3-D by any other other name is still a cheap novelty

If 3-D -- or RealD -- is the future of movies, Hollywood can keep it.

Filmmakers like James Cameron, George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, apparently irritated with the possibilities of depth and texture afforded by 35mm film, have pushed three-dimensional movie projection technology as the future of the movie industry. The argument goes that now that digital filmmaking and projection is cheap and getting cheaper, and since Hollywood is hemorrhaging in-theater audiences to sophisticated home theater set-ups, the industry needs something new and unique that can't be replicated at home to draw people back to theaters.

That technology is RealD, an upgraded form of 3-D moviegoing. The RealD system requires a theater with Texas Instruments' DLP digital projection system rather than two projectors running simultaneously as 3-D projection demanded in the past. Additionally, instead of paper glasses with red and blue plastic, though, RealD utilizes a pair of thick plastic frames and tinted lenses to create a more "real" 3-D experience. In other words, rather than watching a movie in this off-putting red-blue-green triptych you can be immersed in a movie with a fuller spectrum and a slighter shaded field of view of vision.

The RealD projection system -- or "stereoscopic motion picture systems," as it's called by RealD CTO Lenny Lipton -- has so far been imposed on the movies "Chicken Little," "Monster House," "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Meet the Robinsons" in a somewhat limited capacity. Not every theater is equipped with the requisite digital projection system needed for RealD, and the movies themselves were more testing grounds for the technology -- they weren't shot with RealD in mind as the preferred method of viewing. Zemeckis' "Beowulf," released wide a couple weeks ago, is altogether different. It was shot using the same stop-motion capture technology as utilized for "The Polar Express" so that the characters, while animated, look a lot like the real actors who provide the characters' voices, and it was conceived as a movie that needed to be seen in RealD to really experience the movie. (The stop-motion technology has progressed enough that that characters actually look kind of like real people, not animated mannequins -- though, the technology still needs work to make skin and eyes look more natural.)

"Beowulf" is based on the epic poem about the Geat Beowulf (Ray Winstone) coming to the kingdom of Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) to kill the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) and its mother (Angelina Jolie) terrorizing the kingdom. As an encore to dispensing with the mother-son demons, Beowulf becomes a great king, fights a dragon, accumulates a lot of gold and becomes the most glorious hero in the annals of early Christendom.

The poem is a staple of high school English curricula, which makes adapting it a dicey proposition. On one hand, the poem leaves so much to the imagination -- Grendel is never described in any great detail beyond broad "massive hands" type strokes, for example -- and it’s fairly by the numbers as far as plot, so a writer and director have a lot of latitude. On the other hand, the story of "Beowulf" is so well-known that straying too far from the core of the character Beowulf, which is the heart of the poem, is a recipe for disaster. Zemeckis and writers Roger Avery ("Pulp Fiction") and Neil Gaiman (the "Sandman" graphic novels) embrace the inherent creative freedom to interpret "Beowulf." Unfortunately, their animated adaptation falls into the trap of taking too much creative license and straying too far from the poem.

The most egregious change is making Grendel's mother a more all-encompassing villain. In the poem, she's merely another obstacle in Beowulf's quest for glory in ridding Hrothgar's kingdom of evil. In the movie, though, she's a temptress in the grandest early Christian tradition: she's attractive, she promises riches and power, and she asks for very little in return -- she wants a child. With a body like Jolie's, though, who can blame Beowulf for not killing her and instead giving into her promises and his desire?

According to the movie version of "Beowulf," everything ill in the world is a direct result of the Jolie succubus: Grendel was sired by Hrothgar, the dragon Beowulf fights at the end of the story is really his own son, and in both cases the decisions made by men's loins instead of heads costs his kingdom lives and massive property damage, not to mention damage to reputation and ego. In this way, she's recast from simple plot device in the poem to a more satanic surrogate. Unfortunately, this change, while seemingly in keeping with the poem's early Christian origins, completely alters the story's tone. Beowulf, in the poem, is certainly legacy obsessed, but he does what's needed for the greater good: He kills Grendel and his mother and a fiery dragon as much for the glory and riches as the well-being of the people. In the movie, though, he's an empty pretty boy, a vicious warrior certainly but one that easily gives into Grendel's mother's temptation. The result is a character that isn't worth anyone's time. He's weak and, worse, boring.

The "Beowulf" created by Zemeckis, Avary and Gaiman isn't your parents' "Beowulf," or even yours. Instead, it's the Short Attention Span Theater version of "Beowulf," reduced to its action roots, peppered with some biblical and mythological references and packed for easy consumption by fantasy movie fans weaned on the CGI spectacle of "The Lord of the Rings." The filmmakers allow for little to no audience interaction with the characters or story. We're told what to think and how to think it -- Beowulf is great! Hrotgar is impotent and ashamed! Grendel's mother is a milf! Look how self-obsessed everyone in power is! -- and then we're force fed that information.

Actually, Zemeckis attempts to mask the textual issues with "Beowulf" through the RealD presentation. While the 3-D allows for some interesting depth -- the title card looks pretty -- watching an entire movie like this is annoying and distracting. "Beowulf" in RealD is like watching a movie through a View-Master while some unseen machine is rapidly flipping through image cards.

Zemeckis tries presenting an experience that's wholly original, one that will set the stage for a future of 3-D theatrical presentations across the world. If anything, "Beowulf" serves more as a warning for Zemeckis and the other directors who will use RealD in the future: 3-D, by any other name, is a novelty, and it will always be a novelty if you shoot a movie in 3-D with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude. With "Beowulf," Zemeckis falls back on too many of the same old 3-D tricks. Spears and arrows seem to pop off the screen. Bodies and thrown from the background to foreground to simulate the corpses coming towards the audience. Blood, mead, water, rocks, dirt and various other elements are kicked up by all sorts of man and beast as if we are about to be drenched and coated in the realities of 6th century Europe. These are the same, tired gags used by the makers of "Jaws 3-D" and "Friday the 13th 3-D" and "Freddy Goes to Hell" to make the audience first clutch their seats or the people next to them in horror then laugh it off.

"Beowulf" is a prime example of how a rush to thrust a new technology on an audience results in compromised filmmaking. Zemeckis obviously shot this movie with two eyes firmly on watching it in RealD: people point out towards the audience, more arrows than ever are shot from background to foreground, and, worst of all, depth is created through a reliance on forced perspective. The result of all this is a plastic movie that feels phony and overly contrived.

There's really no way of circumventing that problem, though. RealD, 3-D, whatever, is excessive if you don't give people something dazzling to look at. That dictates content, style and form, and ultimately homogenizes movies. Perhaps blockbusters have a future with RealD -- "Transformers" would certainly be pretty to look at in 3-D -- but movies that rely on talking and, you know, craft must reject the future Zemeckis and "Beowulf" propose. The motion picture is a fluid art form that grows and expands with the vision and imagination of both filmmakers and audiences. RealD and any other 3-D technology that comes along remove too much of what makes movies movies, and at the same time handcuff the creative innovation and construction crucial to the future of the art.