Roger Ebert's 3-D rant is close-minded and wrong.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 25 2011 12:00 PM

Two Thumbs, Two Dimensions

Roger Ebert is done talking about 3-D movies. Thank goodness.

A pair of 3D Glasses.
Is 3-D as bad as Roger Ebert says?

As far as Roger Ebert is concerned, the discussion about 3-D is over. "The notion that we are asked to pay a premium to witness an inferior and inherently brain-confusing image is outrageous," he wrote in his blog Sunday. "The case is closed."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

If that means Ebert will stop complaining about the medium, so much the better. For years now, the venerable critic has been griping that 3-D cinema is dim, distracting, and useless. And I mean for years: Even at the age of 10, young Ebert turned up his nose at Arch Oboler's stereo jungle adventure, Bwana Devil. (Deeply unmoved, was he, by the hails of spears.) That was back in 1952; more than a half-century later, he's still shaking his fist at the silver screenI hate 3-D and you should, too! Professional obligations notwithstanding, Ebert doesn't want to see another movie in three dimensions. Ever.

I've had enough of this persnickety crusade, marching, as it does, under the banner of pseudoscience. "Our ancestors on the prehistoric savannah developed an acute alertness to motion," Ebert writes, in an attempt to explain why movies like Clash of the Titans totally suck:

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But what about rapid movement toward the viewer? Yes, we see a car aiming for us. But it advances by growing larger against its background, not by detaching from it. Nor did we evolve to stand still and regard its advance. To survive, we learned instinctively to turn around, leap aside, run away. We didn't just stand there evolving the ability to enjoy a 3-D movie.

OK, let's not quibble with the idea that human beings might have evolved to jump away from oncoming automobiles on the prehistoric savannah. I'm more interested in the two notions that follow from this dubious logic. First, that we ought not consume any form of entertainment that doesn't derive from a selected biological trait; and, second, that standard flat-screen cinema is somehow better suited to our genetic makeup—more natural, I guess—than 3-D.

I wonder if Ebert really believes that the arts should cater to our Darwinian design, or that we're incapable of enjoying anything for which our brain wasn't delicately prewired. But in the event that he does, I'd only point out that such gimmicky and distracting art forms as, say, music, may very well be fiddling with our cortex in ways that have nothing to do with the fight-or-flight demands of a saber-toothed tiger attack.

It's just as silly to presume that viewing a film in 3-D is any less natural—from an evolutionary perspective or otherwise—than watching it flat. For starters, the human eye did not evolve to see elephants stomping across the Serengeti at 24 frames per second. Nor are we biologically attuned to jump cuts, or focus pulls, or the world seen through a rectangular box the sides of which happen to form a ratio of 1.85 to 1. Nor indeed was man designed to gaze at any image while having no control over which objects are in focus and which are blurry. If all those distinctly unnatural aspects of standard, two-dimensional cinema seem unobtrusive, it's only because we've had 125 years to get used to them.

According to Ebert, the 3-D effect brings in an "artificial" third dimension, which doesn't serve to make a movie any more realistic. In fact, he says, it makes an image seem less real, since under normal circumstances "we do not perceive parts of our vision dislodging themselves from the rest and leaping at us." Here he appears to be confusing cheesy, pop-out effects (which are used judiciously in the better—and more recent—films) with the medium as a whole. Yes, some 3-D movies do contain these gimmicks, but others do not.