Over winter break, I made a difficult life choice. It was one that I had been debating for weeks beforehand: should I watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in its 3D format or to stick with safe, dependable 2D?

This may not seem like a soul-wrenching predicament to some, but for fans like me The Hobbit is no laughing matter—this is serious business. In fact, anyone who has ever seen a movie in both 2D and 3D is probably aware that the format can make all the difference.

Ultimately, I decided for myself that it would be better to see the film on its own merit and cough up the cash for a 3D viewing at a later date, but the dilemma did bring to mind a bigger question that I’ve considered many times before—is 3D viewing really worth the hype and the money we pay for it?

I’m personally neither completely for nor against the format, because I believe that the quality of the film itself has more to do with the answer to that question than anything. 3D releases have become increasingly popular over the last few years, peaking with the epic visual effects in James Cameron’s Avatar, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and most recently Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. These films have all been hailed as masterpieces and were praised by viewers and critics alike for their stylistic production—not to mention their brilliant screenplays and direction—but they would have been well received even without using excitement of 3D to gain viewership.
When used in this way 3D formatting can be a lot like an IKEA accent table—it might be pricey, unnecessary and showy to look at, but in the end it does make a great impression.

However, the same has not been said for movies like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which suffered from lackluster direction and was made worse by disappointing performances. Far from salvaging the film, 3D was essentially tacked on as an afterthought, making this terrible rendering of a popular animated television show a more expensive disaster for the viewers it tried and failed to impress.

That’s not to say that every movie that makes use of the 3D format must be Academy Award nominated. In fact, some films that don’t even take themselves seriously can still benefit from an extra dimension. Comedy horror movies like Piranha 3D that seek refuge in audacity have shamelessly exploited the fact that 3D can actually enhance their target audience’s viewing experience. Generally speaking, 3D should simply never detract from the original film itself.

Of course, money is and always will be a factor when it comes to 3D releases. Ticket prices are higher, sometimes to compensate for higher production costs or just to make an easy billion. We would all love to believe that Disney and Pixar Studios have been re-releasing old favorites in 3D purely for our renewed enjoyment, but that would be naïve.

On the other hand, sometimes filmmakers don’t really have a choice in the matter when it comes to their big-budget productions. Director J.J Abrams, who has never been particularly fond of the 3D format, recently admitted that Star Trek: Into Darkness will not only be released in 3D due to financial pressures, but will also get the post-filming conversion treatment that has had unfortunate results in the past compared to films that are shot with 3D in mind to begin with.

Abrams is confident that taking their time with the process will ensure that it is a high-end conversion that viewers will appreciate. From this perspective, you could say that it isn’t necessarily the type of 3D that matters, but the care and effort that goes into it overall. Interestingly, Piranha 3D also used a post-production conversion process, was careful to make it look as good as possible and critics responded positively. If killer fish can profit from it, then why not Spock and Captain Kirk?

Let’s face facts. 3D can make for a magnificent viewing experience, or it can come off as a gimmick used solely to attract viewers to the theater. For me, all that really matters in the end is that the movie is an otherwise decent flick that has actually been improved in some way by the 3D formatting. And it had better make it worth the cost of admission, especially when you factor in the price of popcorn and soda at the concession stand these days.