To 3D or not to 3D? For every film that justifies the upsell, there’s another couple that discourage it, making it look like a cheap gimmick designed to distract you from subpar product. But since Avatar came along and became the biggest film of all-time, the studios have slapped the format onto a number of blockbusters, whether they deserved them or not.
There was a brief tryout period where stuff like Clash of the Titans proved not every movie deserves a cheap 3D conversion. But we’ve seen successes both with native 3D shooting and post-conversion, enough that suggests some of the Hollywood minds behind these decisions are finally figuring out how 3D can be a tool for them, just like cameras, costumes, and cocaine.
Here is a list of the 25 best 3D films of the modern era. We limited this to post-Avatar though we couldn’t resist sticking one pre-Avatar film in there simply for achievement. We tried to focus on both the quality of the film overall AND the quality of the 3D, while also finding an older 3D title that best exemplified what the film’s appeal is. If we left out your favorite, drop it into the comments section below!
25. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
IN THE TRADITION OF: Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn
A post-conversion job, this sequel was already in the can when the studio opted to push the release date back and add that extra dimension. In many instances, it’s far from necessary – just about as far from necessary it was to make a sequel to G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. But the extra time allowed them to do a mostly serviceable job with the artificial visuals, and creating one exceptionally standout sequence on Ninja Mountain involving a mid-air ballet that acknowledges director Jon M. Chu emerged from the world of the Step Up movies. As two clans of ninja take flight with grappling hooks and acrobatics on the side of a snow-capped mountain, they pop out at the audience in overwhelming numbers, cementing the best scene in either of the two films.
24. Dredd 3D
IN THE TRADITION OF: Space Hunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone
Another post-conversion job, Dredd 3D is probably one of the best ones yet, allowing a proper outlet for the fetishistic violence on display. Sequences involving the use of a drug called Slo-Mo take full advantage of the special glasses, allowing you to see moments unfold in super-staggered slow motion.
[Related: 11 Movies and TV Shows That Tried to be Star Wars]
IN THE TRADITION OF: Spy Kids 3D: Game Over
An absolutely ludicrous Bollywood actioner, this tongue-in-cheek superhero musical follows a videogame designer who must wrestle with the fact that his creation has come to flesh-and-blood life. The 3D is used to highlight absurd comic book action sequences that honestly top most of the theatrics caught in anything Marvel’s produced so far, reflecting a wit that allows these superpowered being to take flight in combat, not unlike what was previously seen in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies.
22. The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
IN THE TRADITION OF: Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage
Let’s face it: Water’s always going to look good in 3D. This largely gratuitous part three of the series takes place almost entirely on water, allowing the children at the heart of these films to break free from the skullduggery of the violent second picture, dipping into some more fantastical visuals for what may be the best in the yet-released Chronicles.
IN THE TRADITION OF: Phantom Of The Rue Morgue
Animated 3D is always something of a crapshoot, but in stop-motion animation it has a way of genuinely adding another dimension to what is already a fascinating depth-of-image. In both Coraline and later this Tim Burton experiment, the viewer is absolutely immersed in the narratives, as if literally dipping a toe into unreality.
20. The Three Musketeers
IN THE TRADITION OF: Son of Sinbad
Schlocky and ridiculous, this fanciful Paul W.S. Anderson adaptation is not ashamed of presenting an in-your-face approach towards impossible swordplay, silly gunfights, and larger-than-life Zeppelins. Quentin Tarantino had to have seen this in the theaters in 3D when he voted it one of his favorite movies of 2010.
19. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
IN THE TRADITION OF: Creature from The Black Lagoon
There’s… some sort of distance between the audience and Peter Jackson’s addendum to the Lord Of The Rings series. Shooting with 3D cameras is one thing, but with that 48fps projection, it creates an experience unlike any other, literally putting the audience into the action. Of course, it’s so hyper-real that it feels not like you’re being transported to Middle Earth, but instead to the film’s set in New Zealand, where the special effects look less convincing and the costumes and makeup look more artificial. Maybe Jackson fixes this for the next film, or maybe we’re all behind the times, and this is the way to watch movies in the future.
18. The Green Hornet 3D
IN THE TRADITION OF: Dial M For Murder
An unusual post-conversion, this Michel Gondry superhero picture took full advantage of the hastily-added 3D by altering the film’s visuals, creating a pop-up book feel that still seems flat, but is nonetheless unique to the genre. In one scene, Kato-Vision is established, allowing the fierce sidekick to see what his enemies can’t strictly in 3D.
