Gimmick or gamechanger? That’s the eternal debate when it comes to 3-D. Believe it or not, 3-D films are nearly as old as motion pictures themselves. (The first recorded efforts that attempted three-dimensional imagery on film date back to the 1890s). But the genre really came into its own in the 1950s, when 3-D was a full-blown pop culture phenomenon that was used for everything from schlocky B-movies to bona fide classics like House of Wax, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dial M for Murder — a picture that gave some short-lived legitimacy to the genre thanks to the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock. Like all fads, 3-D eventually faded away. But the idea remains so fascinating — seeing stars and stories leaping INTO YOUR FACE! — that every couple of decades 3-D movies return, touting technical advances that make it look more immersive than ever before.
When the 1980s came along, these pictures were seen as a way to get people into theaters as a way to combat the rise of cable television. (Echoing the original 3-D craze’s attempts to lure audiences away from traditional TV, which was then in its infancy). However, the ’80s didn’t exactly spawn the type of quality pictures that the ’50s did, with 3-D usually used for cheaply produced horror and sci-fi efforts. Thus, films like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Friday the 13th: Part 3-D, and the execrable Jaws 3-D being arguably the most noteworthy efforts from the decade…and films that have gone on to become cult classics in their own right. (Although usually for the wrong reasons).
Jump ahead to the 2000s, and 3-D was back again, better than ever. James Cameron‘s Avatar finally gave the genre artistic respectability among critics and ushered in the most recent wave of 3-D mania, which itself is odd seeing how the film itself is terrible and, despite being the second-most successful film of all time, has left behind no cultural impact. But the floodgates were open, and studios who were desperate to make more money in a time when the industry was hurting due to more entertainment options than ever before suddenly found themselves converting every potential blockbuster into a would-be 3-D masterpiece. But soon 3-D Blu-ray players hit the market, and viewers could have the ultimate motion picture experience from the comfort of their living room. Due to the cost however, this became a niche market with mixed results. Meanwhile, back at the cineplexes, it seems like we are in another 3-D downturn. Sure, there are still the major blockbusters being released in the format from time to time (Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse being the most successful effort in recent memory), but not to the degree they were even five years ago.
3-D is a scrappy thing. It will keep reinventing itself, keep changing the way we watch movies — especially with VR now available. But it will always be an entertaining, if imperfect, way to throw some additional razzle dazzle into the already damn impressive experience of watching movies.
What are your thoughts on 3-D? Share your opinions (and favorite films) in the comments!