Blame Robert Rodriguez. The 3-D format seems to have returned from the grave only to die yet another painful and embarrassing death, and it's all Rodriguez's fault. Ask any of the scazillions of viewers who claim to have suffered massive, debilitating headaches as a direct result of exposure to Rodriguez's new Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.
Actually, scazillions may be a bit of an exaggeration. The real total is probably about the same as the number of Japanese school kids who found themselves convulsing on the floor after watching that insidiously strobing TV cartoon show a few years back. And considerably fewer, no doubt, than the number of moviegoers struck down by stomach cramps after consuming a large tub of concession stand popcorn slathered in liquid "butter."
Still, mostly thanks to Rodriguez, 3-D's rep is worse than ever. This is particularly distressing for a lifelong 3-D fan like myself who still finds a lot to enjoy in the format. Some of my earliest, fondest memories include sitting in a dark theater, peering through red and blue lenses at vintage 3-D cheese like 13 Ghosts and The Mask. There's still nothing quite like the rush of three-dimensional snakes and fireballs shooting out of the empty eye-sockets of some leering skeleton and directly (or so it seemed) into an 8-year-old face.
There was probably some sort of a residual headache entailed with those early 3-D encounters too, but you didn't hear us whining about it. Real fans take it in stride as an inevitable by-product of too much fun, probably not entirely unlike the dead brain cells and nausea that come with huffing gas or sniffing glue. Or consuming a large of tub of unnaturally yellow popcorn fresh from the concession stand. It's all part of the experience.
At any rate, I digress. All I'm really trying to communicate here is that 3-D is not, by nature, evil. And for those of you who left the theater with your eyes smarting and brain throbbing from the — let's face it — not entirely successful 3-D assault of Spy Kids 3-D, I have only one word for you: Bugs!.
Bugs! isn't exactly the Citizen Kane of 3-D flicks, but it does have several things going for it. First of all, it's short. At a running time of just under 40 minutes (the norm for IMAX productions of this sort), Bugs! is just the right length to sustain maximum interest and get the most out of the 3-D process. Spy Kids 3-D's major problem (besides its lack of a story) was that it featured more than one hour of uninterrupted, relentlessly effects-laden 3-D — far too much of a good thing for even the most hardcore fan to absorb without suffering some sort of weird side-effect.
Second, Bugs! simply uses a better sort of 3-D. Like all IMAX 3-D movies, Bugs! is easy on the eyes and brain because it opts for a more sophisticated (and expensive) version of the anaglyph system employed by Rodriguez, even eschewing those cheap, red-and-blue lens cardboard glasses in favor of polarized, heavy-duty wrap-around shades. Combined with the big, velvety images captured by the IMAX cameras, the effect achieved is astonishingly sharp, vivid and free of virtually any of those annoying visual artifacts that come with a less-than-perfect application of the 3-D process.
The illusion that's created is very close to what 3-D's ideally supposed to be: a perception that the screen has simply disappeared, along with the space between the image and the audience. When the effect works, as it does with delightful regularity in Bugs!, it's an absolutely thrilling invasion of personal space, where objects regularly seem to hover in front of our noses, leap out at us, or drift by either side of our seats.
Young audience members actually shrieked on more than one occasion at the screening I attended of Bugs! — most notably when a black widow spider seemed to drop down on its web and into our laps. But even cooler than that was that sublime moment when the theater seemed to fill with dozens of butterflies gracefully circling our heads. I couldn't resist taking off my 3-D glasses at that point to check out the audience's reaction, and witnessed scores of little hands reaching up to grab at the imaginary creatures.
As you can probably tell by now, Bugs! is a great experience for the kiddies, although, as nature documentaries go, it's also both imaginative and effective enough to keep most adults happy. The tone is neither as scary nor apocalyptic as the opening narration would have us believe ("Insects are supreme survivors," warns the ever expressive Judi Dench, milking every ounce of drama from the words, "who dominate the earth"). Rather, the primary message turns out to be a simple one — "Imagine you are a bug," Dame Judi encourages us — something that's not all that hard to do, considering the incredible microphotography and bug's eye views with which the film overflows.
Bugs! is structured as a sort of day in the life of two of the critters for which it's titled. The movie personalizes its protagonists by giving them names, and so we follow a benign little caterpillar named Pipilio and a not-so benign praying mantis named Hierodula as they creep along the jungles of Borneo, doing all the things that insects do. We get amazing, ultra up-close-and-personal 3-D footage of bugs eating, mating, hunting, avoiding danger and exploring an exotic and often dangerous landscape populated not just by (relatively) cute little bugs, but by a cast of nasty old lizards, scorpions, bats and tarantulas too.
Most of the bug-eat-bug gross-out stuff you'd expect is here: a mantis devouring a still-wriggling fly, head first, as well as extreme close-ups of beetles, grasshoppers and others trapping and gobbling up all manner of smaller creatures. The movie's real strong suit, however, is its appetite for the primal and inevitably surreal imagery that seems to come with this territory. The jutting mandibles, elegant but impossibly odd physiques, and ineffably strange vistas of gently pulsating insect egg sacs, objects that recall a Dali wet dream or the psycho-bio hoodoo of H.R. Giger's Alien designs.
It's all beautifully shot, utilizing some crisp, deep focus photography that would do Orson Welles proud (and that really makes the 3-D effects pop). In its own humble, straightforward way, in fact, Bugs! sometimes very nearly rivals the far more ambitious and artistic Microcosmos by Jacques Perrin (Winged Migration), which is probably the best insect doc ever made.
That might sound like unnaturally high praise for an unassuming little 3-D featurette like Bugs!, but how else to describe a movie that manages to present the inevitable transformation of our caterpillar hero into a butterfly as something as transcendent as the finale of a Strauss opera? And when we put that in the context of a project produced by those corporate masters of pest control, Terminix, how can we fail to smile?
Film Critic Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 157.