Jaws 3-D Is the Great White Hope for a Resurging Fad That May Again Go Belly-Up

updated 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1975's Jaws, a great white shark terrorized an East Coast resort. In the sequel, Jaws 2, a new shark cleared the same beach. In the latest fishy installment, which opens in 1,400 theaters this week, the producers hope to plunk their 35-foot villain in an even more alarming locale: the audience's lap. In Jaws 3-D, producer Rupert Hitzig promises, "The shark can come through the screen and take a bite out of your posterior."

Movie executives around the country hope that Bruce, as the mechanical sharks used in the Jaws movies have been traditionally nicknamed, will do just that. A success could legitimize the recent shaky resurgence that 3-D movies have made since their demise in the '50s; failure might send the process back to the realm of mere gimmickry. Says Tony Anthony, who produced the successful if hokey 3-D Western Comin' at Ya, which ushered in the latest 3-D wave in 1981, "I'm praying to God that Jaws 3-D is a good picture. If it isn't, we're in trouble. It will definitely influence the major studios' decisions."

Comin' at Ya made money (an estimated $12 million), and last year's Friday the 13th Part III—in 3-D scared up another fortune (more than $36 million). It also signaled a trend toward revitalizing series by producing the latest sequel in 3-D—hence, in addition to Friday the 13th and Jaws, the upcoming Amityville 3-D and even a 3-D version of Emmanuelle. But Columbia's Spacehunter, released in May, fizzled. Griped New York Times critic Vincent Canby about the 3-D process: "It appears to be taking giant strides backwards." Undeterred, Universal will release another space saga, Metalstorm, next month. Paramount is planning a comedy-thriller, The Man Who Wasn't There, and director Steven Spielberg is rumored to be considering a 3-D movie of the campy off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors.

Although three-dimensional movies have been around since the turn of the century, they didn't grab hold until the early '50s, when studios promoted them heavily in an effort to counter audience inroads made by TV. Two overlapping flat images were projected on a screen, and viewers wore special glasses that allowed each eye to see a separate image, resulting in a three-dimensional illusion. More than 70 such films were released before the fad collapsed in 1955 due to overexposure, too many shoddy films and less than perfect technology. "You cannot have 'fair' projection with 3-D," says Jaws consultant Chris Condon, who runs an L.A. studio specializing in the process. "Either it's perfect or you can't watch it." Few successful 3-D movies were released afterward until the current wave was sparked by advances in technology. The films can now be shot using one rather than two cameras, and viewers are provided with much-improved glasses.

Condon and others blame Space-hunter's problems on its outdated technology. "It was a huge disappointment to me," says Comin' at Ya's Anthony. "I saw it in L.A. and the audience just sat there and then started walking out. Technically, it set 3-D back to the '50s." Earl Owensby, a North Carolina mogul who has profited from producing such low-budget fare as Living Legend (a thinly disguised Elvis bio) and is now venturing into 3-D, was similarly disheartened. "The director said that Spacehunter didn't have things come off the screen, but that it brought the audience into the picture," says Owensby. "You know why he said that? Because he didn't know how to make things come off the screen." Condon is more optimistic about Jaws 3-D, which cost $17 million (Jaws cost $8 million and Jaws 2 $18 million). He claims that Jaws 3-D executive producer Alan Landsburg, when he first saw filmed fish swimming at him, yelped, "That's what 3-D is all about!" But word of mouth on the film is lukewarm, and producer Hitzig admits the movie could be better. "We could use another year on the film," he says. "If we did it over again it could be fantastic. Right now, it's only very good."

Others are suspicious of even that assessment. "I haven't seen Jaws 3-D yet, but I have my doubts," says movie historian Arthur Knight. "Universal isn't screening it until the day of the opening. They claim they don't have the proper equipment. I think if they had a good deal of confidence in the movie, they'd find the facilities to show it." Overall, he says of the 3-D boomlet, "The characters are like cardboard cutouts and the glasses still slip down your nose at the wrong moment."

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