3-D Takes a Giant Leap Into the Future

Photo: Movie still: Monsters vs. Aliens

Hollywood is looking at the future through tinted plastic glasses.

"My Bloody Valentine," "Coraline" and the Jonas Brothers concert film were just warm-up acts. The attack of the 3-D movie revival begins in earnest next Friday when "Monsters vs. Aliens," the latest computer-animated funhouse from DreamWorks, is launched into theaters.

At least 12 other titles will follow this year, including such milestones as Up, Pixar's first foray in the format; "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," a rare chance to see that disaster-prone Scrat get flattened in 3-D; and "Avatar," James Cameron's return to feature filmmaking after a 12-year hiatus that will attempt to do for live-action futuristic thrillers what his Titanic did for sinking ships.

If ever a digital-age update on what was once an Ike-era novelty were going to take hold — and persuade more theater operators to invest upward of $100,000 to convert to the technology — it is now, with such already anticipated titles ready to give it a real workout.

"What's going to happen in the next few months is that theater owners will ask themselves, 'Do I want to be the guy watching cars drive by to a screen down the road?' " predicts Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which is behind both the "Ice Age" sequel and the Cameron release. "With 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and 'Ice Age' ramping up to 'Avatar,' there will come a tipping point."

Studios seem to have at least solved most quality issues. While DreamWorks (aka the House that "Shrek" Built), has taken longer to join the 3-D revolution than Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony, the wait apparently was worth it, if early reactions to "Monsters" are any indication.

Families who packed a recent screening chuckled their way through the sci-fi shenanigans as a gang of misfit creatures led by Susan, a 49-foot-11 1/2-inch woman with the vocal spunk of Reese Witherspoon, battles a teeny four-eyed squid man from another planet. But it was the visual effects, such as the galactic blast that caused smoky spirals and fiery rocks to shoot into the audience, that earned the biggest reactions.

They ooohed. They aaahed. And at least one youthful voice was heard paying the ultimate compliment: "Cooooool!"

Not just an afterthought

Until recently, most 3-D fare produced for non-IMAX movie screens was an afterthought, converted from 2-D. Monsters, however, was designed and filmed with added dimension in mind. "What better movie to do in 3-D," says director Conrad Vernon, referring to his sci-fi spoof's allusions to B-movies from the '50s. "It felt like perfect timing."

But even though he and fellow director Rob Letterman borrowed from such old-school 3-D scare fare as "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "House of Wax," they tried to avoid the trap of overdoing the depth-defying tricks. "We didn't want it to be a gimmick," Letterman says. "We wanted to use it as a tool and made decisions based on the medium. A gimmick will run out of steam quickly."

The difference, at least to those at the preview, was discernable.

"The effects were coming out at you," enthused Alex Lundgren, 9, of Great Falls, Va. "It felt like you were exactly right there. In other movies, it was like they were just popping out. This one was more real to life."

David West III, 11, of Sterling, Va., agreed: "This is probably the best 3-D movie I have seen. There was more detail."

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