When The Jazz Singer arrived in theaters in 1927, it was far from perfect. In fact, despite heralding the arrival of sound pictures, its audio was quite poor in quality, and it would take many years before the sound in sound films would be accepted as natural. But The Jazz Singer will forever be remembered in the film history books. I'm not so sure that U2 3D will hold the same kind of prestige as that film, but it ought to, because as the first live-action digital 3D film, it is certainly opening the door for a brand new kind of movie experience, one that will likely be the standard in coming decades, if not years.
The problem with U2 3D's prestige could be that it is neither the first 3D movie, nor is it the first digital 3D film. But people have never seen anything like this before, enough that we could consider those early analog 3D films the equivalent of D.W. Griffith's failed 1921 sound film Dream Street, which used poorer technology than The Jazz Singer. And we could consider those recent animated digital 3D movies as the equivalent of the 1926 film Don Juan, which featured a synched soundtrack of music and sound effects, yet no dialogue. Anyway, what I'm saying is that U2 3D must be seen, not necessarily because it's a great film, but because it's an important film, and you can say you saw it when.
Not much of a U2 fan? Well, I'm not either. I've never owned a U2 album (though I will admit to liking most of the band's early singles), and I never had any interest in seeing them live, let alone seeing a concert film of them performing. However, while most concert films are limited to fan appeal -- unless Martin Scorsese or some other great filmmaker shoots them -- U2 3D is obviously different. Plus, it was co-directed by well-known music video director-turned-Hollywood-player Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) and video maker Catherine Owens, who is best known for directing U2's "Original of the Species" video and content for the band's multimedia-filled Zoo TV tour. Not being a fan, I actually had planned to only watch a little bit of U2 3D, just enough to appreciate the new technology. But I was sucked in completely and watched the whole film -- not because I suddenly became a U2 fan, but because I couldn't tear the Dolby Digital 3D glasses from my face. I kept thinking I might miss some neat way the 3D was used in the presentation of this Buenos Aires-set show. Fortunately, the 3D increasingly gets more interesting as the film goes on. When the band comes back on stage for their encore song, "The Fly," the screen (and seemingly the space in front of it) is filled with a ton of graphics and words that really blow your senses away. If you're familiar at all with the video of "The Fly" featured on the Zoo TV DVD, it's kind of like that, but in 3D!
Certainly the first idea that pops into your mind while watching U2 3D is that it's like actually being there in the stadium with all those Argentine fans. In fact, after the screening I attended, I overheard someone tell his companion that it was just like going to a concert without all the annoying parts. And yes, there are plenty of shots from the perspective of the audience, where you actually have fans standing in your way, obstructing your view with their camera phones and shoulder-seated girlfriends. But the best footage in the film is from above, especially those shots looking down at the drum set, which definitely looks the most real in 3D, and those shots close up on the band members. You really notice the depth of the digital 3D imaging when looking at Bono's eyes through his ugly, yellow-tinted specs, and realizing they actually look like they're situated behind the lenses.
But alas, as I mentioned, the look of U2 3D is not perfect in the least. Too much of the film looks like a 2D image layered atop a 2D image, giving something of a 3D illusion without actually appearing in the round. This problem is most noticeable in some of the shots from the crowd and is worst during shots in which a microphone stand is the most foreground object. Other faults include a ghosting effect when the camerawork is too fast, and a number of moments in which there is no 3D look or feel at all. The film boasts that it is the first live-action 3D movie to feature camera zooms, but few of these zooms appear to work for the technology nearly as much as the stationary shots.
Of course, there are a lot of awkward moments in The Jazz Singer, and with today's developments in sound recording, the film feels even less of an achievement in retrospect. U2 3D isn't quite as disappointing as The Jazz Singer, though. Maybe this is because we haven't yet seen the improvements on live-action digital 3D that we'll have in the future, and maybe in eighty years the film will look terrible in comparison to what we know then. But for now, it's the best thing we've got and that's not really a complaint at all.