Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 14, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Alice, 3D, and Yike Bike
It would have been hard for my expectations to be lower when I went to see Alice in
Wonderland. The last time I tried to watch a movie by the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp team it was
the ghastly remake of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
My expectations were only half-met. With the same contempt for the original material that
Spielberg showed with Hook, his tedious remake of Peter Pan, they couldn't just tell the story as
written. Instead, both movies are "identical sequels."
That is, they assume that the audience knows the original story, and this movie is now "later" --
though pretty much the same things happen as in the original. We meet all the same people,
have most of the same adventures, but the new plot is "improved" and made more "relevant."
You know, the way male dogs take every opportunity to make each fire hydrant more "relevant."
This requires that the film spend time creating the "frame" story -- the explanation about what
has happened since the original events, and how the new dilemmas are resolved.
Hook did this so badly that it destroyed the whole movie (that plus the gross overacting, the
pandering to decades-old "trends" to try to be "current," and the moral vacuousness of the
storytellers who could not allow the hero to win his war).
If anything, the frame story of the Tim Burton Alice is even less coherent. It seems Alice is now
of marriageable age (completely destroying the innocence of the main character, though perhaps
by making her really stupid they thought they could achieve the same thing).
A lofty-but-geeky noble proposes to her -- in front of an audience of hundreds. In the real
world, no one would ever be so stupid -- you don't hold a public "proposal" unless the answer
has already been agreed on. In this case, everyone has kept it a secret from Alice herself, even
her own mother -- though what purpose is served no one explains.
Naturally, she declines to answer, runs away, and falls down a rabbit hole, whereupon the story
resumes as in the original, except that everybody is looking for Alice as a figure of prophecy,
and expects her to fight the Jabberwock in order to redeem the kingdom from the Red Queen.
Finally she comes to believe that she really did visit Wonderland (now called Underland) in her
childhood ("Oh Then it wasn't a dream"), and eventually embraces her role.
Why do idiotic directors and screenwriters think that classic stories need to be updated and
"improved"? They assume that they are every bit as talented and insightful as the original
creator, and they are humiliatingly wrong. No one involved with this version of Alice can hold a
candle to Lewis Carroll, just as no one with half the intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and writing
skill of James Barrie was involved with the making of Hook.
The writing of the Tim Burton Alice was especially vacuous when they dealt with Alice's father,
who is simultaneously missing (presumed dead?) and regarded by some, at least, as a great
genius. Never is his absence explained at all; but at the end, Alice comes up with the brilliant
idea of using Hong Kong as a springboard to trading with China
Apparently the filmmakers are so ignorant that it didn't occur to them that the Hong Kong
colony existed for no other purpose. Her great idea was already the entire business of Hong
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Unlike Hook, Alice does prove itself to be inventive in the main storyline, so that once you get
out of the thickheaded portrayal of Victorian England, so ignorant of history, you get a pretty
entertaining adventure story using the motifs of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking
Unlike Depp's sickeningly malicious Willie Wonka, his Mad Hatter is quite engaging and noble
in a quirky way (i.e., the stock Depp character), though he is regularly upstaged by the March
Hare whenever they are onscreen together. In fact, the animated characters steal most scenes.
Anne Hathaway as the White Queen seems every bit as evil and dangerous as the Red Queen,
except for her vow not to kill anything -- which, of course, she breaks (indirectly) when the
Jabberwock shows up.
Ultimately, Tim Burton's Alice isn't about anything and doesn't mean anything. One might
suppose this would make it more, not less, faithful to Lewis Carroll's original -- but the movie
clearly asks us to think that something is at stake and that we should believe the story is real
instead of a dream -- a point which is stated more than once.
So the phenomenal box office of Alice in Wonderland -- for this time of year, anyway -- is
quite understandable. For one thing, there's nothing else new that's worth watching. (What, a
movie about Iraq that beats to death the fact that there were no WMD's? When will Hollywood
catch on that the American war-movie audience won't go to anti-American movies?)
More important, though, is the fact that Lewis Carroll's inventions are so memorable and
powerful that even vain, incompetent storytellers are able to coast on his talent to achieve a
The filmmakers' contempt for Carroll's writing is epitomized by Depp's recital in a voiceover of
a drastically-cut version of the poem "Jabberwocky." They didn't even bother to check
pronunciation or even read the words carefully. For instance, Depp says "borogroves," when
Carroll wrote "borogoves" -- no R after the G.
And he says "gyre" with a G as in "good" instead of the correct G as in "gyroscope." Was there
no one involved with the film who had actually studied the poem? I know -- few people will
know the difference. But it bespeaks a level of disdain for the original material that further
demonstrates the unworthiness of these filmmakers to have touched Lewis Carroll's work.
