3D is a gimmick. I think we can all agree on that right now, but gimmicks aren’t necessarily all bad. The backwards chronology in Memento was a gimmick, but with smart filmmaking Christopher Nolan used it to enhance his story of a man with no long-term memory, making it an indelible part of his film. A gimmick is something that attracts people to a movie, book or any other product based on its novelty. It’s a marketing grab. What really matters is that once you’ve actually bought the damned thing the gimmick augments your experience rather than distracting you from an inferior product with only a gimmick to its credit. Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry, opening February 25, embraces the 3D gimmick and uses it in a particularly successful way. Is it good? You’ll have to wait until our full review on Friday. Until then let’s just talk about the 3D.
3D is not an immersive technology, let’s get that out of the way first. There are so many reasons for this that cataloguing them is almost an exercise in futility, but let’s hit some of the main bullet points: 3D places additional artifice between the viewer and the screen, forcing you to do something you would normally never do – wear glasses, or in some of our cases glasses over our glasses (never comfortable) – in order to enjoy a medium that never required as much effort from its audiences before. For the sake of argument we’ll ignore bad 3D, usually tacked on in post-production and almost inevitably distracting and slapdash, but even the best 3D is also hampered by the most basic of traditional filmmaking techniques: i.e. every other shot is from a different angle or focal length, called (and I know I’m blowing your mind here) ‘editing.’ As a result every time there’s an edit in the film – which these days can be as often as every couple of seconds – the audience has to completely reorient their eyes to a new three-dimensional plane. Every cut in a 3D film can be jarring even though the very purpose of such traditional film coverage is to create a seamless, hopefully imperceptible transition. By its nature 3D simply creates psychological distance between the film and the viewer. Drive Angry is one of the few films in which that’s a good thing… and no, that’s not a backhanded compliment. It’s just a good old-fashioned compliment.
To use a technical term, Drive Angry is goofy pants. It’s a supernatural revenge film with more full frontal nudity and gore than you could shake a Russ Meyer at. If the insanity wasn’t intentional you’d be laughing at the movie rather than with it, and even so the real film snobs, the critics (bastards), will probably balk at the ludicrousness of a it all. Director Patrick Lussier knows this, embraces this, and has crafted a balls-to-the-wall tale that is completely comfortable with how silly it is, treating the material only just seriously enough to get from Point A to Point B to Point C without causing the audience to tune out completely and talk back to the screen. It would stand to reason that adding the artifice of 3D would seem superfluous, only detracting from the already artificial viewing experience of Drive Angry, and while it wasn’t actually necessary to make the film in 3D (not that it ever is) here it’s actually a good idea for a change.
By using 3D in its most blatant forms, shooting magical bullets at the screen and driving cars right through it etc., Drive Angry creates the cognitive distance needed to appreciate the film as the energetic lowbrow entertainment that it is. You can’t argue that Drive Angry is ‘bad’ even if you don’t like it very much. It’s an elaborate floorshow as much as it is a movie, and to create that impression all Lussier needed was to film it in three-dimensions. He’s not trying to immerse you into the experience. He wisely chooses to constantly remind you, to quote the poster for Last House on the Left, that it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…
And Drive Angry really is only a movie. It’s a silly action-packed romp through grindhouse clichés without the whirling dervish virtuoso camerawork that sometimes makes Robert Rodriguez’s supposedly low-budget films feel disingenuous. The occasional wild moment aside – like the bit in which Prison Break’s William Fichtner casually steps out of a truck in mid-air onto the hood of another moving car – the film is generally shot with a relative restraint for this kind of genre flick. The story and 3D are artificial enough that they allow Lussier the freedom not to overextend himself cinematically. It’s a ridiculous film and the gimmick doesn’t attempt to elevate Drive Angry beyond its lowbrow ambitions. Here, 3D actually supports a movie’s ambitions and augments the experience by encouraging audiences to just sit back and enjoy the show, rather than actually try to immerse them in an alien world that has no place for them or any kind of reason.
In contrast, films like James Cameron’s Avatar use 3D in an attempt to convince viewers of the film’s ‘reality,’ a naïve pursuit at best. Avatar seems blissfully unaware of its own crapulence. Oh wait, I mean crappiness. Cameron treats the world of Avatar like a completely serious creation filled with cultural relevance and thematically significant Jungian archetypes, ignoring the fact that it’s a movie about Native American cat people fighting off Big Oil, who ride dragons that are domesticated in a ritual roughly equivalent to violent rape, what with the Na’Vi shoving their head phalluses into the majestic creatures against their will, wrapping their legs around them and throwing them off a cliff. But the gimmick was fresher then, and the story archetypal enough to attract audiences seeking highly conventional entertainment. 3D no doubt contributed to Avatar’s financial success, but was less significant artistically than Cameron likes to think. It hamfistedly tried to elevate the technology to artistic greatness despite acting as a constant distraction from the film’s numerous flaws. A useful tool, perhaps, but not artistically.
The best 3D movies to date have embraced the inherent silliness of the technology and worn said silliness on their sleeve: films like Lussier’s own My Bloody Valentine 3D (too long but otherwise fun), Piranha 3D (technically less proficient but wildly entertaining) and Step Up 3D (the most innocently crowd-pleasing example to date) constantly remark upon the technology, throwing objects and even spitting onto the audience to remind them that 3D is not a serious technological development. It’s a lark, completely negates actual immersion and mostly benefits films that are honest about their intentions to entertain without, ironically, any ambitions of depth. Drive Angry may be the best ‘3D’ film to date, whether or not it’s actually a classic in the making. The film’s ‘Everything and the Kitchen Sink’ tone masterfully plays off of the ‘Gee Whiz’ technological trickery, keeping the 3D fun without ever pretending that bears any kind of artistic relevance.
In short (‘too late,’ blah-blah, beat you to it), Drive Angry teaches a valuable lesson: that while 3D is of limited artistic value, it can be a great boon to mindless entertainment. It reminds us that films shot in 3D are a fad, but can be an extremely fun fad in the hands of directors like Patrick Lussier who understand it best. Drive Angry is a more exciting 3D experience than Avatar ever was. It’s a smart example of the successes of the technology and almost completely devoid of its failures. Is it actually a good movie? Check back for Crave Online’s review on Friday.