We know we’re watching a 3D movie when a body scatters into ashes; when walls or windows shatter; when bodies crumble to bits and pieces; when time slows down so we can revel in the textures of rain, snow, or floating tears; when heroes get caught in networks of rope, web, fabric; when things exploding in slow motion turn into thick clouds of debris. At some point, every 3D movie I’ve seen pauses to display a swarm of particulate matter. This is more common and more captivating than the gimmick in which a character reaches towards the camera, or throws something at it. It’s also what makes Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) the first 3D movie about 3D movies.
Compared with other outer-space movies like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity’s plot seems understated. Filled with suspense yet relatively devoid of objects and characters, it is a horror movie with no monster, a thriller with no villains, a post-apocalyptic scenario with no apocalypse. But the film does turn out to have a monster, of sorts: Gravity’s entire plot is shaped by an expanding cloud of exploded debris. Returning in its orbit every 90 minutes (which is the approximate running time of the film) to wreak spectacular devastation on satellites, space stations, and bodies, the floating wreckage turns the most definitive feature of 3D movies into a central plot element.
If making a field of shrapnel travelling in a 90-minute orbit the villain of an outer-space thriller seems strange, it also helps us see the strangeness of the debris that floats through most 3D movies. Consider, for example, the death of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
Instead of simply falling dead as he does in the novel, Voldemort disintegrates into a cloud of ashes that float slowly toward and away from the viewer, then disappear. Like many other 3D movie scenes, Voldemort’s disintegration puts the plot on hold to impress us with an exaggerated experience of seeing in three dimensions. Although we might associate 3D technology with making objects look more solid, the most fascinating thing about 3D movies turns out to be disintegration.
It’s no surprise that 3D movies go to so much trouble to show us bodies falling to pieces. Studios that invest in new, expensive technologies (not only camera systems but also the CGI visual effects often used to produce disintegration scenes) have to show them off, and directors new to 3D gravitate towards shots that maximize their effects. For example, Avatar’s characters pause to watch illuminated life forms float around in the air, and Titanic’s spectacle of a luxury ship and all its contents slowly falling apart made it a perfect candidate for a 3D remake. Examples like Voldemort’s death, Avatar’s floating life-forms, and Judge Dredd’s explosions bring us back to one of the earliest commentaries on 3D technology, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1859 essay on “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph.” Poking fun at how early stereographic photographs used floating fabrics to optimize their 3D effects, Holmes wrote, “It may be a fence…it may be a tree…but clothes-drying, or a place to dry clothes on, the stereoscopic photograph insists on finding, wherever it gives us a group of houses.” 3D movies similarly insist on finding clouds of debris, because debris is what 3D movies do best.
To get a better sense of the ideas that 3D movie debris can explore, we can look to sculpture—a medium that has long experimented with three-dimensional representation. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), an installation by the English artist Cornelia Parker, recreates the moment of a shed’s explosion by suspending the charred fragments of the building and its contents in a gallery. A bright light at the center of the piece makes the fragments visible while ominously projecting shadows onto viewers. The pieces of debris seem to float forwards, their shadows falling on viewers to remind us that we’ll all be cold dark matter one day. The Chinese artist Zhan Wang’s installation My Personal Universe (2011) uses six high-definition video cameras and 7,000 suspended replicas of rock fragments to recreate the explosion of a massive boulder. Like Cold Dark Matter, this installation is more than a response to contemporary bombings or our culture’s fascination with violence. By referring to the big bang that created our entire universe, Wang highlights the creative possibilities of explosion
Cold Dark Matter
Though it was made decades before the current 3D boom, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point (1970) also points to what 3D disintegration scenes might help us see. In its concluding shots, the movie’s disaffected heroine envisions the explosion of her employer’s mansion.
To the accompaniment of a Pink Floyd soundtrack, the movie then shows portions of the house exploding in mesmerizing slow motion, followed by household commodities—furniture, a TV, a box of Special K—bursting into floating debris. Commenting on this controversial scene, the critic Fiona Vellella wrote: “This is the only way Antonioni can see the beauty of American capitalism, as a rainbow of shattered objects lost in space and time.” If Zabriskie Point’s most experimental and surprising shots have become a completely normal feature of 21st-century 3D movies, perhaps movies like Avatar, the 3D Titanic, and Gravity retain some of the philosophical depth found in Antonioni’s exploded commodities.
Although detractors like Roger Ebert claim that 3D “is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness,” these examples suggest that 3D movies are actually well equipped for addressing “grown-up” problems like violence, creative destruction, capitalism (which Karl Marx famously described as a process in which “all that is solid melts into air”), and the slow disintegration of bodies and things. Whereas 2D movies tend to represent characters as discrete and impervious bodies, 3D dwells on a world made up of ambient particles, molecules, fragments, and threads. Instead of presenting a character’s psychology (like a classical close-up shot) disintegration scenes suggest that people are just so much stuff enmeshed with everything else. As Voldemort dissolves into ashes and those ashes dissipate, we can almost hear Walt Whitman’s declaration: “every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.”
Gravity gives this idea of enmeshment an environmentalist and anti-technological spin, showing how even our most technologically advanced devices (namely the Hubbell telescope, which is designed to see faraway bodies in two dimensions) can become just another part of a deadly and growing field of wreckage. Like every monster movie, the truly horrifying thing about Gravity is that its threat is not an outside force but a reflection of our society. People made this terrifying cloud of debris, and the cloud of debris makes more debris by tearing living and mechanical bodies to pieces. Like all 3D debris, Gravity’s climactic scenes surround and enfold us in a field of drifting fragments. Extending the post-apocalyptic lessons that Cuarón offered in Children of Men (2006), Gravity shows how inexorably we’re tethered to other bodies and intermeshed with the stuff we make and throw away.