Despite continual reports of its waxing and waning subsequent to the release of Avatar in 2009, 3D cinema exhibition remains a mainstream practice, especially for larger budgeted Hollywood blockbusters. Major industry directors continue to adopt the technology, their positive response to it deployed as a marketing strategy for both their films and for 3D in general. Audience complaints about 3D are well rehearsed: the glasses are annoying, it can cause headaches, and it is frequently used as a way of increasing the cost of cinema tickets. Poor quality conversions into 3D of films conceptualized and shot without the medium in mind have added to this feeling of malaise.
Yet considerations of 3D which focus solely on its economic and commercial properties do not offer a comprehensive engagement with what is becoming (or has become) a major factor in the way a large proportion of audiences experience a hegemonic filmmaking practice. Understandings of 3D as an exhibition strategy need to be augmented by an inquiry into 3D as an aesthetic practice. Readings of existing film studies work on the 3D films of the 1950s should be bolstered by an awareness of changes in film production, style and reception in the intervening period. The use (and selling) of 3D imagery makes more fraught the already complex relationship between narrative and spectacle in Hollywood cinema, as its use frequently recalls the de-contextualized pleasures of the ‘cinema of attractions’ even as the marketing proclaims its immersive qualities. It also remains to be fully debated whether 3D is anathema to the style of intensified continuity or a way of making this contemporary dominant of shot composition and editing methods more – rather than less – legible. It is pertinent to question whether the application of a phenomenological model to the examination of 3D viewing may offer a fruitful avenue for more fully theorized accounts of the experience.
The perennial rise and fall of 3D makes its dismissal or marginalization in critical circles tempting; however, attention to the aesthetic and expressive possibilities of the medium in tandem with an awareness of the economics of its deployment offers a fuller understanding of the stylistics of contemporary cinema, the mode of address during exhibition, and the demands and expectations of audiences.