Now that the top-grossing movie of all time was made in the format, it's kind of hard to claim that contemporary 3-D movie projection is just another fad. But in Newsweek, Roger Ebert says if you want three dimensions get yourself a View-Master:
3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood's current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets. Its image is noticeably darker than standard 2-D. It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose. For moviegoers in the PG-13 and R ranges, it only rarely provides an experience worth paying a premium for.
Jolly Roger is not (only) making a curmudgeon argument. He notes that the format diplays at low light levels; that it creates too much depth of focus (a hazard of digital photography as well, although that seems to have been solved by the Red camera); and that most projected 3-D is still just a series of overlapping 2-D images (that's what it's always looked like to me), which in turn can cause physical discomfort as your actual 3-D brain tries to adjust. Ebert has been a firebrand in the war over what the next big projection format will be, and he also makes the case that 3-D is getting in the way of better projection methods like MaxiVision 48 and Douglas Trumbull's very old Showscan. Finally, this is 3-D's second or third day in court—though clearly the current iteration seems to be a lot more successful than those of the fifties and the eighties.
Of the new batch of 3-D movies I have only seen Coraline, and that one may have been a retrofit done in 2-D and then tridimensionalized. There was really only one sequence, wherein Coraline gets chased through a giant spider web, in which the effect did add something to the material. I would have been inclined to dismiss the gimmick too, until Avatar made a bazillion dollars. But this may just be a Hollywood rule that everybody should have learned 13 years ago: Don't bet against James Cameron. (Also, since Ebert repeatedly hammers on the point about "grown-up films," I note that while my five-year-old really liked the movie, she took off the glasses halfway through, preferring just to watch the muddy double image.)
Ebert argues that technical innovation tends to be a sign of Hollywood in trouble, and he doesn't even bother mentioning Sensurround or Illusion-O. Every innovation has its downside, and one that requires you to spend an additional five bucks and wear stupid glasses on your head would seem to have more downside than most. Ebert—physically ravaged almost beyond comprehension but at the same time more mentally vigorous than ever thanks to the Twitters—is not just an old fart on the issue. When I was a kid they said movie theaters wouldn't exist by the 21st century, but what Fellini called the "collective dream" has survived and thrived, with and without these kinds of detours into total immersion.
Esquire's Chris Jones profiles the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls scribe in his silent, eating-deprived winter. (If you like that I recommend Too Far From Home, Jones' book about the three guys marooned on the International Space Station after the 2003 shuttle accident.) Here's Ebert in better days:
Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.