energy.) However, with Pi, because I left it too late, there are far fewer convenient 2D screenings left, and I was forced to see it in 3D yesterday afternoon. Also, and I’ll be perfectly honest here, it was clearly going to be such a spectacle, maybe I ought to see it as Ang Lee intended. Maybe I ought to get over myself?
Well, it was a bad decision. This is a visually sumptuous film, its first act shot in the actual region of India where Yann Martel’s novel is set. So, even before we get to the middle of the ocean after the shipwreck, there is much to feast the eyes upon. Except, the eyes are locked out of the film behind a perimeter fence; the 3D glasses. Now, I’m not going to blame “smears” this time. My 3D glasses were clean and clear. But the very act of putting them on, in order to unlock the illusion of three dimensionality, places a barrier between you and the light. The sun in Pondicherry is blazing and bright. I lifted my glasses to have a sneaky, blurred look at it: it was pure white in the sky above Pi as he went about his business. As soon as you lower the glasses, it is dulled. It is slushy grey. It’s no wonder 3D films work so badly when the action occurs at night.
The shipwreck scene, spectacularly done in CGI, with swelling waves and crashing water to make The Perfect Storm and Poseidon seem like cartoons (computer technology moves so fast), occurs at night. For all the wizardry at play, and the “depth” of the 3D, it’s so dark, you can barely make out what’s happening. The second half is where we get the meat of the matter: teenage boy and crouching tiger in single lifeboat on an often millpond-calm sea. Many amazing sights are laid on for us: flying fish, luminous plankton, a leaping humpback whale. These might be enhanced by the 3D, if the colours weren’t muddied by the 3D. I tire of wearing those specs, and I tire of watching films through them, even when the illusion has the desired effect of … well, making something look closer than it is, or making something look like it’s in front of another thing.
The benefits are far outweighed by the defects, for me. I look forward to seeing Life Of Pi on DVD, or TV, in 2D. I’m sure it will still be a visual feast. All the work that went into creating that tiger out of pixels will still be there to marvel at, and be moved by. The relationship between Pi and the tiger will still exist. The story will still be told. Ang Lee’s direction and vision will still be intact. But I won’t be wearing heavy glasses, and the colours will be glorious, instead of muted, and gloomy. It’s a price I’m prepared to pay. (Or not pay, as I understand some cinemas charge extra for 3D, which is a bloody cheek.)
I’ve seen 3D used cleverly, in Pina, for instance. And it’s used sympathetically in some of the sequences in Pi. (The effect of making swimmers look as if they are swimming in the sky is definitely enhanced by the trick.) But it’s not just muddying the colours, it’s muddying the artistic decisions being made by directors and studios.
Oh, and that tagline? I am always prepared to believe the unbelievable. It’s what I go to the cinema for. I don’t need assistance.