The popularity and quality of DVDs, the rise of home theaters, the general unpleasantness of the modern cineplex experience -- when pinpointing blame for declining interest in going to the movies, all of these reasons (and a few more as well) likely play a part. Nonetheless, for studios and theater chains, the "why" isn't quite as important as the "how do we turn this awful trend around?" And if the past couple of years are any indication, their prime solution seems to involve trotting out a technology that's more than half a century old, slightly improving its quality, and touting it as some sort of revolutionary step forward. That's right, we're talking about 3D, which began its comeback in exclusive IMAX-only presentations of random major theatrical releases (like 2006's Open Season), and has now begun its full infiltration of the mainstream, most notably with last November's Beowulf, a CG spectacle that -- in nearly a third of all the theaters it was projected -- required the use of advanced red-and-blue glasses to get the full, eye-popping experience.
Now the next phase of the technique's attempted resurrection arrives in the form of U2 3D, the first live-action film to ever be shot completely in 3D. And as with Beowulf, the same inherent positives and negatives persist. Directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington using a wide array of 3D cameras, this document of U2's 2006 stop in Argentina on their Vertigo tour -- including footage from seven different performances -- is a striking up-close-and-personal view of the iconic band running through a greatest hits set list to a raucous outdoor stadium audience. What Owens and Pellington's film provides is an immersive front row seat at a U2 show, which -- with its elongated stage platforms that stretch into the crowd, and an immense, multifaceted screen presenting all manner of graphics and text -- seems to have been custom-designed to be transposed into three dimensions. Attuned to the bass of Adam Clayton in "Where the Streets Have No Name" and the crooning of Bono during a fantastic rendition of "One," the spectators rock, sway and bounce with rhythmic exhilaration, feeding into the titanic ego of U2's frontman and washing over the band's calmly cool guitar god The Edge.
Owens and Pellington often make great use of 3D through simple framing decisions, as when Bono and The Edge are set against a giant red video backdrop during set opener "Vertigo," the type of moment that helps make up for more self-conscious uses of the technology, such as the sight of Bono cheesily extending his hand toward the camera. Yet while U2 3D delivers what it promises to, it doesn't do anything further, and in that failure lies both a particular problem with the film itself, as well as one with the 3D medium altogether. As the band burns through hits "Sunday Blood Sunday" and "With or Without You," the directors adopt a quite conservative approach, choosing to record the foursome with straightforward shots gussied up by some elegant image overlays and juxtapositions, aesthetic devices which don't come close to fully exploiting the potential of 3D technology. Only during an encore performance of "The Fly" does U2 3D literally erupt in computerized splendor, with words from the concert's video display literally engulfing the cinematic screen (and eventually falling on Bono and company like golden rain), and the scene is so visually intoxicating that one wonders why the preceding material was, by comparison, treated so safely and stolidly.
More problematic, however, is the nagging sense that, no matter how accomplished its utilization, the 3D techniques on display are mere gimmicks with no serious relationship to the material onto which they've been grafted. 3D affords greater image depth, vibrancy and the possibility for intense, extravagant artistry, thereby theoretically making it a suitable format for a U2 stage show, which -- thanks to Bono's narcissistic tendencies, most insufferably exhibited via his use of a bandana that attempts to address global tensions between Muslims, Jews and Christians -- isn't what one would call subtle. As with last year's Beowulf, however, Owens and Pellington's film frustratingly falls short of making a link between form and content except on a very basic, visceral level. And thus ultimately, the visuals come off as merely a stunt aimed at gussying up what is, in the end, a solid if rather unremarkable concert film that just reconfirms a point already definitively made by 1988's superior Rattle and Hum -- namely, that U2 is great live, with or without superfluous effects.