Movie Review of “Gravity:” In which Kate changes her mind about 3-D movies

As a movie snob who’s proud to admit it, I’ve split motion pictures into two classes. It’s like separating high culture from low culture — there are many blurred lines (sorry in advance for putting Robin Thicke in your head for the rest of the day). For the most part, however, MPs fit into two camps, and I’m not ashamed to say that I prefer watching one over the other.

Movies are the candy of the industry — they’re the tasty, little-to-no-nutritional-value flicks you feel guilty handing over $10 to see but are most likely to want to see again and again. These are your Marvel comic book adaptations, most slasher flicks, don’t-watch-with-the-family comedies, explosion porn (Machete Kills, anyone?) and anything with a pop star trying his or her hand in acting in a lead role.

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I see your Justin Timberlake and raise you a J-Lo in Gigli.

They’re the pictures that you don’t expect to see get any accolades other than something from the MTV Movie Awards, but they clearly make all the money — that’s why Jennifer Aniston keeps getting parts. They’re also what make all the money for Hollywood so they can make the….

…Films, which are the MPs that do get all the attention at the Oscars. They’re the art and soul of motion pictures that strive to tell a tale artistically. Roll the projectors for stories that examine the human condition or make us question our society’s values or even our own values. Biopics, histories, realistic dramas, fantasy and sci-fi with very real themes, hipster comedy and borderline-pretentious romances typically fall under this title.

You could say my movie viewing between Oct. 18 and 20 was extreme on both ends. Friday night brought a showing of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a “comedy” about a man who climbs the corporate ladder by letting his bosses use his flat as a place for trists. It’s in black and white with Jack Lemmon and Shirley McClaine, and although it’s not a comedy by today’s standards at all (I guess suicide and shameless infidelity was funny in the early ’60s?), it’s still a poignant film about “being a mensch,” and choosing between happiness and success.

Then on Sunday, I turned to more modern fare when Dad plunked down $30 at the local AMC for the two of us to see Gravity in 3D.

I’m not a huge 3-D movie fan at all. Director Christopher Nolan has talked extensively about how films are already three-dimensional — or, at least, they’re supposed to be — and how the pressure to shoot in 3-D limits directors’ visions.

“3-D is a misnomer. Films are 3-D. The whole point of photography is that it’s three-dimensional….I prefer the big canvas, looking up at an enormous screen and at an image that feels larger than life. When you treat that stereoscopically, and we’ve tried a lot of tests, you shrink the size so the image becomes a much smaller window in front of you. So the effect of it, and the relationship of the image to the audience, has to be very carefully considered. And I feel that in the initial wave to embrace it, that wasn’t considered in the slightest” (Screen RantJuly 24, 2013)

For Nolan’s films, where content and visuals are more like conjoined twins than simply married together, 3-D wouldn’t make sense. I’ve often been against 3-D because I figure that if a film is good enough, I’ll already feel like I’m in the movie. Before Gravity started on Sunday, an IMAX 3-D Experience ad beckoned me to not just watch a movie, but “be part of one.”

My initial reaction: I shouldn’t need the IMAX 3-D Experience to feel that way about a film.

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After all, maybe it’s not that wonderful to be that big a part of the movie: just ask the kid who played Robbie in Poltergeist: in this scene where the clown tries to strangle him, the actor was actually choking.

An hour and a half later, and thanks to Alfonso Cuaròn‘s film, I added another class to the motion picture phylum.

Experiences are the pictures that have to be seen in a theater, preferably with an IMAX screen in front of your face and a set of glasses perched on your nose. It doesn’t have a complex story because it doesn’t need one — it’s made to stimulate the senses and give viewers the chance to be sucked into a world that dazzles them. Like movies, “experiences” are brain candy that capitalize on special effects and thrills; like films, they let the audience lose itself in the unknown. James Cameron’s Avatar and Ridley Scott’s  Prometheus are experiences — whether they’re good pictures on their own is superfluous to the visual spectacle they provide.

Gravity, however, is the exact definition of “experience.” I would skeptically describe it as Apollo 13 without the human element (Ed Harris even makes a vocal appearance as the Houston commander in the beginning). Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a mission specialist who’s up in space with a crew of seasoned astronauts, including Michael Kowalski (George Clooney), who’s about to retire. The mission gets turned upside down, however, when a storm of debris hits their spacecraft and Stone is sent spinning, untethered, into space. Her fight to get home dominates the rest of the picture.

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And also made me come to happy terms with the fact I’ll never be an astronaut. 

The human element is secondary, and the story relies on our own emotions as human viewers to understand Stone’s struggles. It’s in this way that Gravity is in a class different than “film” or “movie.” It has elements of both, but it excels at giving the audience an adventure in a way that’s not offered by more complicated plot lines or deeper character development. It uses the most archaic motivator — that of returning home — to put the audience inside a spacesuit and sends it playing hopscotch across the sky in an attempt to get back to solid ground.

And this experience is only possible through the 3-D IMAX effects. Instead of being in a movie theater taken in but not entirely absorbed by the screen, the viewer is as-close-to-literally immersed in a zero-gravity world of exploding spaceships, debris showers and floating ballpoint pens (lots of floating ballpoint pens) thanks to a pair of glasses and very advanced sound system. Seeing the film in 2-D would be — and I’m cringing as I type this because I can hardly believe that I’m writing it for all the internet to see — not nearly as incredible an experience.

So here’s the final verdict: Gravity has changed my mind about 3-D. Before yesterday, I reserved 3-D as a necessary tool to enhance “movies” such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Polar Express.  I still believe that good story and direction can take an average movie viewer into another world without the use of advanced visuals, but I also understand that we’re in a digital entertainment society happy to let the director, special effects crew and projector do all the work for us. Cuaròn understands that, too, and that’s why he’s given us a heart-pounding, bone-aching adventure in the form of a 3-D and IMAX-relying picture that takes the Odyssean goal of getting back home to another level. And the result is out of this world.

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  1. I couldn’t fit this smoothly into the narrative, but it should also be said that Steven Price’s score is fantastic. In fact, the piece “Gravity” might just rival Hans Zimmer’s “Time” for me as the most emotional finale song from a film.

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