For years, 3-D movies have been the Rodney Dangerfields of cinema: amusing, intriguing but certainly not to be taken seriously.
They were OK for 1950s-film revivals, or as amusement-park attractions, or for big-screen IMAX presentations where audiences could oooh and ahhh over whales presented life-size and the water from their blowholes practically spraying you in the face.
But now the cheap thrills of 3-D are evolving into something smarter and maybe even a little more subtle. Increasingly movies - including two out next month - are banking on a level of 3-D depth that promises to go beyond gimmicky and become a new way of storytelling.
In Journey to the Center of the Earth, based on Jules Verne's 1864 intra-terrestrial adventure, star Brendan Fraser races across cracking lava fields that extend right up to the edge of the audience, while co-star Josh Hutcherson dangles from an improvised kite that seems to be soaring directly overhead.
In Fly Me to Moon, animated dragonflies hover just inches from the viewer's nose, and Apollo rocket ships roaring into the heavens are so close, one could almost reach out and hitch a ride.
"3-D allows you to have a more emotional experience, triggering sensory perceptions that you've just never had before," says Cary Granat, co-CEO of Walden Media, whose 3-D live-action version of Journey opens July 11. "We're not talking about the pop-out 3-D from horror films in the 1950s. We're talking about immersing you in a frame."
Adds director Ben Stassen, whose animated flies-in-space adventure, Fly Me to the Moon, opens Aug. 8, "I think that 3-D will be the new language of cinema."
The depth-defining process, with its promise of characters that almost literally jump off the screen, "is nothing less than the greatest adventure that has happened to all of us in the movie business since the advent of color 70 years ago," Dreamworks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg told a meeting of national and international theater owners in May.
In fact, Katzenberg is so sold on 3-D, he has decreed that all his studio's features will be released with the added dimension, beginning with March 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens and including 2010's Shrek 4. Disney has made a similar commitment for its computer-animated films, beginning with November's Bolt.
Other prominent filmmakers share Katzenberg's enthusiasm. Director James Cameron, who hasn't made a feature film since breaking every box office record in the universe with 1997's Titanic, is set to return to theaters in 2009 with a 3-D sci-fi extravaganza called Avatar. And Tim Burton is working on a 3-D version of Alice In Wonderland, set for a 2010 release.
"People have a real desire for 3-D product, to see things differently, in a more unique way," Granat says. "It's a whole different experience."
Whereas old-time 3-D was meant to impress audiences, proponents of the new technology say, the idea now is to involve them.
When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Dial M for Murder in 3-D in 1954, he, almost alone among his peers, saw the process not as a gimmick, but a tool. He used obvious 3-D sparingly - only twice in the entire film, really, including when Grace Kelly thrusts her hand out while being attacked, as if imploring the audience for help. Such restraint added to the scenes' power by not allowing the audience to grow weary of the effect. For much of the film, the added dimension was used simply to add depth to the scene, to increase the viewer's sense of involvement, to enrich.
Filmmakers like Stassen and Journey director Erik Brevig are trying to follow Hitchcock's example.
"Not only am I blocking a scene so that it's interesting in 2D," says Brevig, "but I'm actually using depth, having things in the distant background, having things in the mid-ground and foreground, that will be aesthetically pleasing or delightful or surprising or shocking to the audience. I can use depth as one of my storytelling tools."
But 3-D movies, whose origins go back more than 80 years and which enjoyed their heyday more than a half-century ago, have never been more than curiosities.
In recent years, a handful of films have been released in 3-D, beginning with 2003's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and extending to last year's Beowulf. Improved technology has made the 3-D effects more realistic, and made the movies themselves easier on the eyes. Even though audiences still have to wear the funny glasses, they're less likely to suffer from eye strain than moviegoers of the 1950s.
More important, the movies made money. Spy Kids 3-D, with a budget of less than $40 million, grossed $111.8 million when it was released in the U.S. Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express, which had a limited 3-D release, brought in $45 million on just 64 screens, says Stassen - a substantial chunk of the $162.8 million it realized during its initial U.S. release in 2004-2005.
"That's when Hollywood started saying, 'Maybe there is something there in 3-D,'" says Stassen, whose Brussels-based nWave Pictures has been producing 3-D films for amusement parks and other niche uses since 1994. "The trigger was what happened in 2003."
That, and technological improvements that made 3-D more practical than ever. When first developed in the 1950s, 3-D film exhibition required a dual-projection system, with two projectors running simultaneously (a system Baltimore's Charles Theatre uses when vintage 3-D films are shown there). By the 1980s, when the process enjoyed a brief revival, a single projector could be used, although purists still insist the resulting picture was far inferior.
If this truly is 3-D's time to shine, it has digital technology to thank. Theaters equipped to project their movies digitally, rather than off traditional celluloid, can be fitted with the equipment necessary to show films in 3-D for between $30,000 and $40,000. Converting a traditional projection system to digital adds another $100,000 to the cost.
