In a day and age where modern technology allows us to watch movies anywhere, there’s an increased sense of the “I can wait to rent that” mentality regarding movie going. I get it. Movie tickets aren’t cheap, and factoring in the highway robbery that is concession stand prices, you spend $50 to take your significant other to a movie that probably would be just as entertaining on your TV a few months from now. I see movies for free for my job, but even I see a trailer now and then that makes me think I can wait for it to hit Netflix.
But once in a blue moon comes a movie that really demands to be seen in the theater as the director intended. And as I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in 3D, I became acutely aware that this was the only way it should be seen. Our To 3D Or Not To 3D column breaks down the particulars on Cuarón’s use of this third dimension. What I want to explain is just how crucial this device is to the film’s experience.
When I walked into the press screening for Gravity, I actually cringed when I was handed a pair of 3D glasses. It wasn’t out of a dislike for the device, but rather that I was already freaked out by the film’s premise. My body physically rebelled against the very concept of being more drawn into the dilemma of being a lone astronaut floating around space without anyone to save you. I’ve written before on why space is totally terrifying to me, but in a nutshell it’s because it is so vast and unknowable. No matter how much top of the line technology we haul on up into it, there is always, always the opportunity for something metaphorically or literally alien to confront us. And as Alien teased, in space no one can hear you scream. No one can save you.
The first argument for why you need to see Gravity in theaters is the sheer scale of the screen. Space can look flat and unimpressive with its long-reaching blackness, but writ large on a movie theater screen, its depth is obvious and awe-inspiring. Lawrence of Arabia was a movie I had tried to watch half a dozen times as a pretentious teen cinephile. But it wasn’t until I saw it in a theater in all its 70mm glory that I finally was able to sink my teeth into it. On TV the expanse of the deserts and the accompanying stakes of Lawrence’s journey didn’t read, but on the movie theater’s sprawling screen they were vivid and profound. In Gravity the screen’s massive size is the first step to expose you to space’s terrible vastness, but the second step is the 3D.
You know when you see commercials for 3D attractions and they show characters cheerfully reaching out into the audience as children reach back expecting to touch Jack Sparrow, or Winnie the Pooh, or whomever? Gravity is like that, except that instead of trying to high-five Sandra Bullock I was reflexively throwing my arms in front of my face to protect me from the dangerous space debris being hurled my way. This is part of what makes Gravity so thrilling. Beyond that the 3D also enhances the depth of field as she enters space stations that’s compartments go on and on, or space walks with Earth orbiting placidly behind her. The 3D gives us a physical sense of the space she’s in, adding to the movie’s claustrophobic tension.
Then there’s the ritual of a movie theater that Gravity is made for, where you give yourself over to the dark. Strap yourself into the protagonist’s journey and attempt to hang on. All these elements combined to make a movie experience like I haven’t had in years, since the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in theaters. It played at my college, and the screen that stretched before me was so wide it took of almost the entirety of my view. The 70mm print—twice as wide as the standard film stock of 35mm—expressed grandness from its first frames. And as Dave’s space-set quest for survival played out to its trippy end, I felt not just emotionally engaged, but physically involved. By the end, the world around me swayed, and I felt out of my head. Afterwards, my film professor brought out the aged Keir Dullea, who looked as old as Dave in the film’s finale, for a Q&A. This didn’t help get my feet back on the ground. I actually feared for a minute that I was hallucinating.
As far as their use of science fiction, 2001 and Gravity have little in common aside from space travel. However, when I walked out Gravity I was shaken to my core in a way I hadn’t been since 2001. As other critics happily conversed about the character’s backstories, the visual effects, and the film’s award season chances, I was hunched over, hands on my knees trying to remember how to breathe. This might not sound like a pleasant experience, but it was transformative. From the safety of a theater, Cuarón had exposed me to the harrowing dangers of space exploration in a way that tricked my lizard brain into feeling like I was there. Between the embrace of the movie theater space with its dark walls and sense of the infinite through its screen, the sheer expanse revealed on that screen, and the 3D that gives the whole adventure a felt depth, Cuarón’s Gravity got me as close to space travel as my fearful heart could ever wish to be. The film is tracking incredibly well, and winning critical praise, so it’s likely to do well by any standard. But I am writing to those of you who feel like you can just put this on your Netflix queue for some future rainy day. Don’t wait. See this movie in theaters, in 3D, because anything less just can’t compare.