17. Piranha 3D
IN THE TRADITION OF: Friday The 13th Part III
Another post-conversion, Piranha 3D benefits because of its bloodthirsty approach to the ridiculousness of its premise. The Joe Dante original may have been worth a few laughs while everyone ripped off Jaws, but the new one turns a mid-film onslaught of creatures into the Saving Private Ryan of the Jersey Shore set. Director Alexandre Aja, no snob to the material, packs the picture with wall-to-wall gore and nudity, singlehandedly justifying the tacky decision to make most major studio horror shoot in 3D.
16. Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate
IN THE TRADITION OF: Hondo
Tsui Hark and Jet Li join forces for this opulent wuxia epic where characters engage in combat so furious that eventually the literalization of the title becomes the least-ridiculous thing onscreen. The martial arts are furious, but the film also works because of the gorgeous depth of visuals in each far-off setting.
IN THE TRADITION OF: The Polar Express
Robert Zemeckis tried and failed to make his 3D motion-capture obsession into a thing, as it never really caught on with the core audience of kids, even though The Polar Express earns a few forced showings during the holidays on TV. But it was with this Zemeckis retelling of the classic poem that he made one of his best and most colorful movies, a 3D fantasia where Beowulf himself becomes overwhelmingly powerful to the eye. It’s as if this limber, muscular hero (faintly played by the husky Ray Winstone) is guiding the narrative through his massive biceps and cartoon charisma. When Beowulf bursts through a dragon’s eyeball into the audience’s faces and YELLS HIS OWN NAME, it confirmed that the still-young 3D tech was here to stay.
IN THE TRADITION OF: Flesh For Frankenstein
Tarsem pulled all the tricks out of his bag for this proudly dopey 300-too, which finds his Caravaggio-inspired visuals stealing the show from a pedestrian Chosen One narrative. The fight scenes pop in this fantasy sword-and-sandals gumbo, and even the gore feels like enveloping ribbons with the 3D visuals.
IN THE TRADITION OF: Robot Monster
Ridley Scott’s whacky modern riff on Planet Of The Vampires is an unexpected example of bad blockbuster writing, featuring a screenplay riddled with unconvincing characterizations and pain-inducing huge plot holes. But what it does have are those nightmarish visuals: The first moments alone, when the (alleged?) Engineer wordlessly takes his own life to seed the land around him (it?), plays like a staggeringly gorgeous short film, and the added 3D contributes to a feeling of existential unease. Here the 3D adds depth, but also size, magnifying the enormity of this film’s thematic scope. You can check out our Prometheus Review.
12. Drive Angry
IN THE TRADITION OF: Zombi 3D
If Nicolas Cage was born to do these types of movies, then this might be one of the most Nic Cage-y Cages that’s ever Caged. Fusing the low budget Roger Corman attitude with a low budget occult angle, the picture manages to embrace naked low budget spectacle through its elaborate stunts and gimmicky gags, all of which seems designed for a drive-in that no longer exists, low budgets and all. You can read our Drive Angry 3D review here.
11. The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn
IN THE TRADITION OF: Starchaser: The Legend Of Orin
Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson teamed to bring the beloved character to life, using motion-capture techniques that were even beyond their buddy Robert Zemeckis’ skill. The result was a picture that transcended its comic strip origins to become a rock-‘em, sock-‘em actioner, one of Spielberg’s most lively movies in the last few years, where it feels like the layers of each animated shot literally come alive.
10. Metallica: Through The Never
IN THE TRADITION OF: Siegfried And Roy: The Magic Box
The ne plus ultra of 3D concert films, this close look into the world of one of the loudest bands in history takes you into the onstage action as the group performs a stage show with the sort of pyrotechnics and stunts usually reserved for Universal Studios. A side story involving an unlucky groupie caught in a riot is silly fun, but a distraction; the real thrill is seeing this aging band performing individually in their own separate corner of the stage, dominating the camera as they ferociously rip through the hits.
9. Tron: Legacy
IN THE TRADITION OF: It Came From Outer Space
Narratively, it’s basically an extended music video. But is that so bad when it comes to THOSE visuals? Joseph Kosinski’s preposterously over-written extension of the Tron universe benefits from its limited color palette to create onscreen layers upon layers; it’s a manufactured and dizzying experience inside the Grid. It’s impossible to remember a single detail about this movie’s story, but you can easily conjure up listening to Daft Punk’s beats as the endless double-blue lines envelop the audience.