The great film version of Alice in Wonderland remains to be made. This is just a second-rate
Do I recommend seeing it? Of course I do: If you want to go to the movies this week, this is the
one to go to, for lack of a better. Some bits are done very well. The awful ones at least have
What about the 3D in Alice in Wonderland?
Some of the problems have been solved. When I put on the glasses I did not get a headache
within the first three minutes. I never got a headache at all, though it was certainly a relief to
take the glasses off.
Also, the filmmakers used restraint -- there were almost no leap-from-the-screen gotcha
moments, which always break the audience's trance and destroy believability. The 3D is mostly
taken for granted, which is the only effective way to use it.
Because each lens of the special glasses filters out a portion of the spectrum, the total amount of
light reaching the eyes is significantly reduced -- the film is darker and details are harder to see.
Still, by filming with more saturated light, the result is still watchable.
With most technical issues solved, it's possible now to evaluate 3D on its own merits.
And my evaluation says: This is the most worthless film technology ever developed, with the
possible exception of smell-a-vision.
The idea of 3D is to replace the flatness of the screen with something more akin to how we really
see the world.
The gimmick of 3D is based on binocularity. Flat films have only one lens; 3D uses two, the
way the human brain does, as it checks out the world through two eyes.
But the purpose of two eyes, evolutionarily speaking, is not binocularity, it's redundancy. You
can lose an eye and still see. By having two eyes, you double your chance of survival in a world
where lack of vision can kill you.
The binocularity effect is, while mildly useful, fundamentally trivial. It's a biproduct of the fact
that two eyes cannot occupy the same spot. It might help you negotiate tricky grabs while
swinging about in trees; but it is not the dominant feature of our vision.
We don't see the world in 3D. We conceive the world in three dimensions, but images of the
real world come flat to our retinas.
We perceive distance primarily through focus -- when we focus on near things, far things blur a
little; when we focus on far things, near things blur. Our peripheral vision does not have to be in
focus; the spot where we're looking is always in focus.
In a film, however, the focus has to be the same for all viewers, because you can't control where
people are going to look. Focus is embedded in the film. So every layer of the 3D film is in
focus at the same time, no matter where you happen to look. This is so contradictory to our
normal visual experience that 3D movies are more unreal than the pastel colors of filmed
You never for one instant think you're seeing something real. You can't -- it's slapping you in
the face all the time that you are not. Whereas the old-fashioned 2D movie is much, much closer
the way we see the real world, because the lens focuses the way our eyes do -- when one thing
is in focus, farther and nearer things are less in-focus.
In other words, we have a medium -- flat film, even black and white film -- that has always
done a superb job of reproducing our visual experience of the world, yet in the name of "greater
realism" we replace it with a fundamentally unreal worldview that turns everything artificial.
Hollywood is so excited about 3D that some people want to use it to make every visual-effects-centered film. I think this is a horrible mistake, except with films like Alice where we want to
have the sense of being in an unreal dream-state.
Every time someone says, "Hey, Ender's Game needs to be filmed in 3D, so the battleroom
sequences really jump out at you" I shudder and do my best to change the subject. Because
Ender's Game depends on letting the audience become absorbed in the story and characters, and
3D would be an enemy -- a constant distraction.
Imagine if the Harry Potter films were in 3D "so the quidditch sequences will look good."
Aren't the quidditch games among the most boring moments in each movie? Yes, it's exciting
for about ten seconds. Then we're ready to get on with the story.
And for those ten seconds -- or thirty, or ninety -- we have to watch the whole rest of the film
in a medium so unreal that we will never really forget ourselves and fall into the audience-trance
that makes storytelling arts an essential part of human life?
3D makes you watch the film instead of forgetting the film and watching the people.
And that's why it's a deadly mistake. Only in films where the special effects or cool, unnatural
designs are the star is 3D an asset. The rest of the time, it's worthless at best, detrimental at
And even when they don't give me a headache, I hate the glasses. When am I ever going to lean
back in my chair at home, ready to watch a film on DVD, and be glad to put on a special pair of
glasses? I don't think "never" is too strong a word.
You have to catch the Discovery Channel's promotional story about the YikeBike. It's a
motorscooter that really is so light, so foldable, so portable that you could ride it to work and
park it at (or under) your desk, or carry it on the bus with you. I'm not sure if it will fit in the
overhead compartment on an airplane ...
When I watch the video, though, I have to wonder how often the ordinary perils of biking --
irregular road surfaces, the need for sudden swerves and stops -- would lead to a devastating
face-plant. There's something secure and reassuring about biking with your hands planted on
handlebars in front of you.
So I don't think I'm going to be a customer any time soon ...