Forget 3-D, Here's How to Save Movies

Christopher Orr

Anyone paying attention to contemporary film has doubtless heard many times that 3-D is the future of movie-going. For decades, television has been slowly strangling cinema attendance--first with color, then videotape, DVD, cable, home theater, pay-per-view, HDTV, etc.--until what was once a regular part of the nation's cultural experience has become an infrequent diversion. (In the 1940s, more than 60 percent of Americans went to the movies each week; now, fewer than 10 percent do.) 3-D, we're told, will save the multiplexes--at least for a few more years--and breathe new life into exhausted franchises (Shrek, Harry Potter, Narnia), dubious remakes (Clash of the Titans, Tron, Beauty and the Beast), and projects whose overall rationales would otherwise be difficult to discern at all (The Last Airbender, Piranha 3-D).

But I say: Why think so small? Watching bullets, boogers, and battle fleets come whizzing off the screen is all well and good, but it's hardly the revolution its boosters pretend. The first commercially released 3-D movie, The Power of Love, screened for audiences all the way back in 1922. And the original "King of 3-D" isn't James Cameron, but Vincent Price, who earned the title for his work in House of Wax, The Mad Magician, and other stereoscopic flicks of the early '50s.

No, it's time to take it to the next level, or rather, the next dimension: 4-D, a cinematic experience in three spatial dimensions and a temporal one. As such, the film would be more an object than a process, a completed work, like a sculpture, that could be apprehended all at once--beginning, middle, and end simultaneously. I won't bore you here with talk of Minkowski spacetime or pseudo-Reimannian manifolds or the challenges of transtemporal phenomenal consciousness: I leave those for the tech guys to sort out. I'm just offering the Big Think.

The beauty of 4-D cinema is that it will also correct for a growing problem with mass-market filmmaking: length. In their desperation to transform movies into "events," the studios have frequently turned them into ordeals. Last year, for instance, we were forced to endure the insecure cinematic yardsticking of CGI impresarios Michael Bay (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 150 minutes), Roland Emmerich (2012, 158 minutes), and Cameron (Avatar, 162 minutes). My first thought upon leaving the theater after each movie was, "Gee, it's probably about time for me to get a haircut."

Short of equipping audiences with suspended-animation chambers (too costly, and the liability issues are a killer), what could offer a more elegant solution to this dilemma than 4-D? Do you want to subject yourself to two-plus hours of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I this November, only to come back for Part II the following July? Of course you don't. But if you could pop into the theater for a quick look after an early dinner and still make it home in time to put the kids to bed, then why not? (I'm sorry, babysitters, but every techno-cultural revolution renders some professions redundant, and I'm afraid it may be your turn.)

Sure, the four-dimensional technology that will be required isn't close to being a reality. But we visionaries have to be patient. Cameron started work on Avatar in 1994, after all, and had to wait a full decade for digital cameras to catch up with his intuition. In any case, if you have better ideas for how Hollywood can keep people coming to the multiplex, I'd love to hear them. What's that you say? Better storytelling, relatable characters, a beating heart beneath the layers of special effects? Which one of us is dreaming?



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