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Fish out your glasses! 3D movies are about to make a comeback

The much-hyped and much-delayed sequel to Avatar is set to bring about a return to 3D but are audiences interested?

Avatar 2 will be the riskiest film of the year for all sorts of reasons. There’s the issue of whether or not the public actually wants a 12-years-in-the-making sequel to a film that has retained no cultural cachet whatsoever. There’s the fact that, if it flops, James Cameron still has to release three more Avatar movies after this one. But most of all, Avatar 2 will have to convince us all to wear stupid 3D glasses again.

A decade ago, 3D was supposed to be the future of cinema. Thanks to the first Avatar, which used the technology to drop us into gorgeous, immersive alien landscapes, every big budget movie enthusiastically strapped itself to this new way of film-making. Peter Jackson made 3D films. Ridley Scott made a 3D film. Martin Scorsese made a 3D film. Ang Lee made a 3D film and won an Oscar for it, for crying out loud.

Sure, we were told, 3D might have started out as a 1950s gimmick, but this time it was going to be different. “3D is here to stay,” announced an arguably too bold Techcrunch piece from 2010. “To abandon it would be a boondoggle of proportions Hollywood is unwilling to make. And ten years from now, we’ll be looking back on a library not of a dozen, but of hundreds of 3D films, some of which (we may hope) will rise to the level of quality set by the classics of the past.”

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that things didn’t exactly shake out the way that Techcrunch thought. In reality, the new 3D revolution turned out to be yet another gimmick. The glasses were tight, uncomfortable and environmentally suspect. They hurt your eyes. They made the viewing experience darker. What’s more, the simple act of screening a film in 3D meant that cinemas were given free rein to hike up the price of a ticket beyond all measure. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the films themselves were actually often wildly superior in 2D, having been shoved through a lazy post-production 3D conversion as part of a dismal movie studio cash grab. Little wonder it died a death.

A still from Avatar: Way of the Water. Photograph: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Which isn’t to say that people stopped making 3D films altogether. They’re still being released; this year’s Doctor Strange had a 3D release, as did Dune, Encanto, Godzilla vs Kong and the last Star Wars movie. But the sense is that these are simply marginal sideshows, in 2017 accounting for just 17% of theatrical revenue. They exist if people want a slightly different experience, but they are by no means the definitive version of the film.k

In fact, 3D seems to have become just another way to rake in extra money. My local multiplex, for example, has just reopened after a refurbishment, and it now offers a mind-boggling array of viewing formats. You can watch films in 2D and 3D, but also Imax, 4DX (in which your seat flings you around in time with the action) and a monumentally stupid gimmick called ScreenX where, at various intervals through the film, the walls of the auditorium will glow with additional 270-degree wraparound footage. These are all clearly designed to combat the rise of day-and-date home releases – yes, you can watch The Matrix 4 on your sofa, but will it launch you about the room whenever there’s a car chase? – but they do all feel like the desperate fumbling of an industry in trouble.

And all of this is going to make it especially difficult for Avatar. It has been over a decade since it last had to educate audiences about 3D cinema, but now it finds itself in exactly the same position for the sequel. A recent Hollywood Reporter article quoted the Imax Entertainment president, Megan Colligan, as saying “Warming up 3D has to be done thoughtfully and carefully,” adding that “There were a lot of lessons learned” during the last 3D boom. The producers of Avatar 2, and the cinema industry in general, seem to be especially keen to stop 3D from becoming a gimmick again. We won’t know how successful they’ll be for another 10 years. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that we probably shouldn’t get too excited.


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