The hurtling of in-your-face gimmicks may have defined the life and ultimate death of 3D in the 50's and 80's, but animated features like Coraline and Up showcased the great immersive qualities 3D can offer without those gimmicks. James Cameron's Avatar sealed the deal, and proved once and for all that 3D is a profitable investment for a studio.
Hollywood has over 32 movies and counting in their slate of upcoming 3D releases. Most of those 3D projects are action, fantasy, or animated movies, and 3D is well on its way to being the standard in those styles of filmmaking. Even while traditional 2D hand-drawn animation has seen a resurgence with last year's releases of Disney's Princess and the Frog, and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, movies like Beauty and the Beast are being converted -- quite successfully and beautifully from the tests I've seen -- into 3D as well.
So what about the character driven dramas? Could Oscar-Nominated movies like An Education and Precious benefit from the 3D treatment? Martin Scorsese certainly thinks so, and he's about as old-school as you can get when it comes to traditional storytelling through film, and has lived through the lesser incarnations of 3D that failed.
We see in depth, for the most part. We go to the theater — it’s in depth. Why couldn’t a film like Precious be in 3-D? It should be. I’d love to do one [so long as he can still move the camera the way he’d like to.] It just seems natural that we’d be going in that direction. It’s going to be something to look forward to, but to be used interestingly.
He's not alone. Jeffrey Katzenberg famously ranted about the business benefits of making any-and-all movies in 3D, but more so that people have to pay more to see them. Cameron, an innovator and builder of the technology itself, has heralded the more artistic value of it, referring to 3D as a whole new set of paints, likening it to the lighting of a film, rather than a gimmick. There are even theories out there that Cameron has passed along, that the new technology in 3D viewing "is so close to a real experience that it actually triggers memory creation in a way that 2-D viewing doesn't." Because of the stereoscopic viewing, your brain uses more neurons, which literally results in you remembering more of what is shown.
But there are 3D naysayers, like critic Roger Ebert, who has called 3D a "waste of a perfectly good dimension." He ellaborated further in a 2008 interview, saying:
[3D] creates a fatal break in the illusion of the film. The idea of a movie, even an animated one, is to convince us, halfway at least, that what we're seeing on the screen is sort of really happening. Images leaping off the screen destroy that illusion.
But even he gave Avatar a good review!
Quentin Tarantino also carries a torch for traditional 2D filmmaking. The Inglourious Basterds director owns the New Beverly, the only repertory house in Los Angeles, and boasted that he'll "burn the place down" before he shows anything there with digital projection (let alone 3D). But he admits, Avatar captures "the ride" that he wishes he could have accomplished in Kill Bill.
I think a 2D movie that does capture the "ride" experience is Buried, which is basically like the coffin sequence in Kill Bill, played out over an entire movie. The use of Hitchcock-style camera angles made the film a sick to your somach thrill ride... and only in two dimensions.
But even noir films, that are so high-contrast and so iconically flat and 2D, can be made into great 3D films, like Thomas Jane's Dark Country -- which was shamefully only seen in 3D by the 200 or so people at Long Beach Comic-Con, as the movie went straight to DVD afterwards.
3D will only get more popular, and utilized in more creative and subtle ways. But I think there will always be room for 2D films. Like technology, and anything else in film, 3D movies are only as good as their stories, and the storytellers.