If nothing else, U23D is a landmark technical achievement. Its list of firsts is impressive: first live-action film to be shot, edited, and shown entirely in 3D; first-ever 3D multicamera shoot; first film to utilize all of the world's 3D cameras for one single project, etc. Indeed, though the subject matter (a U2 concert) is fun enough, this is a film that is first and foremost a technological show-off—and deservedly so.
The experience of sight and sound that one encounters in U23D is undeniably breathtaking. When the film—directed by longtime U2 visual effects collaborator Catherine Owens—begins with the bang that is "Vertigo," it takes a few minutes to adjust to the 3D gimmick (and make no mistake, it is a bit of a gimmick). But by the second song ("New Year's Day") the film's rapturous energy and high-impact sensory-overload has you in its grip. High-definition 3D cameras soar above the stadium crowds, swooping and weaving in and around the band and the screaming throngs with cell phone "lighters" in the air. It's a strikingly immersive experience, and were it not for the conspicuous lacking of concert smells (sweat, beer, controlled substances) and touch sensations (sweat, wind, rambunctious bodies), you might think you were there.
Filmed over the span of seven shows in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, U23D puts the spectator right in the midst of a stadium concert experience from the band's 2006 Vertigo tour. Similar to the various HBO-aired concerts (Justin Timberlake, Madonna, etc), U23D comes about a year after the tour ended, providing a cheaper "better late than never" alternative for those of us who missed the live experience. Of course, such concert films typically don't even compare to actually being there, but U23D comes awfully close.
Smartly eschewing traditional "concert film" elements such as backstage interviews and behind-the-scenes photography, U23D instead puts all the attention on the concert itself. And what a concert it is. Those who have seen U2 live can attest to their pulsating passion and inspiring stage presence. But at least half of the power comes from the audience, and I'm not sure I've ever seen audiences quite like the ones featured in this film. A fierce, revolutionary fervor rumbles forth from the soccer stadiums in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires—unleashed by high-impact songs like "Beautiful Day" and politically-charged anthems like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bullet the Blue Sky."
Indeed, the concert as a whole is highly political (perhaps "activist" is a better word) in tone—even for U2. Perhaps invoking the Latin American revolutionary spirit of Che Guevera, Bono hypes up the crowd with calls for unity and solidarity against war and injustice. Always the pop-provocateur, the "sunglassed-one" dons his infamous "Coexist" headband through a multiple-song cycle. The headband uses the crescent symbol of Islam as the "C," the star of David as "x," and the Christian cross as the "t." Bono then repeats a universalist-sounding quip in which it sounds like he's saying, "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed is true, all sons of Abraham" while various "togetherness" images and words flash on the massive jumbotrons behind him. But many other U2 fans who caught the Vertigo tour insist that Bono is saying, "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed it's true, all sons of Abraham," which could be interpreted quite differently. The former quote seems to imply that all three religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are all equally "true," a claim which Christians among U2 fans might find unsettling. But the latter quote seems to only claim that all three—Jesus, Jew, Mohammed—are descended from a common father, Abraham, a much more accepted statement. The fact that this sequence occurs during "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," an anti-war song, seems to indicate that Bono is merely calling for peace based on the common ground of our historical roots. Whatever one's interpretation, the crowd in the film loves this segment, and it's all in the name of love (to use a U2 phrase).
The socially conscious elements elsewhere in the concert are notably less controversial, usually featured in the background visuals. Images of Martin Luther King Jr., somber little girls reciting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and an assortment of Latin American flags (interestingly during "The Streets Have No Name") are just some of the curious visuals attached to the music of the concert.
The concert's visual effects are only heightened by the 3D technology, which creates an interesting illusion of Flash-esque layering. In the song "The Fly," for example, a barrage of words and screen-size letters are layered over each other during the band's performance, creating a trippy, totally unique effect that maximizes the 3D potential. At visually stunning moments like these, the 3D form really does feel like the new frontier.
As fun and novel and sometimes enthralling as U23D is, however, there are a few questions it raises. Namely: Why does it exist? Do we really need an IMAX concert film about U2? Does Bono really need to be five stories tall and in 3D (perhaps his ego does need this)? And is there a big enough audience for something like this?
Taking a few steps back and assessing the state of Hollywood today, U23D begins to make a little more sense. This is an industry undergoing a serious crisis of confidence. Suddenly Hollywood is finding that technology and its subsequent new consumer patterns are outpacing their own projections and plans. People are increasingly ditching primetime TV for Internet TV, Blockbuster for Netflix, AMC for On-Demand, etc. You might see IMAX and these types of glossy techno-spectacles as a direct answer to the threat posed by moviegoers deserting theaters for computer screens or home entertainment systems. In the age of HD and Blu-ray, Hollywood has to play its technological cards close to the vest. In other words—it has to keep coming up with reasons why people should go out to the theater. As soon as technologies can be matched at home, it'll be over for theatrical exhibition. IMAX is thriving, in part, because so far no home has been able to replicate the experience of a five-story screen with 70mm and 3D projection capabilities.
In the case of U23D, the IMAX 3D treatment is clearly the next best thing to actually being at a live concert. Whether it's The Edge enshrouded in backlit fog, or an ocean of cell phone lights waving in the air to "Miss Sarajevo," there are plenty goosebump moments to go around. And if multiple goosebump moments are the measure of a successful film, U23D is definitely a winner.Discussion starters
- Do you think 3D technology is the next frontier of theatrical entertainment?
- What do you make of Bono "the Christian do-gooder" and Bono "the rock star"—are they in conflict? (For more on both of these sides of Bono, see this CT article.)
- What is Bono trying to convey in his "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed is true" line? What's wrong with that line? Is anything right about it?
- Why do you think the filmmakers chose to mostly use footage from South American concerts?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
U23D is unrated. For a rock concert film, it contains little to no objectionable material. It is appropriate for parents and children, and the 3D effects will hold the attention of kids too young to be fans of U2's music. The only questionable thing is the segment when Bono puts on the "Coexist" bandana and repeats the phrase "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed is true." This might confuse some young viewers, though in general this is a highly entertaining film suitable for the whole family.
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