Sense of Wonder: The Last Airbender is no Avatar, and it’s time to boycott bad 3-D

The Last Airbender (2010) and Avatar (2009)

M. Night Shyamalan owes audiences an apology. Paramount pictures owes viewers a refund. Not for the overall defectivness of THE LAST AIRBENDER (although there is that). Rather, they owe us for the abominable 3-D presentation, which costs consumers an extra $4 per ticket – money that could be far more entertainingly used by bending it into origami torture devices and inserting into the vulnerable anatomical areas of those responsible for the post-production 3-D conversion.

THE LAST AIRBENDER is the current bete noir of those who prefer their 3-D films shot that way, rather than retrofitted after the fact. Like the upcoming THE GREEN HORNET, Shyamalan’s film was shot in standard 2-D, then converted, because 3-D makes everything better – or, rather, it allows theatres to charge more for the allegedly premium viewing experience. Never mind that the results are haphazard, sometimes lacking depth, at other times stretching the anatomical proportions of a shoulder to that of a mountain range. And the polaroid lenses darken the image by one or two stops, diminishing the sparkle of the cinematography. Far from a premium experience, THE LAST AIRBENDER ends up looking as if it were being projected in a second-run theatre striving to save on projector bulbs by turning down the illumination.

Why would a distributor foist such a defective product on paying customers? Hollywood has jumped on the 3-D bandwagon in a big way since James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster AVATAR blew through the international box office, earning billions worldwide. Fortunately for viewers, AVATAR was actually shot in 3-D, and the difference is stunning in its clarity and depth, helping to immerse viewers in the on-screen action. Unfortunately for viewers, the extra dollars earned by charging more for 3-D screenings tempted Hollywood to cash in, regardless of quality, with last-minute 3-D conversions for ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CLASH OF THE TITANS. THE LAST AIRBENDER – which, ironically, is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series titled AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – is simply the latest example, and it is an understatement of Godzilla-size proportions to say that LAST AIRBENDER is no AVATAR.

Sadly, if atrocious 3-D conversions continue, audiences might revolt against being ripped off for higher prices that do not deliver higher quality, and we could see the third wave of 3-D come to a premature conclusion, just as similar waves died out in the 1950s and 1980s. That would be a disaster, because today’s 3-D technology is capable of offering viewers something better than they have ever seen before; it simply needs to be done correctly.

The letters "3D" were removed from most posters due to the lack of specially equipped theatres.

The "3D" was removed from most posters due to a lack of specially equipped theatres.

Although the current 3-D craze flew onto the Hollywood radar with AVATAR, it actually launched considerably earlier. Cameron has long been advocating for an industry-wide shift to 3-D, and so has Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks Animation recently released HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and SHREK FOREVER AFTER in 3-D. Two years ago, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was originally titled JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH IN 3-D, until it became apparent that the lack of 3-D theatres would require that most engagements be in 2-D; unfortunately, the film was so bad that 3-D was almost the only appealing thing about it. The far superior  CORALINE (2009) also used 3-D to enhance its fantasy world, adding depth to the texture of its stop-motion puppets and miniature sets.

Meanwhile, a couple of modestly budgeted horror films put 3-D to good use last year: MY BLOODY VALENTINE and THE FINAL DESTINATION opted for the old-fashioned gimmick of tossing objects out of the screen; pick axes and shrapnel seemed to fly right into your face, providing a cheap but very entertaining thrill, not all that different from the ping-pong ball that seemed to bounce under your nose in HOUSE OF WAX back in 1953. What is different is that the new digital 3-D offers a pristine picture, unmarred by double images, blur, or any of the other problems that used to plague stereo-vision movies of yesteryear.

3-D is being adopted today for the same reason it was in the past: as a way of luring audiences back into theatres. In the 1950s the enemy was television; in the 1980s it was the new home video market. Now we have DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, streaming, iPods, etc. – all of which pose a threat to theatrical distribution. Widescreen high-def television sets can offer a great home viewing experience, but the glory of IMAX 3-D is still available only in theatres. However, Hollywood needs to learn a lesson from the past.

Though technically primitive, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN made great use of 3D

Back in 1973, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN made great use of 3D

The two previous 3-D waves lasted about a year each: 1953 and 1983. In each case, the novelty of 3-D wore off quickly, marred by bad movies and eyestrain. There have also been sporadic attempts to use 3-D as a gimmick in exploitation films like THE STEWARDESSES (1969). ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN (a.k.a. FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, 1973) offered X-rated nudity and gore by the boatload, which raised the question of whether 3-D might inherently be most appropriate for lurid subject matter. Certainly, the 3-D Frankenstein film (which was actually written and directed by Paul Morrissey, with an assist from Antonio Margherti) made some of the best use of the process ever; the entrails and organs dangling in front of viewer noses heightened the absurd nature of the campy storyline in a way that no 2-D presentation could match.

