risky business

New technology can only take H'wood so far

Are movies morphing into feelies? Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel "Brave New World" imagined a zonked-out future where audiences flocked to entertainment known as "the feelies," a futuristic take on the movies in which sight and sound were augmented by a sense of smell and touch — "practically nothing but pure sensation," in the words of one of the characters.

At present, as movies do battle with competing digital streams from music downloads to VOD, Hollywood is looking to up the ante. And just as the arrival of television in U.S. homes in the '50s forced Hollywood to upgrade by inventing new widescreen processes, the digital competition is pushing distributors and exhibitors to supercharge the moviegoing experience. As a result, old genres are getting newer, higher-octane makeovers and new technologies are being enlisted in the battle. Sensation, rather than sense, is the new touchstone as some movies begin to take on more of the aspects of actual feelies.

Recent weeks, however, have shown that our modern-day feelies — even if they don't quite approach the sensory overload that Huxley imagined — are meeting with a mixed reception.

Certainly, Zack Snyder's "300" — which took greenscreen technology to a new level while also creating the big-screen equivalent of a graphic novel — jazzed the fanboys. The Warner Bros. Pictures release astounded Hollywood when it opened to $70.8 million, and this weekend it will cross the $200 million mark. Going even further than 2005's "Sin City," which also was based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, "300" vaulted over conventional movie realism to deliver an impressionistic look at ancient Greeks brawling as if they belonged to World Wrestling Entertainment.

But while the movie does point toward new production techniques that free filmmakers from having to laboriously build sets and allow for new styles of storytelling, it's not an unqualified success. A lot of critics carped that between the battle scenes, the static dialogue exchanges looked as if they could have been staged as hypermasculine tableaux in the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters. Before Hollywood, lemming-like, follows "300" off a cliff, it's probably worth considering how many stories would really benefit from following "300's" example.

This past weekend, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino took a different tack when they tried to re-create the exploitation movie houses of the '70s in Dimension Films' "Grindhouse." Many older critics, happy to deconstruct memories of their misspent youth, applauded. Several of them noted that the exercise in style was so evocative, it effectively summoned the stench of rundown movie theaters. But most modern-day audiences were left cold, and the movie debuted to a disappointing $11.6 million.

"Grindhouse" might have served as a feelie of sorts for lots of nostalgic reviewers — several claimed that the car chase in Tarantino's "Death Proof," filmed without benefit of digital enhancement, was the best they'd seen since "Bullitt." But for young kids, reared on the digitally goosed mayhem of Michael Bay movies, that was faint praise. For them, for a movie to be exciting, it has to go completely over the top.

When it comes to enhancing movies, the current Holy Grail, of course, is digital 3-D. The most recent film to take advantage of the process is Walt Disney Pictures' "Meet the Robinsons." Without the imprimatur of Pixar or DreamWorks Animation, Disney's latest animated entry was not expected to become a major player, but it has shown impressive strength, holding down the No. 2 slot for the past two weekends, collecting nearly $60 million to date.

Disney execs credit its performance to the fact that "Robinsons" is appearing on nearly 600 screens in 3-D. Those locations have seen audiences nearly 2 1/2 times bigger than those for its regular engagements — and there's even some evidence that spillover from sold-out 3-D screenings has fed attendance at regular showings.

The open question, though, is whether 3-D will continue to signify added value once it becomes more widespread. DreamWorks Ani, for example, is now planning to release all its films in 3-D by 2009. But by then, 3-D will be less of a novelty, and Hollywood will be back where it's always been, depending on good stories and solid execution rather than gimmicks — however alluring — to woo audiences.

Yes, the digital revolution might allow tomorrow's movies to approach the feelies that Huxley imagined. But, really, Huxley was only extrapolating from the present day. Movies have always been feelies at heart, depending on visual effects and sweeping emotion to seduce moviegoers. The most popular movies of all time, from "Gone With the Wind" to "Titanic," have relied on eye-popping visuals and swooning emotional hooks to seduce moviegoers. In the end, technology can only take Hollywood so far. It's the filmmaker's imagination that ultimately ensures a movie will go the distance.