3D movies are great, actually

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Recently, one of my TechRadar colleagues declared that 3D movies are dead and they need to stay dead, and while he does make some interesting points, I must disagree wholeheartedly.

The above article was, of course, largely spurred by the upcoming release of Avatar: The Way of Water, sequel to the 2009 science fiction action-adventure megahit which has so far earned more than $2.8 billion at the global box. Despite being momentarily dethroned by Avengers: Endgame, Avatar has since managed to regain and retain its spot as the highest grossing movie of all time.

Last week, I was invited to get an early look at the trailer for its sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, ahead of a preview screening for Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness

Presented in 3D, the trailer was played on loop for half an hour, allowing me to stick around and watch it a few times. Surprisingly (for some at least), I came away from the experience excited about the prospect of see a big 3D movie at the cinema again. Here's why.

Cinemas need 3D

It's no secret that the moviegoing experience has changed significantly over the last few years. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced theaters all of over the world to close for months on end, the kind of movie that would be considered suitable for theatrical release had become more narrow by definition. 

Chances are that superhero movies and animated kids films got most of the screens at your local multiplex, while original films were given a handful of sessions per week before shuffling off to one of the various streaming services.

And while theaters have mostly returned to the way things were before the pandemic, audiences have arguably grown further away from the theatrical experience. 

Over the last couple of years, it became normal for big budget blockbusters to release first on streaming services like HBO Max and Disney Plus, and audiences got used to that kind of convenience.

Theatrical release windows may have returned, but they're shorter than ever now, meaning audiences need an even more compelling reason to leave the house to see a movie – why deal with inflated ticket prices and risk getting sick when you can simply wait 45 days?

On top of this, it's now normal to see movie-quality Marvel and Star Wars TV shows on a weekly basis, making a trip to the cinema to see a feature-length version of the same thing less of a draw than it once was. 

These reasons and more are why cinemas need 3D to make a comeback. Not only is 3D an experience you can't really get at home anymore, with TV manufacturers having abandoned the technology years ago, it also gives films back their event status – well-implemented 3D, in my opinion, can be enough of a reason to go see a movie at the theater rather than just wait a short while for its streaming release.

Don't underestimate the appeal of Avatar

Which brings us to Avatar: The Way of Water. It's a film that many have spent the last few years underestimating, mistaking the original Avatar's absence from their Twitter feed as proof that the film lacks lasting cultural appeal. 

Obviously, this is a ridiculous argument – if a film's ongoing social media presence actually proved anything, then Zack Snyder's Justice League would be the most culturally significant movie in the history of cinema!

Perhaps Avatar's absence from social media has more to do with the fact that its IP has yet to be exploited into oblivion – something which could prove hugely beneficial to its sequel. Unlike superhero movies, audiences aren't fatigued by Avatar, because there's really only been one film. Moviegoers weren't forced to keep up with countless entries in a cinematic universe in order to keep up with the plot.

Despite the cutting-edge technology that makes James Cameron's Avatar movies possible, their release strategy is refreshingly old-fashioned. Avatar: The Way of Water is simply a sequel to a movie that came out over a decade ago, one which relies on viewers' love for the original film and their memories of what it was like to see it on the big screen. Needless to say, 3D played a large part in that experience.

A reminder of a better time

As I made my way into the theater to watch the trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water, I was surprised to find that the mere act of grabbing a pair of 3D glasses had filled me with nostalgia. While I can't remember what the last 3D movie I saw in a cinema was, putting these glasses on again immediately transported me back to 2009 – a time when audiences still got excited about seeing original films on the big screen. 

It was a great time to be a movie buff. Original films like Avatar, Inglourious Basterds and District 9 came out within weeks of each other and earned big at the box office. People were less concerned about which studio owned this property or that character – they just wanted to see epic stories play out on the biggest canvas possible. That some of these movies were in 3D just made the act of seeing them even more exciting.

It was also a time before streaming services. Movies had yet to be reduced to 'content' on a streaming calendar – something to be watched and then quickly forgotten. These days, people are spoilt for choice for movies to stream at home, although as discussed above, many of these streaming debuts aren't likely to inspire people to leave their homes if released theatrically.

So as I sat down to watch the watch trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water, I was reminded of how exciting it was to watch the original all those years ago, and how watching it in 3D was a game-changing experience.

Although the film's plot was hardly ground-breaking, treading much of the same ground as Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, its presentation was truly revolutionary, inviting audiences to become fully immersed within a gorgeous alien world. While moviegoers may be split when it comes to the quality of Avatar's story, most will agree that its 3D presentation was excellent.

Watching the new trailer also made me realise that we're now far enough away from the glory days of 3D for the format to inspire nostalgia again.

People only hate bad 3D

I would be lying if I said that every experience I had watching a 3D movie at the cinema was a good one. Some were downright lousy – Fright Night 3D was one of the worst movie-going experiences I ever had, due in large part to the dark and murky film having no right to be converted into 3D in the first place.

Which brings me to my next point: while many people claim to hate seeing 3D movies at the cinema, what they really mean is that they hate paying extra to see bad 3D. 

When a movie is actually shot using proper 3D cameras and is photographed with 3D in mind, the end result is infinitely better than a film that was converted into 3D after the fact. The former is a result of filmmakers pushing the envelope of what 3D can bring to a film, while the latter is the result of greedy studios wanting to add a 3D surcharge to ticket prices. 

It's these post-converted 3D films which ruined the reputation of the format. If 3D had been reserved exclusively for the films which used it well, like Gravity, Life of Pi, How To Train Your Dragon and Alita: Battle Angel, there probably wouldn't have been a 3D backlash.

It's my opinion that 3D films will not come back in the same huge way that they did after the first Avatar – and that's absolutely a good thing. Hopefully, the release of Avatar: The Way of Water will remind people of how powerful 3D can be when done right, and will inspire directors use the technology only when it serves their vision.

Stephen Lambrechts
Senior Journalist, Phones and Entertainment

Stephen primarily covers phones and entertainment for TechRadar's Australian team, and has written professionally across the categories of tech, film, television and gaming in both print and online for over a decade. He's obsessed with smartphones, televisions, consoles and gaming PCs, and has a deep-seated desire to consume all forms of media at the highest quality possible. 

He's also likely to talk a person’s ear off at the mere mention of Android, cats, retro sneaker releases, travelling and physical media, such as vinyl and boutique Blu-ray releases. Right now, he's most excited about QD-OLED technology, The Batman and Hellblade 2: Senua's Saga.