A friend of mine and I were recently vigorously debating the merits of 3D filmmaking. My friend is against 3D pretty much across the board. I am in favor of it, but I have many, many caveats and reservations about it. They are as follows:
1. It must be native 3D, and if it’s a post-conversion, it’s got to be a meticulous, pristine post-conversion;none of this Clash of the Titans crap for me.
2. The use of 3D must be pronounced. What’s the point of using this tech in such subtle ways that the audience isn’t cognitively aware of it? The flying fish sequence in Life of Pi? Ah-mazing! More of that, please.
3. It has to be a great visual artist who is working in the medium. I’m not at all interested in what some hack does with 3D as an artistic choice, but if a gifted filmmaker like Ang Lee or Scorsese wants to dabble in it, I’m totally on board.
So, I am a sometimes supporter of 3D, but I readily admit that most post-Avatar 3D has been a callous cash grab by the studios, a shakedown. (This is another topic for another time, but can anybody explain to me why I’m paying a premium for a 3D movie?) I don’t agree with James Cameron when he says any movie would be enhanced by 3D. I don’t think Sunset Boulevard or The Godfather would be enhanced by shoe horning a third dimension into it.
I was really excited to learn that Alfonso Cuaron was going to be working in 3D. If you’ve seen his astonishing last film, Children of Men, then you’re aware of the two or three jaw-dropping tracking shots he devised for that movie. They make Ray Liotta going into the Copacabana through the back door look like child’s play.
After a few delays, Gravity, Cuaron’s 3D space opus, finally arrives, and it is a truly gobsmacking piece of work. This isn’t just 3D as a barely-there parlor trick. This is the 3D Cameron prophesied. Not only is the 3D amazing to look at, but it also works to immerse you in the story. It truly enhances your experience watching the movie and also pushed your emotional involvement, as well.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play shuttle astronauts about to wrap up the last day of a routine space mission. Bullock plays a newbie scientist experiencing her first space mission (She only has six months of astronaut training.) while Clooney plays a veteran about to finish his last. (If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you might have some idea where this is going, as it relates to any film character who is about to retire.) A nearby Russian satellite explodes, causing a chain reaction of other satellites to follow suit, and soon there is a huge debris cloud hurtling through space at 50,000 miles per hour. It circles the Earth every 90 minutes, so almost immediately, the space shuttle is ripped apart like tissue paper and soon Bullock and Clooney are stranded in space, cut off from all communications with Houston.
Cuaron and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki are doing great, groundbreaking work here. The destruction of the space shuttle is a truly terrifying set piece, and it’s only enhanced by the wise choice to let these scene play out in more or less silence. Yes, it’s accurate as in space, nobody can hear you scream. But, that eerie silence just makes the mayhem even more frightening. That sequence is preceded by a 17-minute opening tracking shot that makes the attack on Clive Owen’s car look like child’s play. The visual effects team also has to be lauded. This is a 90-minute film in which nearly every moment has some practical or CG element in place. It is seamless. Coupled with the totally immersive 3D experience, this is simply some of the most impressive special effects work of all time. From the opening frame, Gravity is completely authentic—it makes you feel like you’re right there, hanging on for dear life. And, make no mistake, Gravity offers up many scenes of people floating in space, desperately trying to grab onto something, anything.
All the visual razzle dazzle in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the humans involved, and Bullock is fantastic here. I’m not sure how to explain this, but with her short haircut and totally different demeanor, she almost doesn’t look like Sandra Bullock. Also, locked away is her movie star persona, which is a charming one that I like very much. She redefines herself as an artist with this role. Yes, she won an Oscar for The Blind Side, but she is exponentially better here. Seeing her transform from terrified and out of her element to taking control of her situation is rousing. We are with her every non-step of the way. Clooney isn’t given as much to do, nor does he have as much screen time. His character is essentially an exposition machine, but Clooney is a pro’s pro, and he give Bullock very good support. In a bit of really classy casting, Ed Harris is heard, but not seen, as the radio voice of Houston’s mission control.
We’ve got the summer movie season in our rear-view mirror, and this summer was the usual sound and fury of studio spectacle. Gravity outdoes the popcorn movies in the astonishment department, but it adds in a lead character we come to care about very much and are invested in her journey. It’s one of the best films of the year and a massive technical achievement.
Gravity needs to be seen in 3D; it really does add to the intensity of the film, especially on the biggest possible screen. I don’t think it will have nearly the same visceral impact on a flat screen. Gravity is first-rate entertainment.