Unwatchable Avatar: Hollywood Greed Could Kill 3DS

Like millions of others, I saw Avatar last weekend. I loved it—despite the 3D, not because of it. Admittedly, my seat was shitty and I wear eyeglasses, but if the experience isn't guaranteed, 3D will fail. Updated

Even after arriving 40 minutes early and waiting in line, the only undefended territory left was right up in front. You may say you'd have stormed out and demanded a refund, but due to work and parenthood, I get a chance to see about three movies per year in the theater, and those have to be slated well in advance. If I didn't see Avatar at that time and place, I'd have had to wait for it to show up on Blu-ray—or at least wait till after CES. And hey, at least the seats reclined way back, to avoid the stiff neck.

I have endured movies in the front row before, and yes, it's annoying. You can't take it all in, you have to look around. But when you add 3D glasses into the mix, it's not just "annoying." It's "cerebrally disruptive." Any shift of your eyes has to reorient your brain, and since you're constantly shifting your eyes, you get a series of fleeting illusions combined with a lot of image jolts and jerks. Taking off my 3D glasses, I realized that the typical crappy front-row experience would have been peaceful and easy by comparison. Get this straight: Front row for 3D is 10X worse than front row for other movies.

There was another problem. I was wearing 3D glasses on top of my own glasses, which I need to see. I am not the only person in the world who chooses to wear eyeglasses instead of getting contacts or Lasik surgery. You'd think the 3D industry would plan for this sizable segment of the population. But the light playing between my glasses and the Dolby 3D glasses created weird holograms, floating text and images. I thought at first it was Cameron pulling a JJ Abrams and throwing a bunch of lens flare streaks into the mix, but no, if I adjusted the relative position of the two glasses, they images would move or disappear, at least momentarily. It was reflections of the movie projection bouncing off of my glasses and back onto the inside of the 3D glasses.

An LA Times story mentioned that Dolby 3D glasses were particularly ill-suited for people who are already wearing eyeglasses—hopefully other 3D providers are smarter when it comes to their four-eyed little friends.

As you can tell, I was encumbered with a lot to worry about besides the film, for which I had paid $15. I managed to sit through it all, and am glad I did, for the sake of having seen Avatar. It was great, and what I got was worth, say, $10 of the money I spent, a testament to Cameron's abilities as a filmmaker, no doubt.

So I don't blame Jim for deliberately making me suffer. All the reports from people who got good seats—including our own Mark Wilson—say that the experience is the best use of 3D ever, and I admire Cameron for pushing the limits. (And also for releasing a 2D version at the same time.) I will say that, like good music producers who listen to a near-final mix from the crappiest boombox they can find, Cameron should be aware of how miserable the 3D experience can be. But he's a busy man, and probably didn't get a chance to sit through two-and-a-half hours of blue people, from the shittiest seat in the theater.

The theater management, a financially challenged group if there ever was one, are probably most to blame. They need to sell as many tickets as possible, and they're not about to tape off the front section. But they should, and there's a precedent for this. To get IMAX certification, theaters rip out some of their seats, reducing the capacity but enhancing the experience. Even though people have criticized IMAX certification as BS marketing, they got results. (I recall something similar a few years back with George Lucas, who used his influence to make sure only the best theaters could show his movies via digital projection.) You would think that Cameron, Fox and Dolby could combined their might to ensure theater-goers a uniformly baseline enjoyable experience—especially in light of the more strenuous technical and physical requirements of watching a film in 3D. Alas, they simply couldn't.

Or didn't. When your goal is to rake in over $200 million in two weeks, you can't be bothered with little things like the asshole who got stuck sitting in the front row.

Yeah, I said it, and you're thinking it. I'm to blame for not marching out, voting with my wallet so to speak. This is America, and corporations have the right to con us, because we have the right to complain. If all the theater, and Fox, and Cameron, and Dolby, and Hollywood as a whole wanted out of me was $15, they got it. (Don't spend it all in one place.) I don't complain in restaurants, I just don't go back. If something cheap breaks on me, I may not call the 800 number on the back of the box, but I sure as hell don't buy another—or anything from that brand. Next time there's an event movie like this, I may skip 3D altogether. Me and every other poor bastard with a pair of eyeglasses and somewhere to be other than the theater two hours before showtime.

Do all you can to guarantee me an experience, and I will gladly pay for it. But leave me to understand that there's only a 50/50 chance I'm even going to like it, and you can play at-home proctologist with those 3D glasses, cuz I won't be needing them.

Update: Apparently at least one theater chain is willing to take a fiscal hit in order to serve a better experience to moviegoers. A Giz reader named Garth just sent me this hopeful note:

I went to go see Avatar IMAX 3D on Saturday at the Regal 16 in Escondido, CA and they had blocked off the first three rows in front and the three seats on the extreme left and right of the front section with specially made seat covers that read "Not for 3D viewing."

Good for Regal! And thanks again, Garth.

Note: The top image is an artistic rendering intended to represent the author's general frustration, not of the specific technical problems he experienced during the viewing, which can't be reproduced in a still shot.