April 7 2010 12:00 AM

3D: Back to stay — or a high-tech fad?

3D movies may be all the rage these days, but the craze is certainly nothing audiences haven’t seen before. Even as far back as the 1930s, filmmakers were testing the waters with novelty-short specialist Pete Smith’s “Audioskopics” and “Three-Dimensional Murder.”

But it took the threat of TV to spark the first real 3D boom. In 1952, the jungle adventure “Bwana Devil” promised to deliver “A lover in your arms! A lion in your lap!” and shock-seeking viewers lapped it up. Within months, movie houses were saturated with 3D spectaculars: “House of Wax,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “It Came From Outer Space” and many others far less noteworthy.

Still, within two years the thrill was gone. Any curiosity value the 3D process had was quickly exhausted for most moviegoers after they were showered with flaming arrows, clawed by monsters, splashed with water and pummeled by falling rocks in movie after movie. Headaches were also a common side-effect of early 3D technology, as out-of-sync or slightly unfocused projectors could create weird sights the filmmakers never intended.

With the exception of a few exploitation flicks like the X-rated “The Stewardesses” (which made a plane-load of money in the late 1960s and early 1970s), 3D essentially lay dormant until the summer of 1983 when the old technology could be marketed to a new generation. Again, the craze was short-lived: Although “Friday the 13th, Part 3” and the execrable “Jaws 3D” made some money, “Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn,” “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” and the fatuous Steve Guttenberg comedy “The Man Who Wasn’t There” were certifiable non-events. Even the seemingly sure-fire “Amityville 3D” barely brought in $6 million at the box office.

It seemed as if the verdict had been handed down once and for all. 3D was the cinematic equivalent of a carnival freak show; although people might pay to see it once, few went back for seconds.

That wisdom held true for the next 20 years. But suddenly, 3D is bigger than ever — and people are definitely seeing more than one attraction. Earlier this year, director James Cameron’s sweeping science-fiction romance “Avatar” became the top-grossing film in history. Just as “Avatar” seemed to be losing steam, director Tim Burton’s 3D “Alice in Wonderland” thundered into theaters; it’s already brought in more than $300 million. The animated feature “How to Train Your Dragon,” which opened less than two weeks ago, will have banked approximately $120 million by the end of this weekend, and “Clash of the Titans” — which, like “Alice,” was shot in 2D and converted to 3D — overcame lousy reviews and weak word-of-mouth to amass $64 million in its opening weekend.

Will we see history repeat once again, with 3D wearing out its welcome and disappearing? Don’t bet on it.

First of all, formats such as RealD have made 3D images sharper, clearer and more realistic than ever before, which, in turn, has coaxed theater owners into retrofitting cinemas with 3D technology. In addition, filmmakers have realized 3D movies can offer something more than a parade of flying objects and cheap scares. Look at the exquisite use of 3D in director Henry Selick’s creepy fairy tale “Coraline” last year, or how the Pixar animators employed the format to convey the spaciousness of the open sky and the textures of the jungle in “Up.”

The real difference 3D can make may become evident later this month, when “Avatar” arrives on DVD. I was treated to a high-definition preview clip a few weeks ago and I have to say my first thought was “high-quality Saturday morning TV.” The colors were still ravishing and the action was exciting, but on a smaller, flat screen I started to focus on the movie’s not-so-impressive elements, particularly the less-than-brilliant dialogue. In the theater, the shortcomings of the script were easily outweighed by sheer spectacle; at home, the scales seemed to tilt in the opposite direction.

The studios have leaned heavily on DVD sales to fill their coffers in recent years. But if “Avatar,” “Alice” and the like don’t play nearly as well at home as they did on the big screen, the result could be a sight studio executives don’t want to see in any dimension.

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