In 1952, television was increasingly keeping people on the couch and out of movie theaters, so Hollywood desperately turned to a process called “Naturalvision,” and 3-D movies were born. Convinced that their best hope to win audiences back was by making things leap off the screen, dozens of 3-D movies were greenlit immediately. But just a few years later, bad scripts and gimmickry had effectively killed the fad.
These days, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” is riding high at the box office for the second straight frame, the “Toy Story” films are being re-released this weekend in three dimensions, and such high-profile blockbusters as “Avatar,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Alice in Wonderland” will all be coming at you soon, complete with their own funky eyeglasses. With TV and the Internet stealing eyeballs, theater owners are once again turning to 3-D, hoping that the results will this time be more fruitful and longer-lasting.
With that in mind, we present this list of the most notable 3-D films of all time — along with our hopes that the genre’s not-so-“Cloudy” outlook is a sign of good things to come.
“Bwana Devil” (1952) — The first feature-length movie in 3-D helped launch the craze in the early ’50s. Starring Robert Stack, the drama about the building of the Uganda Railway may seem like an unusual 3-D topic now. But its tagline’s promise to put “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” set an exploitative precedent that would stick with the genre right up to “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” and its insistence that “Nothing says ’date movie’ like a 3-D ride to hell!” Some things, it seems, never change.
“House of Wax” (1953) — Arguably the most successful of the “golden era” 3-D films, this Vincent Price thriller was remade a few years ago in 2-D starring Paris Hilton. The original holds up surprisingly well as a horror flick, and some scenes are good for a few laughs — most notably, a hilarious out-of-left-field sequence that has a carnival barker doing tricks and “addressing” the audience. If only Paris had been so creative.
“Spooks!” and “Pardon My Backfire” (1953) — Yep, even the Three Stooges got into the act. Their 148th and 149th short films were shot in 3-D and had Moe, Larry and Shemp working as private detectives and auto mechanics and — more important — throwing various objects at us. Exploitative? Poorly conceived? A guilty pleasure? Why, soitenly!
“The Stewardesses” (1969) — The most profitable 3-D movie of all time, this softcore flick about the sexy misadventures of trans-Pacific airline attendants cost $100,000, grossed more than $27 million and ran in theaters for years. Also notable for being reshot and re-edited while playing in theaters (to lighten its X rating to an R for wider audiences), “The Stewardesses” was recently released on DVD with 3-D glasses included and is estimated to have now grossed more than 300 times its budget.
“Friday the 13th: Part III” (1982), “Jaws 3-D” (1983) and “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” (1991) — Serving as placeholders for the 3-D genre between the old “golden era” and the new one, these films had several things in common: They were part of hugely successful series, they were unapologetically stuffed with gimmicks, and they kinda sucked. But for sheer fun, the monotony of bad horror movies was broken up nicely by 3-D every few years in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over” (2003) — The first full-length narrative film to use the “new” 3-D, Robert Rodriguez’s third “Spy Kids” film teamed with James Cameron’s “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep” to show audiences and filmmakers how far the technology had come.
“Beowulf” (2007) — Mixing newfangled technology with one of the oldest tales in human history, Robert Zemeckis’ film had a $28 million opening weekend that showed audiences were indeed interested in photo-realistic 3-D event movies. An eye-popping sequence that had a nude Angelina Jolie seducing the audience showed that as far as the genre has come, “The Stewardesses” will never be far away.
“Coraline” (2009) — Why is this a landmark 3-D film? Because it was really, really good. Neil Gaiman’s tale of a little girl tempted by a not-so-perfect family was the perfect vehicle for the medium. Director Henry Selick seized upon it, and the result was an instant classic that transported the audience into an extremely vivid, creative world. If the new wave of 3-D filmmakers hopes to avoid the mistakes of their early predecessors, they’ll need to make more films like “Coraline.”
“Up” (2009) — The reason why “Up” is quite possibly the greatest 3-D movie ever made is because it wasn’t designed to be a 3-D film. Rather than throwing gimmicks at the audience, Pixar concentrated on doing what it does best: tell a good story. Those who saw it in 3-D this past summer, however, got to soar high with old-timer Carl Fredrickson, little Russell and all those beautiful balloons. Filmmakers like Jon Favreau took notice, and now it appears that we may not be too far away from our first 3-D superhero film.
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