It’s bad enough that animation, action, fantasy and horror have been hijacked by 3-D mania. But the ground shifted for me when Werner Herzog’s breathtaking documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a Zen meditation on ancient cave paintings and peoples, came with a bulky pair of 3-D glasses and a bloated ticket price.

What I didn’t get was a better moviegoing experience. The artistry of black brush strokes on cold stone brought those stampeding horses to life, not the legacy of a thousand greasy fingerprints I was forced to gaze through.

I don’t blame Herzog for trying; it was an interesting experiment and if anything it’s the boundary-pushers, James Cameron chief among them, and tradition-breakers who’ve historically taken 3-D to new artistic heights. Even B-movie horror meister William Castle was going for a better boo with the rudimentary 3-D of his 1960 campy thriller, 13 Ghosts. It’s hard not to wonder how Kubrick might have reimagined A Clockwork Orange if he’d had all the 3-D tools available today, or to have hopes for the inventive Peter Jackson’s 3-D vision of The Hobbit.

I’m not suggesting that 3-D can’t be fabulous or shouldn’t be something that filmmakers employ – Michael Bay just scored a big one for the team in his visually immersive and explosive Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The technique brought an eerie hyper-reality to the stop-motion animation of 2009’s Coraline, and its midnight garden coming to bloom was glorious in all its multidimensionality. With Cameron’s Avatar, I admit to finding the pull of that blue magic irresistible in ways that simply didn’t translate when I watched it on DVD at home.

It’s equally clear that 3-D technology is not going anywhere, as a tidal wave of ads are pushing everything from 3-D TV to 3-D video on cellphones, turning it into a made-for-the-masses gizmo. Classic is an ad that features a frustrated dad, his kids’ ping pong game and a 3-D cell. Not content with the “action,” he snatches a paddle and slams the ball at the camera, something he’s sure will “play” better with 3-D.

Here’s what typically happens. The most exquisitely realized 3-D moment of most 3-D films comes in the first few minutes when the very proud studio, beating its 3-D chest, has its title floating “miraculously” in midair. As for all the objets d’art – the swords, spears, fireballs and the lot – that require countless hours of work to ensure that they come barreling through space towards us? I have yet to see even one person duck at anything being “hurled” from the screen. Well, there was the 4-year-old and the popcorn incident, but that’s another story.

Not that long ago, 3-D films were an anomaly. Two or three a year was the norm in the United States, so the artistry question wasn’t as weighty. In 2008, there were only five, and the 3-D Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus and U2 concert films should barely rate a count. By the time we close out 2011, the figure will top 40.

What’s troubling in the move from unusual to ubiquitous is that the choice to go 3-D has increasingly become a commercial rather than a creative one. We all realize that making movies is a for-profit business. Instead, let’s talk about the fear factor. There is the worry that a studio saying no to 3-D might offend a filmmaker it seriously can’t afford to offend. But more often, it’s fear that “we the audience” want, desire, even demand 3-D in this technocentric age.

So does that mean it’s up to us to somehow stop the madness? Or are studios simply not listening to the actual word on the street? I ask because I asked you, or at least some of you. Not a scientifically rigorous test, but illuminating none the less.

And for the doubters, it’s one you can easily replicate. Ask 10 people you don’t know to name the last three movies they liked, and let’s just assume we get lucky and there was one 3-D movie in the group. Then ask them why they liked it. In my survey, 3-D did not make the top five reasons for most. It only began to creep into the list with 12-year-old boys, and even then it was more an “oh yeah” than “must have.” What did matter was the fundamentals – a well-acted story cleverly told.

Which brings me to another gripe about the 3-D grip. It’s an ego thing – the ultimate form of studio swagger. That I could live with, the industry always has been and always will be an egocentric swampland, but it leads to a narcissistic belief that 3-D will carry the day. It will not. Usually the result is a film like Thor, which looks neither better nor worse with 3-D – one of several I saw both ways to put the theory to the test.

At other times, 3-D actually makes things worse, as it did with the latest edition of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Walt Disney Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration. On Stranger Tides, which Chicago’s Rob Marshall directed, had many problems, but the dark and claustrophobic deep shadow cast by 3-D was a significant one. A major action sequence that had Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow sword-fighting the fleet-footed Penelope Cruz’s femme fatale was only a shade short of pitch black and nearly impossible to see, much less enjoy.

The subtext in all of this is that Hollywood no longer trusts our imagination. And that is the saddest 3-D ripple effect of all, because “we the audience” do indeed still have vivid imaginations, something great filmmakers never underestimate. When they believe, we believe. Then the intangibles that make humans human – fear, love, anger, surprise – can be brought to life by characters and moments that have depth as much as dimension.

Consider one example from the past – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 palm-sweating Vertigo – and another from more recent times, 2007’s low-tech, low-cost thriller Paranormal Activity. Both films used the unseen and the imagined to hair-raising, heart-palpitating satisfaction (for us) and success (for the bottom line). One is still a classic more than 50 years hence, the other may become one or slip into a footnoted memory. Both understood at the most fundamental level that the mind is a filmmaker’s most powerful tool, and a terrible thing to waste. No glasses required.

© 2011, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.