Until yesterday, I had never seen a 3D movie. I felt I needed an escape for a few hours, so I went to a theater to see James Cameron’s new movie Avatar. If you have not seen this movie in 3D, run, don’t walk, to your nearest theater showing it in all its full glory. You will probably pay a premium for the experience, but it will be worth it. I paid $9.75 at a matinee, which was about $3 more than I would have paid to see the conventional version of the movie. (I skipped the $7 bucket of popcorn, however, so the afternoon wasn’t all that expensive.)
As you may have heard, the plot of this movie is not extraordinary. Rapacious and heartless humans have come to the planet Pandora, where they plan to relocate the “primitive” Na’vi, a tribe of oversize humanoids who live at one with nature, so that corporate interests can mine a valuable mineral that, inconveniently, is buried beneath the Na’vi’s forest homeland. In the end, the Na’vi drive out the humans, and the human boy gets the Na’vi girl. Alas, many lives are lost on both sides in the process. The plot is a bit too magical for its own good, but magic is required to produce the movie’s happy ending.
The star of the movie is Pandora, a planet of enchanted forests inhabited by enormous trees, bioluminescent foliage, six-legged terrestrial beasts, giant pterodactyl-like creatures of the air, and levitating mountains. The richness of the world that Cameron has created is difficult to capture in mere words.
The images on the screen are enhanced when the movie is viewed in 3D, wearing the obligatory but unobtrusive polarized-lens glasses. Happily, Cameron has not chosen to exploit the 3D process to deliver cheap thrills. Flying through the air is more exciting in 3D, of course, but seldom does an object appear in front of your nose. (I did flinch once.) I was a bit surprised, however, that the effect of 3D is not quite to make the screen image appear completely natural, a phenomenon I have been thinking about since a few minutes into the film. (I assume that people will continue to talk about “films,” although I assume that Avatar exists only on computer hard drives.) Initially, the 3D images seemed to have a cartoonish character, as if the depth added by the 3D process were unnaturally exaggerated. This sense decreased as the movie progressed, but it never completely went away.
I am not an expert on human visual perception, but I think I have a few clues about why the 3D effect in Avatar was less than perfect and why 3D movies are likely to continue to be so until we can project a credible holographic image onto a theater stage. Two things are going on, I think. The less important one is the fact that the camera moves through the environment differently than a person does. A tracking shot that moves around a person, for example, may seem unnatural because people do not normally move as the camera does and, as a result, are not used to seeing what the camera sees. (The same shot seems perfectly natural in 2D because it is embodies a cinematic cliché we have grown used to.) More significantly, however, although the 3D camera may see what our eyes see, vision is, ultimately, created in our brain. What we “see” is both more and less than is captured by our eyes or by cameras standing in for our eyes.
Consider a scene in a large room with speaking characters in the foreground and other actors moving around in the background. In a 3D movie, the background is likely to seem clearer (hyper-real perhaps) than it would if we were standing where the camera has been positioned and were simply observing the action. This is because we attend to certainly elements in the environment and are only vaguely aware of ether elements in which we have little interest. The 3D movie shows us everything, however, with little discrimination, even if the background is slightly out-of-focus. Sitting in the theater, we can choose to look away from the focal point of the action on the screen, but the screen image does not change as would the image in our heads if we made the corresponding move on the actual movie set. (I would be interested in hearing how others react to 3D movies.)
All that said, the 3D process definitely enhances the verisimilitude of Cameron’s Pandora, but the world of the Na’vi would be engrossing even without that enhancement. Moreover, despite the rather predictable plot, I found myself in tears as I tried to read the credits at the end of the movie. This was less about the “happy” ending as it was about my anger at the insensitivity of most of the humans and my sadness at the wanton destruction and loss of life for which they were responsible. I have not cried that way over a movie since I saw The China Syndrome. I’m not sure it had anything to do with my tears, but leaving Cameron’s completely believable world of Pandora for the “real” world was also profoundly sad.