Mark Harris
June 17, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In January 2010, when Avatar was already on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie in history, director James Cameron said that he hoped it would inspire Hollywood to explore the creative possibilities of 3-D in genres other than ”high-end animation and lowbrow live-action.” How long ago, and how wishful, that seems. Eighteen months and three dozen movies later, it’s time to admit that while 3-D hasn’t failed, Hollywood has. Out of avarice and imitative desperation, the studios are on the verge of not just killing their newest golden goose but smashing the egg before it’s even had time to hatch.

This obituary is premature only because the first 3-D films from the few directors who could wed the technology to true artistry and imagination — Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh — haven’t opened yet. But they’ll have their work cut out for them, because it’ll take a miracle to rekindle the excitement of an audience that’s becoming disenchanted with putting on those screen-dimming, color-muting glasses every couple of weeks, and is increasingly aware that the thrill of 3-D has been downgraded to little more than a transparent excuse for jacked-up ticket prices.

There’s some evidence that a percentage of the public is even beginning to shun the 3-D versions of movies in favor of 2-D. That’s inconclusive, but it’s inarguable that 3-D is no longer an event, let alone a magic bullet. Despite its hyperinflated admission fee, this summer’s 3-D Pirates of the Caribbean movie will still be the lowest grosser of the series in the U.S., just as the fourth Shrek was last summer and the third Narnia movie was last winter. As for Cameron’s hope about 3-D transcending the cartoon and cheesy-action ghettos, it’s worth noting that since Avatar, more than half of all 3-D releases have been aimed at kids or teens — a business decision meant to desensitize a generation of moviegoers to paying extra for the privilege of putting on those goggles. For every animated movie that uses 3-D with ingenuity and thoughtfulness, as last year’s How to Train Your Dragon did, there are three or four that throw an occasional boi-oi-oing! at your eyeballs and feel they’ve done their job. And in live-action, for every Avatar, there’s a Piranha 3D…and a Drive Angry…and a Priest. (Cameron himself isn’t blameless; slapping his name on a piece of junk like Sanctum only diminishes his own considerable brand.) In fact, audiences still can’t be sure if the 3-D movies the studios are hawking were actually shot that way or were converted to 3-D in postproduction in order to capitalize on Avatar fever, as is still the case with several of this summer’s biggest movies.

The oversaturation of the 3-D market happened partly because of misplaced panic that after Cameron, 2-D would suddenly look as quaint as black-and-white, and partly because of a hucksterish conviction that a good gimmick is all you need to sell a bad movie. But while it’s always fun to see Hollywood greedheads get screwed by under-estimating the taste of the American public, in this case there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s depressing to watch the systematic squandering of an innovation that, in the custody of real visionaries, could still represent a step forward in filmmaking rather than just a hand trying to reach deeper into your wallet. Citing the average moviegoer’s ”genuine distrust,” Jeffrey Katzenberg recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the studios ”have disappointed our audience multiple times now.” His bluntness is welcome. As a first step toward regaining the trust they’ve trashed, the people in charge might want to sit down and rewatch Avatar. The film is a reminder that in the right hands, 3-D can create a truly immersive experience — a world that audiences don’t want to leave. But in the hands of mediocrities, 3-D becomes mediocre. And it doesn’t take a special pair of glasses to know what it looks like when a good idea is converted into a cynical rip-off.

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