I am the proud owner of a 3D television, and thanks in no small part to the recent boom of movies shot stereoscopically, I’m lucky enough to have accumulated a small library of titles that are great for showcasing the technology when visitors come to my house. The film that I almost always choose to show those visitors, however, is Step Up 3D, because director Jon M. Chu uses his camera to create tableau-like set pieces where the dancers move forward and back in space, half exploiting the technology in a fun way and half just enhancing the choreography and movement in a way that augments its entertainment value.
But with the release of Step Up Revolution, I may just have found a new reference disc: although it operates narratively with the same surface-level complexity as its predecessors, director Scott Speer’s film makes even better use of three-dimensional space than Chu’s did, generating almost surprising emotional involvement from familiar storytelling tropes by contextualizing them in dance sequences that are inventive, well-shot and viscerally exhilarating.
Moving from Step Up 3D’s New York locale to sunny Miami, Step Up Revolution stars Ryan Guzman as Sean, a minimum-wage hotel employee who moonlights in civil disobedience as a member of guerilla dance troupe The Mob. Choreographing flash-mob routines on South Beach, in hotspot restaurants and local museums, Sean and his partner Eddie (Misha Gabriel) aim to nab enough YouTube hits to win a sponsorship contest, but their plans are waylaid when a wealthy developer named Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher) reveals plans to raze their community to the ground and build high-rise hotels. Meanwhile, Sean develops a relationship with Emily (Kathryn McCormick), Anderson’s daughter. Her sympathies towards their plight intensify when her father issues a stern ultimatum: get a job as a dancer by the end of the summer or come work for him.
When Eddie discovers that Emily and Mr. Anderson are related he stages a performance revealing her betrayal to her father, unfortunately undermining their chances in the YouTube competition. But as Mr. Anderson closes in on finalizing his development plans, Sean and Eddie are forced to put aside their personal conflict and come together in one last-ditch effort to raise awareness of their neighborhood and rescue thousands of people from being displaced from their homes.
Flash mobs may be “so last year,” but Step Up Revolution hits upon an interesting cultural phenomenon with its concept – that art can express a political viewpoint or offer social commentary. Particularly in the context of films like The Dark Knight Rises, which featured its own clash between haves and have-nots, the growing ubiquitousness of the idea evidences the Occupy movement’s impact on contemporary culture. Further developed in Speer’s film is the idea that the blue-collar workers of the world feel powerless against the juggernaut of big business, and that money trumps integrity. That the payoffs are largely comprised of wish-fulfillment scenarios rather than a more academic examination of the underlying issues is merely an acknowledgment of the genre into which the film fits, and the audience that typically comes out to see it. But that these questions are posed demonstrates that however successful one feels like the film pulls them off, the filmmakers were, admirably, interested in examining topical and more importantly real-world subject matter even as they showcased some really incredible dancing.
While the interpretive dance of something like last year’s Pina admittedly leaves me a bit cold emotionally – I respect enormously the routines’ intent, but have trouble connecting with the fundamental feelings they’re tapping into – I find the evolution of contemporary dance continually entertaining and inspirational. Mash-up culture has become such a meaningless and yet omnipresent component of everything that we see and do, but in dance it really seems to create new forms of expression: ballet and ballroom dancing dovetails into hip-hop and salsa, creating new opportunities for choreographers to show audiences routines unlike any they have ever seen. In Revolution, Speer uses all of these plus parkour, gymnastics and even interpretive dance to turn each routine into a thematically-cohesive and resonant set piece. The best of these is unquestionably a number set inside an art museum, where Sean and co. impersonate the art on the walls and then “bring it to life” in a variety of ways, but a number set against the backdrop of a dozen bouncing low riders, and another staged in the lobby of a bank utilize location and concept in order to make them unique and memorable.
Moreover, these sequences actually help tell the story and reveal the emotional state of the characters within them. In the scene in which Sean and Emily are first introduced, they each go through the motions of a sort of predictable dancefloor coupling – sexed-up grinding and self-conscious showing off – but quickly begin to move together and find a rhythm that complements the discovery stage of their compatibility. Later, when Eddie surprises Sean and Emily at a business event with a routine featuring gas masks and much more destructive choreography, it serves as a testament not only to Eddie’s outrage over being betrayed, but it exemplifies the way in which his passion surpasses his maturity and common sense – he goes too far. And the progression of the scenes throughout the film actually indicates a growing understanding of the intent and purpose of the routines, from comparatively simple personal expression to political outrage to cultural celebration.
That said, the film suffers as much as its predecessors from an often disappointingly simplistic portrait of characters, relationships and conflicts; there’s scarcely a cliche out of place in its conventionally triumphant coming-of-age story. But in the same way that the characters take a little while to find themselves, so too does the film, so that by the time it indulges in precisely the kind of gloriously bow-tied happy ending that audiences might expect, they have become swept along by the ride and actually look forward to it. Mind you, I’m not arguing for the simplification of narrative conflict in cinema as a medium, but notwithstanding what kind of movie this is there’s something to be said for a film that satisfies our base needs for good things to happen to good people because they’re talented, work hard and have pure intentions.
As indicated above, the 3D is also remarkable, even if (as I was) you’re sitting ten rows from the screen looking at it from an extreme angle. The reason for this isn’t merely that the film was shot in native 3D – although that helps – but because there was clear planning in how the sequences would be photographed, and how the dimensionalized world would immerse the audience. There are few if any moments where the 3D is coming directly at the audience or breaking the proscenium; instead, the camera moves fluidly and unobtrusively around the performers in each environment, simply acknowledging the space without confronting the viewer in an aggressive or disorienting way.
For those unfamiliar with the series, or in need of a perhaps more relatable populist context, Step Up Revolution is the Fast Five of this film series: while perfectly operating on and delivering on a straightforward and simple conceptual level, it elevates and rejuvenates the franchise as a whole. Sadly, the film makes too little use of stars from the earlier films – 3D’s Twitch is in there, but Moose makes only a cursory appearance at the end of the film that fails to truly highlight that kid’s amazing talents – but with any luck, the next film will take a page from the Fast and Furious playbook and bring back some of its original stars. (evidenced by Magic Mike, Channing Tatum still has plenty of moves left in him.) But ultimately, Step Up Revolution is one of the great movies of the summer, because it provides the kind of pure, visceral enjoyment that audiences want, while just hinting at more serious ideas. Whether or not you care to pay attention to them, there’s still plenty to keep you occupied – no pun intended -- whether you’re marveling at the ambition of its dance sequences, or thrilling at how well they happen to be shot.