I saw Beowulf in a conventional theater last month. I have now seen it in Imax 3D with, as Imax trumpets, a screen six stories high and eighty feet wide, with 12,000 watts of digital surround sound. Now the vision of the director, Robert Zemeckis, is clear.
The movie is a technology-fest, depending, for its effect, on an absolutely cutting edge theater. Now, Grendel is truly scary; when the blue strobe light begins to flash, you feel that he is in the room with you. The blood of a sea monster cascades down upon you with a shocking vividness. And when you see a room filled with little digital people, you are not watching a flat screen; you are peering through glass at a diorama.
Let that sink in a minute. The screen is no longer flat. It is a window. That's up there with sound coming to the movies. That's up there with the arrival of color. It puts 3D movies on the spectrum of live performance.
The computer graphic human beings, so uncanny and off-putting in a conventional presentation, now work as they should; the close-ups, which computers have rendered in vastly increased resolution over the long shots, distract us from the artificiality of the faces as we are kept busy counting hairs on beards. There's a fascination with this game, as with any new toy; likewise with the spears and arrows that seem to poke out at you.
I'm reminded of Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World , in which movie-goers attended something called the "feelies". They exited the theater talking about how realistic the helicopter explosion was, and how they could feel each individual hair on a bearskin rug. At the time, this passage made me shudder that moviegoers could be looking not for plot and character and story, but for sensation only. Surely this was science fiction. But that day has arrived - if that's all we demand of this technology.
I saw Imax 3D for the first time ten years ago, in California. It was a film about the ocean, in which a clutch of seals swam like alien beings through a sea of towering kelp. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, in or out of a theater. I literally wept for the joy of it.
Beowulf is a baby step, a tech demo by which real artists can calibrate their tools - if they ever get their hands on them. They will need to adhere to the grammar of the new medium: pans don't work. Rapid motion within the frame doesn't work. Rapid cutting interrupts the illusion of presence; we need stillness to search out the image. Closeups work, in a big way; our experience of the actors is so much more immediate. The 3D technique, with its greater immersion, would be absolutely brilliant for horror films; the diorama effect could bring new life to musicals, performance films, and any theatrical staging. What will true acting by human beings be like, when directed by an artist with a real screenplay in his back pocket? Can you imagine a 3D Macbeth ?
Instead, I predict a long overdue splitting-off. There are now over 700 digital-3D-equipped theaters in America. That number is set to triple by 2009, when high profile movies by tech heads James Cameron and Peter Jackson are set to arrive. I guarantee you that George Lucas will re-release the Star Wars movies in 3D; if you look at the prequels, that's what he's had in mind for years. Computer graphics blockbusters, which have been taking over mainstream film, will go the 3D route. Good riddance.
"Conventional" cinema - and it pains me to have to call it that - will endure. For a time, the two styles will be side by side. The question is whether the movie theaters that project conventional movies can long survive against steadily improving home theater and declining ticket sales. Without the big "event" tentpoles, my guess is that they won't. And considering how bad the experience of going to a conventional theater has become, I'm increasingly resigned to watching the films I care about at home.