8. The Great Gatsby
IN THE TRADITION OF: Kiss Me Kate
Baz Luhrmann’s idea to recreate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in 3D remains, on paper, purely insane. But it does fit in with his overall approach, which is to drown the story in excess and opulence. While the 3D adds an extra layer to the blinding cityscapes and colorful party scenes, it’s mostly a valuable garnish to establish this Gatsby as drunk on any sort of extravagance possible. You can check out our review of The Great Gatsby here.
7. Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning
IN THE TRADITION OF: House Of Wax
Rarely screened in 3D, this explosive actioner didn’t fully utilize its added visual component for cheap thrilling action (though there’s plenty of that in the movie, and it is awesome), but instead on building an atmosphere of dread. What the enhanced visual dynamic brings to the film is an added sense of paranoia: The protagonist already has to deal with the dangers lingering around each corner, but, in 3D, the fact that each corner, each clue to the mystery, leads on forever.
6. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams
IN THE TRADITION OF: Across The Sea Of Time
Werner Herzog’s subterranean trip feels like the gateway to another world, a documentary where everything you see feels like a distant building block from another civilization. Herzog’s films startle because they reaffirm our connections to the past while also making us question and disbelieve our roots, a contradiction that is strengthened by the artificial 3D layer to bring to life the scraps of history that exist within the film.
IN THE TRADITION OF: Captain Eo
Martin Scorsese’s loving story of the early days of cinema is given a considerable amount of visual flair from utilizing 3D, serving a similar purpose to Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in re-awakening the past, giving it an added layer that keeps it from being too distant to modern audiences. Condescending, maybe, but the way the visuals allow the original visions of Georges Melies to fly off the screen is positively magic. You can check out our review of Hugo here.
IN THE TRADITION OF: Ghosts Of The Abyss
Still something of a gold standard for widescreen 3D action, the World’s Highest Grossing Film™ remains a visual feast in 3D, even if the story barely holds up. What James Cameron did was create a whole world, one where visually you can’t even distinguish where the artificial layer emerges from the primary one. It doesn’t feel like 3D, it feels like an actual place. Here is our Avatar review.
3. Step Up 3D
IN THE TRADITION OF: Comin’ At Ya!
Those who didn’t catch the films in this franchise are naturally dismissive of a four (soon five) film series based around something as narratively limited as dancing. Not only are these people misinterpreting the history of cinema (this sort of thing used to be a lot more common), but they’re also ignoring the potential of world-class hoofers turning the city into their own personal playground. Step Up 3D is the best in the series, wild wacky fun that allows multiple gangs to do dance battle, leading up to a multi-tiered tournament both color-coded and easy-to-understand. Step Up 3D is pure cinematic pleasure from the first moment on, an endless delight that takes full advantage of those 3D specs.
2. Life of Pi
IN THE TRADITION OF: Ocean Wonderland
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning story of a boy lost at sea is a powerful fable of hope, spirituality and survival. It’s also a breakthrough in the technology, magnifying and reflecting that single ship that young Pi has on the sea, capturing the water in a way that makes him look that much farther away from the rest of the world. It’s not enough that Pi’s lion friend bursts in and out of frame like he’s stumbled over from another movie, his claws reaching out to the audience. It’s also that, in Lee’s hands, the sea appears to be an entirely different world, one in which creatures emerge not of this earth, flopping out of the frame and practically in your lap. Our Life of Pi review can be read here.
IN THE TRADITION OF: Space Station 3D
There’s no comparable 3D experience. From the first moment on, Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic, which begins in the gaping maw of the abyss, feels not like you’ve paid $20 for an IMAX ticket, but that somehow you’ve arranged to end up in deep space. And the fear sets in immediately. This knowledge, coupled with the 3D bringing the space towards your eyes, means one wrong move and you could drift away forever. The 3D tech is leaps and bounds beyond anything you’ve ever seen before, and the slowness of space is so deceptive that when an item shoots across the screen, you almost instantaneously duck. 3D remains something of a gimmick to mainstream moviegoers, annoyed by the bigger prices and unnecessary movies. But with Gravity, it finally feels like there can be no other conceivable way to see that movie. You can check out our full review of Gravity here.
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