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3-D not an alien concept in Hollywood

As a polymorphous, mutating one-eyed blob named B.O.B., Seth Rogen's role in "Monsters vs. Aliens" is in three dimensions, but otherwise bears no resemblance to humankind. He's electric blue, quivers like Jell-O and is far funnier than mere people. B.O.B. may represent the future of movies. So doesn't Rogen feel like a traitor to his species?

"I do!" said the large-scale comedy star, linchpin of such live-action hilarity as "Knocked Up" (and who previously voiced one of "Kung-Fu Panda's" Furious Five). "Actually, I feel like I'm just ahead of the curve. I feel all other comedy is obsolete!"

He's kidding, but "Monsters vs. Aliens," which opens Friday, is, in a sense, dead serious. DreamWorks calls "MvA" its first animated film totally authored and photographed in 3-D via a process that been dubbed InTru 3-D.

In a story that imagines that the government has been keeping a variety of monsters secret from the public for 50-odd years, Will Arnett voices the half-fish/half-ape Missing Link, Hugh Laurie is Dr. Cockroach, Stephen Colbert is the president. And playing a 50-foot femme fatale code-named Ginormica is one of Hollywood's tinier stars - Reese Witherspoon. "She's tiny and they made her enormous. I'm a genius and they made me brainless," Rogen said. "That's kind of the joke."

Fighting TV - again

What's not is Hollywood's commitment to 3-D animation. All big-budget cartoons are now being made in 3-D. The presumption is that the only thing theater owners have left - the only means by which they can lure audiences out of their homes and away from their flat-screens - is the experience of three-dimensional entertainment. It's the last-chance saloon of mass entertainment - at least, of the kind enjoyed en masse.

But panic is the mother of entertainment innovation. The original mass-market 3-D was a reaction against television, which was assumed to be the death knell for the movie theater. Back in the 1950s, though, the hassles outweighed the benefits.

"3-D didn't work for the same reason early sound didn't work," said Bruce Goldstein, repertory director of Manhattan's Film Forum, partner in Rialto Pictures and a programmer of numerous 3-D series. "The technology was too cumbersome, the audiences didn't like the glasses. But it was a big sensation momentarily. The first big 3-D film was 'Bwana Devil,' which was a complete piece of garbage, but just the novelty was a sensation."

Problem solved?

But two things happened, Goldstein said: Cinerama, which required its own investment in screens and equipment, virtually throttled 3-D in its cradle (Cinerama debuted in 1952; the golden age of early 3-D was 1953-54). What really killed 3-D was CinemaScope, which was easier, and required just a different screen and a different lens, Goldstein said. With 3-D films, two projectors were used simultaneously (Cinerama required three) and the prints had to be perfectly synchronized - if a frame was lost in one print, for example, it had to be cut out of the other.

As a consequence, there had to be an intermission, because both projectors were always in use. And the light throw and angle of seats to the screen had to be correct.

Now, the technological problems have been solved. Right?

Not quite.

"We have 14 or 15 3-D titles coming out this year and the question is, will there be enough shelf space?" said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for "With the credit crunch, it's harder to get money for theaters to upgrade to digital, which you need to have 3-D. We have to have the number of theaters catch up with the technology.

"But the audience is there. Every time we've seen a movie come out in 3-D or in IMAX, we're finding that moviegoers are totally willing to pay the premium," he said.

The one consistent problem with 3-D has been a reliance on gimmickry, rather than quality; as has been proved so often, audiences won't go to a movie that is terrible no matter how many dimensions it's in.

"Monsters vs. Aliens" may not have the most novel of plots - the monsters, Ginormica included, are freed by the Army only after the evil alien Galaxharr (Rainn Wilson) threatens to conquer the earthlings.

But the visuals are impressive. And while he's obviously partial, Rogen says he thinks "Monsters vs. Aliens" has it all together.

"Comedically, it's as good as anything I've had anything to do with," he said. "I would drive from the recording session and really feel like something funny had happened. Which is not always how you feel."

Has he seen the film? Watched it with other human beings? "I did," he said. "They seemed to like it. They were mostly Hollywood people, so I don't know if I would quite call them human beings."

Some 3-D comin' at ya

It's hard to evaluate what the best 3-D movies might be, as the definition of the format has changed over the years, but here are a few milestones in the now half-century-long effort to make things fly off the screen and into your eyeglasses.

House of Wax (1953) - Warner Bros.' response to the 3-D landmark "Bwana Devil" was directed by the great, eyepatch-wearing Andre de Toth, who was blind in one eye and thus couldn't experience the effects of his own three-dimensional horror-thriller. Vincent Price starred as the maddened killer whose museum displays his paraffin-coated victims.

Gorilla at Large (1954) - For a cheesily titled entry into the 3-D canon, this mystery boasted quite the cast, including Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Burr and Lee Marvin. Fortunately for them, the flick is remembered best for its special effect.

Dial M for Murder (1954) - Using 3-D sparingly, Alfred Hitchcock created an intricately plotted thriller in which a jealous and homicidal Ray Milland plots the ruination of his adulterous wife ( Grace Kelly) and her lover (Robert Cummings). Interest in 3-D faded, though, and a 2-D version was released.

The Stewardesses (1969) - 3-D didn't die after the '50s, exactly, but new inventions were required to further the cause. This soft-core sex comedy used Stereovision (a single strip of 35 mm film on which two images were squeezed side by side). The film played a long time in certain markets, but it probably wasn't because of 3-D. A remake was reportedly planned for this year.

Hell's Pit (2004) - Music video by Insane Clown Posse becomes the first 3-D film shot in high-definition video.

The Polar Express (2004) - Ambitious but cast with creepy characters, Robert Zemeckis' Christmas movie was released as IMAX's first full-length, animated 3-D feature, and the returns from the 66 IMAX theaters accounted for 25 percent of the returns from a total of 3,584 2-D theaters. Hence the industry enthusiasm for more 3-D.


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