3D movies! They've been around, in one form or another, almost as long as cinema itself. But for every prestige film like Avatar that pushes the medium to new heights, there are a dozen Piranha 3Ds. Thank god.
Take a look back at the first wave of films in 3D and see which names resonate: It Came From Outer Space (1953). Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Jaws 3D (1983). Nightmare on Elm Street 6 (1991). These have been, until very recently, 3D's legacy, along with the even schlockier stuff—Cat Women of the Moon (1953), say. Gorilla at Large (1954).
In fact, it's safe to say that the only critically lauded 3D movies of the 20th century were successful in spite of the technology. As New Yorker critic Anthony Lane points out:
We still cling to Dial M for Murder but mainly for Grace Kelly, and for Hitchcock's masterly handling of her trial scene. To be fair, Kiss Me Kate the M-G-M musical with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, was a 3-D hit, though mainly for the Cole Porter songs, like "Always True to You in My Fashion" and "Too Darn Hot," which existed long before the movie did and will resound after it has crumbled into dust.
What the producers of the last fifty years seemed to realize, and what we're slowly losing sight of, is that 3D doesn't make movies feel more real. It accentuates movies where the artifice is out in the open. 3D itself is pulp. Which is why it will also be better served by Final Destination: Death Trip 3D (2009) than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007).
That's why I'm so excited for today's release of Piranha 3D. You know the one, right?
A movie like Piranha 3D carries no pretense of reality, and shock effects—like a fanged fish flying at your face—are played for laughs. 3D itself is a wink. It's camp. And the only exception you can really point to, Avatar, is a movie about space cat people fighting giant mechs. Not exactly Remains of the Day.
It's the same reason it's hard to find a 2D animated movie these days; a cartoon is by definition artificial. Although I'd have preferred to watch Toy Story 3 at my local theater without having to wear cheap sunglasses.
So as 3D technology becomes more sophisticated, and more and more movie studios and theaters try to shove an extra dimension down our throats, I'm comforted by the knowledge that it's never going to infiltrate the A list. And that the B list will have never been better/worse.