Digital technology eliminates the need to synchronize separate reels of film, as well as other technical problems that could easily give entire audiences eye-strain headaches. About 1,000 theater screens in North America are ready to handle digital 3-D projection.
The glasses, too, have been improved. Two of the three companies whose 3-D technology is used in theaters provide reusable glasses, substantial pieces of plastic that may still look funny, but feel just fine. The third, called RealD, uses disposable glasses that are large enough to fit over prescription eyeglasses and sit comfortably on the viewer's nose -- a vast improvement over the flimsy cardboard glasses that both rarely stayed in place and tended to pinch.
"Digital 3-D has been a revolution," Stassen says. "Here, at long last, is a technical platform that will be able to show high-quality 3-D films in theaters, and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg for exhibitors."
Even if 3-D movies are finally here to stay, filmmakers and critics disagree on just how pervasive it will become. Will it be used only for selected movies, perhaps animated films and intense-action flicks? Or will there come a day when the next Martin Scorsese gangster drama or Garry Marshall romantic comedy will be shot in 3-D as well?
"In my opinion, 3-D is an abomination," film critic Roger Ebert says. "2D is just as effective, and less distracting. 3-D is best at throwing things at the audience. 3-D does not work for drama or serious films."
Critic and author David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) adds, "Some 3-D films are quite pretty and quite fun and pleasing, but it never really makes people say, 'Well, all films should be like that.' For a moment, you might bring 3-D back as a craze, but that's all."
Journey's Granat, not surprisingly, begs to differ. For some movies, he believes, 3-D is a natural fit, and one that audiences will eventually come to expect.
"I don't think films like The Departed or In the Bedroom, these great dramas, need to be in 3-D, I just don't," he says. "But I think there will be a certain category of films that will be perfect for 3-D, films that take you somewhere, that take you to a new place you've never been."
Brevig goes even further.
"I think any movie benefits from being in 3-D," he says. "I know this from looking at sequences in my film that have nothing of a spectacular nature about them. But watching them in 3-D, I feel so much more engaged in the characters. ... For me, it's just so much more interesting to watch."
Milestones in 3-D: The original pop-up video
Jerry Lewis in 3-D! The Korean War in 3-D! The Frankenstein Monster in 3-D! Even naked stewardesses in 3-D! Hollywood has been trying to sell movie audiences on the third dimension for more than half a century. Every couple of decades or so, a rush of 3-D product starts hitting the screens, billing itself as the next big thing in movie technology. So far, the hype has never quite matched the reality. But each era has produced extra-dimensional gems worth seeking out:
* The Golden Age, 1949-1954: The must-see movie from this bunch is Andre de Toth's 1953 House of Wax, starring Vincent Price as the proprietor of one of history's most realistic wax museums and Phyllis Kirk as the unlucky girl with a fatal resemblance to Joan of Arc. Corpses rise from the audience, murderous assistants leap out of the screen and a guy with a paddle-ball tries to steal your popcorn.
* The Revival, 1981-1985: Taking advantage of changes in both cinematic standards and public tastes, filmmakers emphasized the outrageous over the merely surprising. The unquestioned highlight: In 1982's Friday the 13th Part III, Jason takes an unfortunate guy's head, places one hand over each ear and starts squeezing, with results that are literally eye-popping.
* The Third Wave, 2003-present: It's hard to judge a crop of 3-D flicks that are just starting to show up in theaters, but James Cameron's 2003 documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss, offered a mesmerizing tour of the wreck of the Titanic that was tantalizingly close to actually being inside the derelict ship.
The first 3-D feature, The Power of Love, is released. No prints are known to survive.
Generally regarded as the first 3-D feature film, Bwana Devil, starring Robert Stack (TV's The Untouchables) and some man-eating lions, kicks off the Golden Age of 3-D filmmaking.
The 3-D fad takes hold, as more than 60 shorts and feature-length films are released, including House of Wax; It Came From Outer Space; Kiss Me, Kate; Hondo (with John Wayne) and Cease Fire, which was partially shot on the front lines of the Korean War.
Even Alfred Hitchcock gets into the 3-D act, with Dial M for Murder. But the bloom is coming off the rose; only about 20 3-D films are released. In 1955, the number drops to fewer than a half-dozen.
Porn in 3-D, with the release of The Stewardesses.
Andy Warhol joins the fray, lending his name as producer to Paul Morrissey's gorefest, Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein). A portent of what was to come.
The appropriately named Comin' at Ya ushers in a brief 3-D revival, of mostly grade-B horror titles and sequels: Parasite, Friday the 13th Part III, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Jaws 3-D.
Transitions, a 20-minute collection of three-dimensional images, is the first film released in IMAX 3-D.
James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss takes IMAX audiences to the ocean floor and the wreck of the Titanic.
Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express is shown in 3-D in selected theaters, in conventional 2-D everywhere else.
U2 3D adds a third dimension to the concert-film-going experience.