JThere is a lot to do Avatar: The Way of the Water. It might sound ridiculous to suggest that a sequel to the highest-grossing film ever made might be a gamble – but it is. Thirteen years have passed since Avatar first successful screens. The cinematic landscape has meanwhile been laid bare by declining audiences, rising competition from streaming services and dwindling investment in original ideas. James Cameron kept the budget for The way of the water secret, but conceded it was ‘very expensive’: according to the veteran filmmaker, The way of the water must become the “third or fourth” highest-grossing film ever made just to break even. But behind this game of precarious balance sheets and capitalist madness, there could be something else at stake: the future of 3D.
It’s almost impossible to talk about 3D movies without mentioning Avatar; it’s the Citizen Kane of movies that require clumsy lenses to be enjoyed. But it was far from the first attempt to exploit the true potential of 3D. In fact, filmmakers had experimented with 3D projections from the early days of cinema, until a brief boom in the 1950s. Dial M for murder.) There were drawbacks, however – namely the expense (prints required twice as much film and, often, two projectionists) and the common incidences of motion sickness. By the 1980s, the flaws had begun to be ironed out, and with the rise of Imax screens, a resurgence was on the way. During the 1990s and 2000s, the popularity of 3D movies snowballed. There were a lot of children’s and genre films – Journey to the Center of the Earth; The Return of Superman – and soon, beloved modern (and not-so-modern) classics (Star Wars; Titanic; The Lion King) were getting the old third-dimensional spit-shine.
Naturally, the format was not without opponents. It was a trick, they said. Maybe, but that stuff was taking over the multiplexes. Avatar was the first movie that seemed like it could completely appease doubters – a huge blockbuster blockbuster designed with the 3D experience fully in mind. The immersion of 3D did justice to Pandora’s fantastic landscapes and flora; even those who castigated AvatarThe film’s writing and plot had to concede the film’s technical brilliance. 3D had finally arrived.
But the public’s love affair with 3D turned out to be more of a summertime adventure. There were a few bigger releases in the upcoming format, including Peter Jackson The Hobbit and Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, the latter considered another highlight of the format. But as soon as Avatar began to leave cinemas, enthusiasm for 3D began to wane – although 3D movies are arguably more ubiquitous than ever. As Cameron noted in a recent interview with Yahoo!, that the number of 3D-capable screens worldwide has grown from 6,000 to 120,000 over the past 12 years. “It has found its level as a consumer choice,” he said. “If people like it, they can see it in 3D. If they don’t, they can see it in 2D.
However, it has been years since the 3D release of a film has been discussed. Blockbusters are rarely screened for reviews in 3D; even with films making billions of dollars, the fact that they’re released in 3D doesn’t deserve much attention. It seems to no longer have any real artistic impact. Size is now part of the racket set, another optional “add-on” to consider with whether you want sweet or salty popcorn, or what size pop to get. Personally, I don’t think “consumer choice” should really come into the art. Considering the time, money and technological art invested in The way of the waterI’m not convinced Cameron fully believes it either.
It doesn’t help, of course, that most of the greatest 3D releases are filmed without the third dimension in mind. It’s often cheaper and more efficient for studios to convert movies to 3D after they’ve already been shot. The quality of these conversions varies greatly, with the poorer end of the spectrum resulting in laughs like those of the 2010s. Clash of the Titans, a film whose appalling 3D editing was disavowed by director Louis Leterrier, and which some critics even accused of “derailing the 3D revolution”. The other disadvantages have also become increasingly evident. Ticket prices are higher. Image quality is often inferior. And…those glasses.
But the format never completely lost its potential. Far from the churn of Hollywood, some filmmakers have managed to innovate with 3D for creative purposes. Legendary French author Jean-Luc Godard used 3D for his 2014 film Farewell to the language, shoot with custom cameras, and break many long-standing visual conventions of 3D cinema. In 2018, Chinese director Bi Gan released A long journey from day to nighta unique dreamlike film that switches to 3D halfway through for a superb one-hour tracking shot.
Also not to be underestimated is the value of 3D as a USP for cinemas. As the so-called theatrical experience is increasingly threatened by streaming services, a 3D projection of something like Avatar: The Way of the Water is able to give viewers an experience they can’t come close to at home. There was, for a brief period during the 2010s, a modest market for 3D televisions, but demand quickly collapsed. (The BBC and Sky dropped 3D programming fairly quickly, and production on 3D TVs has since been halted entirely.)
Whether The way of the water will save 3D from extinction remains to be seen. Some might say he doesn’t even need to be saved. But there’s more than ticket sales at stake. When we see AvatarThe lush, watery vistas that surround us like a big celluloid hug, it might remind us – and other filmmakers – why anyone would care about 3D in the first place. This is not a fight for 3D’s short-term financial viability but rather its soul. If Hollywood really wants people to see 3D as more than a cynical upsell gimmick, it’s going to take more than a pair of stereoscopic glasses.
“Avatar: The Way of the Water” is in theaters from December 16