Form over content – when the technology is the product?

This week, I had my first experience of 3D cinema, with the rather amazing “Gravity”.

Image source: gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

Image source: gravitymovie.warnerbros.com

I wouldn’t say I’m an instant convert to the 3D format, but I certainly agree with many of the critics – that “Gravity” is not only a film that warrants 3D, it is possibly the best space movie since “2001: A Space Odyssey”. And while the CGI and 3D technologies combine effectively to take a relatively simple story and turn it into an epic, it is not just a case of “form over content” – there is real substance in this film, a great example of using the technology to enhance the audience experience, rather than hoping it can paper over the cracks of clumsy narrative and lame dialogue.

My hesitation in embracing the 3D experience stems from a suspicion that the format dictates the story, that the technology is the product. A few days before watching “Gravity”, I saw posters advertising the new Hobbit movie, “The Desolation of Smaug”. Not content with the “standard” 3D version, there is also a new format “3D HFR” (High Frame Rate, whatever that means). Oh, and for traditionalists there is also “normal” 2D.

Personally, I could never get into the whole Lord of the Rings saga – even as a child, Tolkien’s stories left me cold. So I have not seen any of the films, but when I saw a 3D preview for “Smaug”, my worst suspicions were confirmed: this really is a case of form over content, which is ironic given the legacy of the source material. To me, the 3D images looked like the pages of a children’s pop-up book, because the depth of vision is so poor that the actors look like animated cardboard cutouts badly superimposed on CGI landscapes.

Many contemporary productions, full of CGI and “enhanced” for 3D make Walt Disney’s Penguin Dance in “Mary Poppins” look far more naturalistic in comparison. And what about “Who framed Roger Rabbit?” as the pinnacle of live action meets cartoon imagery – surely Jessica Rabbit has more vitality than all the characters in “Avatar” put together?

Technology is a wonderful thing – used creatively and effectively it can deliver fantastic results, making great content even better. But used slavishly, and as an end in itself, it cannot compensate for poor material, and at best becomes a sterile technical exercise.