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Chris Hicks: If all else fails, try a gimmick from the '50s

FILMMAKERS TODAY are serious about the movies they make. It takes talent, hard work and big money to develop widescreen, digital motion pictures that appeal to 21st century audiences.

Let's face it. Filmgoers these days are too cosmopolitan to settle for the simple efforts that entertained primitive audiences in, say, the 1950s.

So those who make movies today — especially pictures financed by major studios — are always on the lookout for something to add depth to the material in order to appeal to modern sophisticates.

Of course, they can't be bothered with such pesky minutiae as compelling stories and character development. It's important to quickly latch onto the next big thing, some giant leap forward that will appeal to the taste of up-to-date viewers.

Like 3-D.

Really? This is the best that 21st century movies can come up with? A revival of an ancient gimmick that's already been revived so many times I thought — hoped — it had finally gone away?

Three-D movies, of course, are viewed with special glasses to give the illusion of depth — and the process also gives license to filmmakers to throw things at the audience.

The first 3-D movie I remember seeing was "Creature From the Black Lagoon" in 1954 when I was 6. Watching a 3-D movie then was a lot like reading a 3-D comic book, right down to the cardboard glasses with tinted plastic lenses.

In fact, the glasses were more colorful than the movie, "Creature" being in black and white.

"House of Wax" had been released the year before but I wasn't allowed to go to that one. My mother had read that it was bloody — and in color! So I caught up with it a few years later when I was a little older and a local theater was doing a 3-D revival series.

It's telling that the 3-D effect that stuck with me longest had nothing to do with the story. It was the barker in front of the museum who is hitting a paddleball when he turns to the camera and says he's aiming at a viewer's bag of popcorn. Corny, amusing and completely unnecessary.

This era wasn't the first time the process was exhibited; it actually dates back to the silent era. But the '50s marked the first period when it caught on as a fad — if only for a couple of years — and the major studios jumped in with sci-fi ("It Came From Outer Space"), Westerns ("Hondo"), soap-opera romance ("Sangaree"), even an Alfred Hitchcock thriller ("Dial M for Murder") — although by the time Hitchcock's film was ready the fad had faded and his film was released flat.

During the 1960s and '70s there were occasional 3-D films, mostly exploitation, as with "The Stewardesses" and "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein."

Then, in the early 1980s, when I was a fledgling movie critic, there was a serious revival, to include re-issues of "House of Wax" and, for the first time, a 3-D release of "Dial M for Murder."

But mostly they were cheesy genre pictures that are hardly worth remembering, often taking advantage of their "third in a series" status, as with "Amityville 3-D," "Friday the 13th, Part III" and "Jaws 3-D." But also "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and the Indiana Jones-style Western "Comin' at Ya!"

It should be noted that the 3-D effects in these movies were actually quite good but the movies themselves were awful, with lousy scripts and unimaginative direction. Once again the fad died out, not because the effects weren't good but because the movies weren't good.

In the current revival of 3-D there are better movies being made — the chief example being "Up," which I feel is the year's best picture so far. But once again, the gimmick is relegated primarily to the same old genre junk — silly kids movies ("Monsters vs. Aliens," "G-Force"), gory horror ("My Bloody Valentine," "The Final Destination") and stupid remakes ("Journey to the Center of the Earth").

And once again, the improved 3-D effects are better than the movies in most cases.

But to my way of thinking there is one vast improvement over 3-D movies of the past. Back then, a 3-D movie could only be seen in one theater, as single-screen movie houses dominated the moviegoing landscape.

Today, 3-D movies are also being released in flat versions shown in the same multiple-theater facilities.

So when a movie like "Up" comes along, you have the option of skipping the sometimes headache-inducing 3-D version and seeing it flat in a neighboring auditorium.

And isn't it nice to know the modern multiplex is good for something?

e-mail: hicks@desnews.com