At a recent screening for Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) at my local mainstream-championing cineplex (unfortunately the only cinema in my area for a number of miles), the one thing that frustrated me more than the film, and the customarily noisy patrons, was the trailers section for the ‘upcoming features’, something that once was a rite of passage for me when it came to my regular film-going experience, but now a crippling, headache-inducing test of endurance. It detailed four upcoming movies all aimed at kids, so the material was barely of interest to me, and they all ended with that jarring, gravely-voiced adage “…in 3D”; two words that have the simultaneous ability to make the heart sink and foul the mood of the more discerning cinemagoer. In short, 3D is an unwelcome addition and now stands for a lot more than integrating the viewer into the cinematic world, assuming that a clouded depth of field can make up for even the most lackluster of materials (see Alice in Wonderland (2010), Clash of the Titans (2010) etc). It also diminishes any excitement I once held for the future of mainstream cinema, itself something of a guilty pleasure in a climate of shameless cash-ins over legitimate independence, which remembers cinema is first and foremost an art form, not another zero on a paycheck.
Now, before the rise of trailers being leaked and/or released all over the interweb before reaching the shores of the big screen, this section of watching a film at the cinema was something of a highlight, basking in the fuzzy promise that there were some good, and of course very bad looking movies headed our way. As a child I continuously fought with the general consensus that the trailers were a further excuse to arrive late to the cinema, and that catching them prolonged the undoubted enjoyment that was in store, but now those days are sadly over, for arriving early or dead on to the prescribed showing time results in at least twenty to thirty minutes worth of consumer-appropriate advertisements before the trailers even start, pummeling the audience with the notion that a new car, new technological equipment and indeed the reassurance that picking up an overpriced snack from the front of house will better their lives. One cinema chain even has the audacity to declare that “all the action starts in the foyer”, though I shun such desperate attempts at cashing in on my enjoying a film for 120 minutes, an enjoyment made better without regular popcorn crunches and sweet bag rustlings.
The cinema has arguably become a premise for selling products above and over the films they show and their individual idealisations, everyone now knows this and arguing against it would be a lost cause, but that is not what this article is about. No, what I am refuting is the inescapable juggernaut that is 3D and how it seems to be making it’s way into nearly every facet of contemporary cinema, be it animated children’s films, blockbuster extravaganzas or live concerts released cinematically purely to market the extra dimension. As is made abundantly clear, a certain percentage of the cinema’s output these days is distributed in 3D, whether filmed in it or converted during post production, but does anyone actually want it anymore? Admittedly, the first film I saw wearing those oversized glasses wowed me due to the fact I had never seen anything like it before, but the novelty soon wore off and what I was faced with was an occasionally blurry, distractingly dark gimmick that was being vastly exploited left right and center. The film was Avatar (2009) (I confess), which of course went on to become the highest grossing film of all time, a feat made possible obviously by the advanced and immersive 3D technology James Cameron deployed, which expanded the world of Pandora but left his cack-handed screenplay wanting. It was seen as something of a revival with the release of Avatar, and the films success paved the way for cinema chains across the globe to hike up the price of cinema admissions, charging extra for tickets as well as for the plastic specs which we are occasionally allowed to keep, and audiences apparently tolerated it. Until now, that is.
2011 has seen somewhat of a decline for 3D films, with audiences preferring to opt for the standard, brighter 2D release over its murky successor, which is surprising given how select 2D versions of certain films used to be in cinemas’ weekly listings. Sales for films such as Cars 2 (2011) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) have risen dramatically for 2D versions, flying in the face of the three dimensional showings that used to be given far more prominence. In fact, browsing an unnamed cinema’s listings, it’s plain to see how they have responded to said preference; two dimensional showings overshadowing three, some 3D versions dropped entirely. It seems audiences have tired of the hokey spiel of objects uselessly poking out at you or giant robots trying to punch you, and their adversaries, in the face, and this could perhaps suggest that the tide is turning against 3D.
However, one of the aforementioned trailers before Mr. Popper’s Penguins, alongside the fatuous Glee: The Concert Movie (2011), bizarre Happy Feet 2 (2011) and the banal-looking reintroduction of The Smurfs (2011), was a preview for the fourth installment in a long-forgotten franchise, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (2011), which boasts that it will be circulated in 4D, a concept incorporating the physical addition of ‘Smell-O-Vision’, now dubbed ‘Aromascope’, which makes use of scratch & sniff cards, something rarely utilised on the big screen since the 1960s. Just how such a twist on the already conflicted movie-going experience will take off remains to be seen, owing to the fact that the film looks about as derivative and overzealous as director Robert Rodriguez’s previous output, with the help of luckless Jessica Alba and a Ricky Gervais-voiced dog. It also cuts quite a desperate figure, an impetuous attempt for distributors The Weinstein Company to wage war on the diminishing returns of 3D and move cinema into pioneering, albeit odorous directions.
Not only does this group of trailers I witnessed feel prosaic, they appear tacky and aged, advertising the afterthoughts of a summer shaking at the knees from such a refreshingly unexpected turnaround from a public tired of the superfluousness of 3D, and of course the melange of throwaway sequels and prequels. Is this the end for 3D? Or will 4D ‘Smell-O-Vision’ be the new frontier for cinematic profiteering? Let us hope not.