While 3D has been an aspect of the movie theater experience since the 1950s, the technology has become a vital aspect to many filmgoers in the 21st century. While classic 3D movies featured the screen being broken to have images fly out, modern 3D movies favor a more subtle approach, one that provides a greater sense of depth and invites the viewers to another aspect of film immersion.
For some, 3D is just a fad, but for others, it is as important to the viewing experience as sound or if someone chooses to pay extra for the IMAX experience. 3D certainly got a bad rap following a string of quickly done conversions with rushed post-production, like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender which made the films look darker and almost unwatchable. Yet now, even films not filmed in 3D are given enough prep time to plan their 3D conversions to where it can look impressive, so much so that the 1975 classic Jaws was re-released in 3D for the first time and many viewers were impressed by it.
3D is back in the spotlight with the upcoming release of Avatar: The Way of Water and with that in mind, these are the best modern 3D movies that use the technology to the best possible form.
8 Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 was released 11 years after Toy Story 2. Pixar’s animation had improved so drastically in those 11 years, that watching Toy Story 3 the viewer immediately notices an upgrade in the image quality from the other Toy Story movies. The addition of 3D also added to a new level of realism for the audience, putting the viewer not only in the characters’ vantage point but using the technology to just highlight how realistic the animated characters looked. The toys felt truly real. Unlike other 3D films where the gimmick is to reach out to the audience, Toy Story 3 made the audience want to reach in and play with the toys.
7 Doctor Strange
While many of the MCU films have been released in 3D, it is arguably Doctor Strange that has used the technology the best. While the first half of the movie uses the 3D to give the film a sense of depth, the kicks into overdrive during the film’s second act climax when the heroes are transported into the mirror dimension, and the moving city, collapsing skyscrapers, and flying spells are taking full advantage of the 3D wizardry.
The kaleidoscopic visuals are a sight to behold in 3D, and by the time the movie enters its climax with a sequence in the psychedelic dark dimension, it goes to show how effective 3D can be used to transport audiences are new worlds and give them a unique cinematic experience.
6 The Walk
Robert Zemeckis had spent a lot of the early 2000s experimenting with 3D technology in his motion captures of animated films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. However, it was in live-action where the technical wizard filmmaker truly showed off his talent for 3D in the 2015 film The Walk.
The Walk tells the true story of 24-year-old French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The use of 3D for the climactic walk between the Twin Towers (itself a technological marvel, almost entirely digitally recreated more than a dozen years after they fell in 9/11) is a breathtaking display of 3D technology, putting the audience right into the center of the suspense. It is almost impossible not to hold a breath as the camera stares down at the massive height for this incredible stunt. The Walk is a movie that truly benefits from 3D technology, and might not have worked without it.
5 How To Train Your Dragon
While Alice in Wonderland was the first film to truly cash in on the new 3D craze set by Avatar, it was How To Train Your Dragon which was released just a couple of weeks later that truly was the first great example to show that Avatar was not a fluke, but that this could be a vital cinematic tool.
While Jeffrey Katzenberg had pushed DreamWorks Animation towards 3D with the release of Monsters vs. Aliens, that 3D was much more of an homage to the 1950s style. How To Train Your Dragon used technology to immerse the viewer in the wonder of flight, with the scene of Hiccup and Toothless flying through the sky a sight to behold on screen and an instantly iconic moment in film history, made all the more special with 3D. In 1978, Superman: The Movie promised audiences they would believe a man could fly, but 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon offers audiences the chance to experience flight like never before.
4 Life of Pi
Life of Pi was considered an unfilmable novel. Yet in 2012, acclaimed director Ang Lee brought the book to life with 3D to pull off the impossible. What is shown is an eye-popping visual marvel, one that makes the regular world look magically new. It adds the needed depth for the vast ocean, and allows the tiger to feel more real despite being clearly a CGI creation, as it puts the viewer so close to it that even though they register it as a special effect it still feels believable. Life of Pi is a breathtaking movie, one where the 3D aspect is part of its wonder.
Gravity is a movie that uses 3D as a vital aspect of telling its story. While it is still a story that works without technology, to gain the full experience of Gravity is to see it in 3D, as it is a roller coaster experience. Director Alfonso Cuaron mixes the 3D effect with his own trademark of long shots to truly get the viewer into the world and headspace of an astronaut. The final result is a captivating, breathtaking, and energizing experience. Gravity in 3D is the closest many viewers will come to actually being in space, with all the wonder and terror it entails.
Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest living filmmakers of all time so it is perfectly reasonable that the director would not only understand how to work within 3D but also how to use it as a tool in the best possible way. In Hugo, Scorsese uses 3D technology to create a real depth of the frame, making the train station and the interworking clock system feel vast. It helps provide a true sense of space for the viewer to understand the world this movie inhabits and to feel like this is a real space.
But the filmmaker also ties the technical marvel of 3D in with the film’s inherent theme of movie magic. 3D is just another in a long history of cinematic tools to bring wonderment to the audience. In a movie that is a love letter to a film celebrating cinema’s past, it feels fitting to show how the medium has evolved and highlight the marvels of its future.
Could it be any other film than Avatar? When most filmgoers think of modern 3D movies, it is Avatar that immediately jumps to mind. Director James Cameron pushed the boundaries of what viewers expect from 3D; instead of having the movie jump out at the audience he used the technology to bring the audience into the world of the movie. With 3D glasses, the viewers very much were like Jack Sully linking up to his Avatar body, being transported into a whole new point of view. 3D allowed audiences to truly enter Pandora and experience all of its wonders.
It was so successful that audiences went back to see Avatar multiple times in the format, and Cameron’s film went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. It inspired other studios to embrace 3D, and still to this day remains the gold standard. For an entire generation, they have only experienced Avatar in 2D, but one could argue if that is the only way one has viewed Avatar, then they haven’t truly seen the movie. Luckily audiences will be able to experience the movie in 3D with the re-release and will soon return to Pandora with Avatar: The Way of Water.