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Depth charge

Why 3-D has come back to the multiplex, and why this sequel may be the last

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Tweens can enjoy Jonas Brothers in an extra dimension.
  • Tweens can enjoy Jonas Brothers in an extra dimension.

As part of a promotional push for its new animated feature Monsters vs. Aliens, Paramount/DreamWorks served up a three-dimensional commercial during the Super Bowl, made enjoyable via glasses given away at local stores. And at first glance, the future for theatrical 3-D might seem so bright, you gotta wear those polarized shades.

Following on the heels of Coraline, My Bloody Valentine and this week's Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, as many as 10 more 3-D films are scheduled for release in 2009. Recently, Disney/Pixar announced that all of its new animated features will be shot in 3-D, with DreamWorks following along. From horror films to action films, from kid flicks to concerts, it seems like you can't sit down in a theater without something jumping out of the screen at you.

Of course, we've been down this road before. In the early 1950s, Bwana Devil led a surge of 3-D films, mostly monster movies and gimmicky thrillers. Thirty years later, another wave of 3-D entertained another generation, including cheesy action flicks (Comin' At Ya!, Metalstorm) and a seemingly infinite number of "part 3s." Both fads lasted only a few years.

This time, however, it's supposed to be different. Digital projection technology has changed the game, replacing the old-school anaglyphic (red-and-blue) format that caused so many literal and figurative headaches. Consequently, filmmakers are providing a fully immersive experience, rather than simply throwing stuff at the audience. The Golden Age of 3-D, we are assured, is most definitely upon us.

A closer look, however, might darken the rosy perception. Both previous waves of 3-D emerged as responses to specific perceived threats to moviegoing. In the 1950s, it was the rise of television; in the 1980s, it was home video. Something had to change, studios believed, or people would sit at home for their entertainment.

This time around, the threat is high-definition TV combined with Blu-ray and home theater technology. As home viewing becomes more sophisticated, 3-D seems like a reasonable trick to get people to the theater. The problem is that the 3-D experience is becoming available for home viewing as well.

In previous years, 3-D films were not reproduced in a VHS or DVD format that permitted home 3-D viewing. That's not true in 2009, as recent movies, including Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Hannah Montana concert film Best of Both Worlds, made their DVD debuts in 3-D with glasses. Yes, they were the old-school red-and-blue glasses home viewing can't yet duplicate the refracting method of digital projection but it was still 3-D.

And that's why Super Bowl Sunday was a glimpse of the future: The studio made it simple for the 3-D experience to be duplicated on your TV. And with manufacturers showing prototypes for 3-D home theater at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the theater's monopoly seems soon to end.

There will certainly be an ongoing market for 3-D effects when it comes to the documentary films popular on IMAX and other large-format screens. But your neighborhood multiplex won't duplicate that experience. Enjoy those glasses in your theater seat while you can. The next time you wear them, you just might be stuck on your couch.

scene@csindy.com

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