There’s cinematic feel to it because I do move the camera the way I would in a normal two-dimensional movie. —Robert Zemeckis on Beowulf at

So, what happens is that we design the movie very much like we would a traditional film and then it gets built in the computer at Imageworks. —Beowulf producer Steve Starkey at same site

Maybe that’s the problem … because for the life of me I can’t figure out how to watch Zemeckis’s new film and make any visual sense of it. But only in the 3-D version, since when you take off the correcting glasses (unless the problem’s only mine), the 2-D almost seems manageable. Aside from the doubling of images, of course—though notice that conventional 2-D focus in the middle ground of every 3-D frame is like a knife … or in this case sword. What more can you ask of your ten bucks plus?

On the other hand, if this is a foretaste of what the visual future holds in store, then a lot of us will have to relearn the ways we watch our films. Since for one thing there’s no coherence: the pictorial surface (aka window) seems primarily an occasion for helter-skelter effects. Not that it’s a question of Zemeckis’s doing this well or badly, it’s simply the nature of the 3-D beast, what filmmakers automatically assume you’ll be wanting to see—since why else do 3-D at all? Things flying out of the frame at indiscriminate angles, figures interacting (or not) at varying depths of the visual field: can’t put all these elements in the same conceptual package, the mind-eye coordination isn’t made for it. Not to mention the myriad irrelevant distractions: ceiling candelabras and whatnot floating seductively by you when the actual point of the scene lies elsewhere. It’s hard to know which visual data to pay attention to, and by the time you’ve figured it out the critical dramatic moment’s already come and gone.

But why should you figure it out—is it some kind of sadistic test? Because if you’ve been weaned on Renaissance expectation—that pictorial space has unity, that you take it all in with a kind of “global” awareness, all perspectival elements smooshed into one coordinating surface, the idea of what a fresco does, conventional portraiture or landscape (not to mention the “normal two-dimensional” filmmaking strategies Zemeckis purportedly employs)—this brave new visual paradigm can only seem jarring … and probably disappointing. But yes, there’s lots of random “reality”—details you can’t help noticing whether they make any sense or not. Precious simulacra, the last refuge of boredom … 

Rudolf Arnheim once argued that pictorial flatness makes cinema art possible. We’ll find out soon enough whether he was right.