The giant promotional wave of 3D cinema seems to be drawing slowly to a tiny dripping stop, to the collective sighs of relief of many poorly heads nationwide. But was it all that bad? 3D cinema meant that, for a short period, cinema was back in the news again and was a fresh new thing. Sure, films have always been there, but after seventy years of no real spectacle and endless sequel after endless sequel, there was a feeling that it was an industry that was stagnating in a pool of its own celluloid effluence.
IMAX, which has been around since the 1960’s, was one of the surprising beneficiaries of the renewed interest in alternative cinematic formats that the 3D push brought – the leap to digital projectors, which is the most cost-effective way of distributing cinema, meant that cinemas were allowed more freedom with which to screen their films – meant that while, for a period it seemed like 3D would be the future, IMAX would come into its own.
The film that showcased, to modern audiences, what could be done in IMAX was The Dark Knight. As the first major feature film to have scenes shot on an IMAX camera, the film brought about unprecedented interest into the format. Prior to the release of The Dark Knight, IMAX to most people meant documentaries about giant holes or underwater creatures. When Christopher Nolan demonstrated the power of IMAX in his visions of the Gotham cityscape, moviegoers clamoured for more and were willing to forego the expense for the enhanced experience – in many cases costing the same, or even slightly less, than it would to see a 3D film. The ‘experience’ of 3D is a novel effect, like seeing your favourite film in a mirror or through a goldfish bowl. The glasses are clumsy, and often the images don’t appear to be focused correctly. When critics talk in glowing terms about a 3D film being immersive, it seems that ‘immersion’ means ‘forgetting the film you’re watching is in 3D’. This seems to suggest that 3D is an obstacle to overcome to enjoy the movie, like a disability for the viewer.
The success of IMAX in recent times, compared with that of 3D, is one that is steadily growing. 3D achieved extremely impressive returns with Avatar, an already iconic movie which broke all box-office records, but nothing has topped that. In fact, the rate with which 2D films were quickly converted into 3D, to capitalise on the increased profits available, revealed to audiences world-wide that – shock horror – movie producers are willing to sell-out the quality of their product in order to chase the buck. This realisation, along with 3D’s increasing infantilisation, meant that IMAX (with Batman, Transformers and Ghost Protocol on its side) came out as a more mature, sophisticated experience. It’s surprising to find Transformers and ‘sophisticated’ mentioned in the same sentence, we know. The success of the format is such that Nolan regretted not filming all of The Dark Knight in IMAX, and intends to do so with the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises.
The strength of IMAX is that it is traditionally cinematic and enhances the images present onscreen. It is truly immersive. The strength of 3D is that it necessitated that push to digital that cinemas had to make, or they would die. The one negative point of IMAX is that it isn’t possible to show in every cinema without severely limiting image quality, which isn’t true of 3D cinema – only the projector is the issue, not the physical size of the screen. 3D creates a barrier between the audience and the action onscreen, and the success is judged on whether or not that barrier can be overcome – a terrible, self-inflicted barrier that adds nothing to the film. 3D is dead! Long live IMAX!
Authors note: In line with my recent track record of movie punditry – my Oscar predictions – expect IMAX to die a sudden death, and for 3D to experience a meteoric renaissance.