The conventional wisdom became that 3-D was a gimmick; even if the technical issues could be resolved, it was not appropriate for “serious” films. For many years, few filmmakers even attempted it, outside of theme park attractions like CAPTAIN EO, motion-simulation rides, and IMAX short subjects like SIEGFRIED AND ROY’S THE MAGIC BOX. Because these short films were presented in at most a handful of specially designed theatres, the quality of the 3-D could be maintained in a way that was not possible for a nationwide release screened at the local multiplex. For years, it seemed that this was all 3-D would ever be.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-DThat changed thanks to new digital technology. Whether or not you swoon at the sight of a pick ax flying into your face, or burning shrapnel exploding out into the audience, you have to admit that MY BLOODY VALENTINE’s 3-D and THE FINAL DESTINATION proved that all the old problems had been; each film looked as good as – or better than – the best 3-D ever seen. Even though they still required polaroid lenses, the image was clear, sharp, and bright; you didn’t suffer from mismatched brightness for the right eye versus the left eye (as happened with the red-green glasses used for the 3-D sequence of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, for example). In short, this and other recent 3-D films proved that the process could be viable for a nationwide release, with a presentation in your local theatre that could equal the viewing experience previously achieved only in a specially designed venue for something like TERMINATOR 2 3-D.

With high-quality 3-D now seemingly within the grasp of even modest filmmakers, the equation has shifted. It’s no longer a matter of smacking thrill-seekers in the face with a few objects popping off the screen. The beautiful sense of the depth, coupled with the ease on the eyes, allows for opportunities to fashion more subtle movies, in which the stereo-vision simply makes the movie seem more real, as if you are looking through a window upon another world. 3-D can be more than an exploitation gimmick; it might turn out to be a tool used to enhance many different kinds of stories, not just ones emphasizing sex and violence. At very least, the potential seems to be there, if creative filmmakers can seize it.

3-D conversion, however, is another matter – a last-minute effort to layer a phony sheen on a film not designed for it (even if you can add depth, you cannot retroactively create sequences designed to showcase the third dimension). Advocates selling their processes claim their results can be as good as or better than films shot in 3-D, and there are cases that yield good results . Computer-generated movies – which exist only in the virtual realm anyway – can be digitally retooled to create double images for the left and right eye, yielding a convincing sense of depth even if the films lack gimmicky images of objects flying off the screen. Also, the 2006 3-D conversion of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) looked beautiful: something about the stop-motion figures and sets lent itself to the process; the added depth made them seem even more tangible.

Live-action, however, turns out to be a less successful mad scientist’s experiment, one that creates results as mis-shappen as any Frankenstein monster. There are reports of blockbusters like STAR WARS, TITANIC, and KING KONG being converted to 3-D with great results, which we should be seeing in upcoming re-releases. However, the few post-AVATAR examples we have seen do not bode well, failing to deliver results that would justify the extra expense.

3-D separate the image with bizarre results in CLASH OF THE TITANS

3-D yielded bizarre results in CLASH OF THE TITANS

CLASH OF THE TITANS presented what looked like flat figures cut out and separated into foreground, midground, and background; when depth did appear, it cold be grossly out of proportion, as when Ralph Fiennes’ hair seemed to be floating about a food behind his head. THE LAST AIRBENDER often looks flat. Worse, it looks so dingy that removing the polaroid glasses often improves the viewing experience; much of the live-action appears without the double images necessary to create the separation between left eye and right eye that is necessary for 3-D. In short, you would be better off paying for a 2-D screening and saving yourself the extra bucks.

And extra bucks is what this is all about, really. Hollywood has been advocating for tiered ticket prices for over a decade, hoping to charge more for their more lavish blockbusters, and 3-D finally has finally given them the excuse they need. But is this a good idea? If theatres charge more, audiences have a right to expect more – and the films had better deliver all the flash of a supernova.*

Instead, we find ourselves in a situation where little local theatres are charging more for a premium experience that is far from premium. This is, to put it bluntly, a rip-off, and viewers should boycott future 3-D conversions until someone proves they can deliver the depth and visual immersion of genuine 3-D. While I’m on the topic of rip-offs: if you attend an “IMAX” 3-D presentation at your local multiplex, the chances are that you are not seeing true IMAX, which requires a phenomenally large screen and steep, stadium-style seating, which can only be achieved in a specially built theatre. But calling it “IMAX” allows the theatres to charge even more, ripping you off twice as much.

AVATAR delivered the spectacle that justified higher ticket prices.

AVATAR delivered the spectacle that justified higher ticket prices.

Genuine 3-D is worth the extra money – if the film itself is good. The same can be said of genuine IMAX. A combination of the two, applied to a great film, offers the kind of spectacle that deserves to be called “premium viewing.” If Hollywood wants to lure viewers back into theatres, away from their iPods and digital downloads, they need to offer the real deal – good films designed for 3-D from the ground up – not bad movies polished up with an artificial sheen that does nothing to hide their underlying faults. To use 3-d that way would be to repeat the mistakes of the past, and if Hollywood is too stupid to self-correct their own destructive course, then we need to send the studios a message: We will pay premium prices for films that truly deliver a premium experience, but not for a ghastly imitation.

FOOTNOTE:

  • In a sense, there used to be a tiered system: decades ago, blockbusters were rolled out gradually, first appearing in exclusive, months-long engagements in lavish movie palaces with higher ticket prices, while smaller studio productions and independent films moved more quickly into the less expensive local theatres. Even when Hollywood started releasing everything nationwide on opening weekend, there was still a sort of self-selecting form of tiered pricing: viewers were more likely to drive to an expensive downtown theatre to see LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOW SHIP OF THE RING than to see HOSTEL 2.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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