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James Dempsey: Just when you thought 3D was a silly novelty, along comes Hugo ...





ARGUABLY the most contentious quirk of the modern multiplex, surpassing the unsettling stickiness of the floors or the lunacy of the combined ticket-and-popcorn single-line queuing system, 3D has persevered long enough for the novelty to well and truly wear off.

Sporting those thick-framed stereoscopic glasses, a one-size-pinches-all pair that will later be added to the growing pile you keep forgetting to bring with you to the cinema, was once seen as a cutting-edge leap into the luscious photography of the silver screen. A mere three years ago, 3D was the next big thing in celluloid evolution, bringing you closer to the action by letting the reeling light of motion pictures caress your corneas in the full embrace of the third dimension.

Instead of idly staring up at the screen, how wide-eyed-ly we watched the knife blades, bullets, axes, balls, snarling jaws and debris come flying at our faces. Countless gliding snowflakes here, explosions of shooting sparks there, the downy fur of cutesy critters that practically tickled our eyelids. Not to mention the otherworldly Eden on the other side of the universe. Yes, 3D was a filmmaking curio that put the spectacle back into spectacular cinema.

And then some Hollywood suit had the idea of turning 3D loose on every action and kids’ movie, retroactively turning films never intended for the medium into money-grabbing cash cows whose udders break the fourth wall. Today 3D has for many lost its appeal, and is instead decried as a cap-in-hand ploy by Hollywood’s cash-strapped studios to rake in a few extra million here and there from cheap post-production conversions.

In fact, at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in august of this year, a study suggested that 3D cinema offers no measurable improvement in enjoyment for the vast majority of film audiences. On the contrary, the California State University research proposed that watching 3D movies was more likely to triple your chances of headache, and that was before taking the movie’s plot into consideration.

The release today nationwide of Hugo, however, shows there’s still life in the medium yet. The film is a rich and evocative family fantasy adapted from Mark Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but perhaps more importantly marks Martin Scorsese’s first dalliance with 3D filmmaking, and is currently surrounded by early Oscar buzz having claimed the Best Film and Director prizes at the 2011 US National Board of Review’s awards this week.

While many may wonder just what attracted the director who previously brought us the sociopathic soliloquy of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to a children’s adventure released in time for the festive season, Hugo is in many ways a true filmmaker’s film. Although it may centre on the adventures of Asa Butterfield’s titular Hugo in a turn of the century Parisian railway station, with Kick-Ass’ Chloe Moritz on rip-roaring sidekicking duty, the film also tells the story of Georges Méliès, the forgotten father of special effects in the very early days of the development of cinema, whose work has been influential in framing contemporary filmmaking as we know it.

But more significantly, Hugo marks a monumental step back into the limelight for stereoscopic cinema, with James Cameron, the man behind 3D behemoth Avatar – the most successful film ever made – describing Scorsese’s film as “… magical to watch. This is absolutely the best 3D cinematography I’ve ever seen.” Big words from the self proclaimed king of the world.

And now two years after stating he was not interested in the technology, Scorsese has even said that following his successes with Hugo, he would prefer to shoot all future projects in 3D. The Oscar-winner even went so far as to claim that his 1976 classic Taxi Driver could have benefitted from the addition of 3D, helping to intensify Robert DeNiro’s intimidating screen presence and make you wonder whether you weren’t talking to him after all.

Ultimately, it would seem that 3D is here to stay, but with A-list auteurs raising the bar for filmmakers and audiences everywhere, the future of the medium is looking considerably less flat.