I haven't seen the first two entries in the Step Up franchise, but I honestly don't think I need to considering how hard Step Up 3D tries to keep its viewer abreast of what its characters are thinking and feeling every minute of its formulaic and cliché-clogged 107-minute runtime. There's so much expository dialogue in Step Up 3D, which can best be described as an urban version of High School Musical, it'd make Christopher Nolan blush. These constant info-dumps preemptively try to compensate for the performers' lack of charm and charisma both on the dance floor and off. You don't need actors when your characters can give you instant access to their emotions, just like you don't need dancers to genuinely impress you with a unique voice when you can have armies of eager-to-please kids popping and locking furiously at the camera in the vain hope that their aggressive posing will translate their ambition into memorable spectacle. This is pure cut-and-paste entertainment.
Luke (Rick Malambri) is a sensitive, rich white boy determined to continue his parents' dream of opening a loft for young dancers looking for both a studio to practice in and a place to live. His acolytes are the Pirates, a troop of dancers that apparently likes pirates even though their dance style has nothing to do with piracy or pirate-ness, so their name doesn't mean anything. Luke documents everything they do with his digital camera, but is too shy to show anybody the footage he's shot because he doesn't think it's good enough. Natalie (Shami Vinson), the hot new girl on the block, tries to convince him to release that footage of his crew to the world as a documentary, but Luke is, like, nervous.
Luke is also, unfortunately, five months behind on his mortgage for the Vault, the artists' commune his parents dreamed of but were never able to open—because they died. So, naturally, he has to lead the Pirates to win a dance competition to use its prize money to pay off his debt so that Natalie's jealous, evil brother, Julien (Joe Slaughter), can't buy the Vault just to spite Luke and keep him away from his sister. It's like The Muppets Take Manhattan, but replace an amnesiac frog with a milquetoast artiste and a group of muppets with a post-racial group of seamlessly integrated metrosexuals (they all look like models for American Apparel and Brooklyn Industries).
Like the paper-thin dialogue and the utterly undistinguished stock characters, Step Up 3D's dance sequences are more busy than boisterous. Director Jon Chu used 3D technology to shoot a lot of the dance sequences from the POV of whichever dance team is waiting for its turn to dance. Break dancers do impressive gymnastics and variations of the robot right in the viewers' face so as to fool us into thinking that we're not watching a group of very talented backup dancers in training. As one of the Pirates tells us, these kids are trying to combat that effect, trying to seem like legit rising stars rather than guys that would be lucky to audition for So You Think You Can Dance.
Not surprisingly, Chu's frenzied direction makes the dance scenes mostly incoherent. I couldn't tell who I was supposed to be watching doing what half the time, since none of the dancers' moves are distinct (every group apparently knows at least two versions of the robot) and the stakes in the dance scenes are bargain-basement low. None of the preliminary dance competitions leading up to the finale have authoritative judgments, rules, or a sense of tension to them beyond the unconvincing glares of a few feisty performers that run up to the camera as if to challenge it. Somewhere, Carlos Saura is weeping.
There's not a single false note that Step Up 3D doesn't hit. Everything about it reeks of clueless creative mismanagement. Chu and screenwriters Amy Andelson and Emily Meyere throw caution to the wind and treat their characters, plot, and actors as dispensable material and their yawn-inducing 3D dance scenes like something inherently unique, even groundbreaking. If only the film's stars, who constantly gush robotically about how their dancing allows them to better express themselves, had an identity beyond loud music-video theatrics.