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3-D or not 3-D: The question is, in which movies does it really make a difference?

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dragon-avatarImage Credit: DreamWorks Animation (top); WETA (bottom)If you’re judging solely from the box office returns, then the future of 3-D movies now looks very rosy indeed. This weekend, audiences lined up for a veritable trilogy of 3-D spectaculars — Clash of the Titans, How to Train Your Dragon, and Alice in Wonderland (still chugging along in its fifth week). It’s telling that in two of those films (Clash of the Titans and Alice), the 3-D was added after the movie was shot — which, to put it mildly, kind of cuts down on the awesome visual magic. Did audiences care? Evidently not. Either way, it’s safe to say that the technological novelty of it all has tantalized a great many viewers with incredible force. People who go to see a 3-D movie today are expecting more entertainment bang for their buck (and, in many cases, shelling out a few bucks more for the privilege), and what the numbers add up to thus far is this: They believe that they’re getting it.

But let’s consider the 3-D landscape, for just a minute, by looking at it through the other end of the ViewMaster. When I think about every single 3-D movie that’s been released over the last few years, I now tend to place them in one of two categories: (1) movies in which the 3-D was an absolutely vital, exciting, and essential element of the experience; and (2) those in which it was essentially window dressing — where I would have been just as happy, and felt as though I was having the same basic experience, if I’d watched it at home 4 months later on non-3-D DVD. And when I think about those two categories, especially in the wake of Avatar, which whatever misgivings I may have about it as a movie set the bar stunningly high for 3-D imagery, I discover that the number of films I can place in that first category, where the 3-D was completely integral to the experience, is very, very small.

That list would include: Avatar, now the official granddaddy of in-your-face sensual spectacle; the touching and marvelously kinetic How to Train Your Dragon, with its flying sequences that outdo any Quidditch match by literally making you feel as if there’s open sky on every side of you; the punchy and buoyant and hurtling Beowulf; and about three spider-leggy minutes of Coraline. (Don’t get me wrong: I loved every minute of Coraline. I just didn’t find that it was truly any different in 2-D.) And this all leads me to speculate that the true future of 3-D is going to depend not on movies where that extra layer of visual oomph! is ultimately a take-it-of-leave-it thing (or a slapdash added-value gimmick as it was in Clash of the Titans), but where it all but defines the experience. And those movies may be a lot trickier to come up with, at least on a consistent basis, than a lot of people in Hollywood think. If for every Avatar there are 6 movies in which the coolest 3-D effect makes you go, “Pass the popcorn,” then a “revolution” is going, slowly but inevitably, to start passing into a fad.

Of course, the very existence of 3-D quickies like Clash reflects the current transitional moment we’re in. The more that 3-D movies really get planned, the less that conventional films (and all audiences) will have to be subjected to the bastardized 3-D-after-the-fact process (2-and-a-half-D?) that turns a Clash or an Alice into the immersive equivalent of a shrug. Right now, though, the very success of those films is something that Hollywood needs to treat warily. If it indicates anything, it’s that the hunger for the sheer novelty of 3-D is so intense right now that it can magnetize people to the box office. That novelty won’t last forever. In fact, in an ADD culture, it could come to seem like yesterday’s news — yesterday’s toy — very quickly. At that point, Hollywood will have to make surer than ever that the movies it markets as 3-D are truly offering an extra dimension.

So aside from Avatar, which films do you think have made 3-D essential? And which 3-D movies, even if you liked them as movies, would have been more or less the same in 2-D? And do you think that 3-D is a revolution that’s here to stay, or a novelty that’s destined, over time, to lose its luster?