Shaken Not Stirred

‘Gravity’ Hauls in Viewers Both Desperate and Indiscriminate

Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic has everything but a solid story, and 3D is more hindrance than help. By Malcolm Jones.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

I really don’t mind the glasses.

What bugs me about 3D movies is the absence of a significant payoff. I certainly won’t claim to have seen every 3D movie that’s come out in the past few years, but I’ve seen three or four. Every A-list director gets his or her shot at this format sooner or later, so if you care about, say, Martin Scorsese, sooner or later you’ll don the glasses and before you know it, you’ll be dodging something flying at you from the screen. Some people call this fun.

Pretty thin fun, I’d say. Indeed, the problem with that A-list director thing is that it proves over and over that not even extremely creative people can squeeze much juice out of this format. It’s nice, I guess, to see Hugo in all the depth that 3D affords, and there are some exquisite shots that couldn’t be had any other way. But by and large it’s the same movie in regular-D.

Even so, being the “fool me twice … or three or four times” kinda guy I am, I go back every year or so and watch another 3D movie, hoping against hope, not to mention experience, that this time will be different.

Which helps explains how I wound up in a Manhattan multiplex one afternoon this week watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s space movie starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Actually, what really got me to the theater was an Oct. 13 story in Variety that bore the headline “Box Office Gets a Boost From Older Audiences Seeing ‘Gravity’ in 3D.” By “older,” Variety means people over 35, so count me in. Hollywood worries about people like us, who don’t go to the movies the way we used to, i.e., we barely go to the movies at all. So when a movie rakes in $191 million worldwide in a couple of weeks, and a decent percentage of the audience is 40 plus, Hollywood is over the moon.

Sure enough, a scan of my fellow moviegoers—there must have been a dozen of us in the theater—told me that none of us was ever going to see 40 again. So, even allowing for the fact that school wasn’t out when the movie started, maybe the Variety story is true, Maybe “older” people like me are hobbling into Gravity for a shot of 3D and some space action. I’m reasonably confident I was the only member of the audience who was being paid to sit there.

I wish I could say that this was the movie that made me love 3D. I wish I could say I loved the movie, period. But alas, the special effects—even in space!—weren’t all that special. Neither was the story, although it did have its moments. There’s nothing like seeing a space station ripped to shreds by orbiting debris. But I spent most of my time wondering how they made everything look weightless, and why female astronauts all dress like Ripley, and whether or not real astronauts still drink Tang in outer space.

Gravity is not a bad film. But compared to landmark space movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien or the woefully unsung Moon, it doesn’t do much new for the territory. Yes, space looks more infinite through those special glasses, and the rope-a-dope mash up of body blows savagely crosscut with languid looks at infinity is the work of a visceral, masterful filmmaker. But it’s not talent that’s at fault here. It’s technology. When one of Sandra Bullock’s tears seems to float out into the theater, you can count on being impressed. What you can’t do is feel anything, because even as that weightless tear elicits your admiration, it’s also reminding you—at the worst possible moment—that you’re watching a movie.

If older people, meaning anyone but teens, are flocking to this film, I suspect that it’s because they desperately want to keep going to the movies, so desperately that they’ll put up with a so-so plot simply because the movie they’re watching isn’t about horny teens or superheroes or grumpy old men with their bucket lists and their last-act joie de vivre.

But if people keep having to shell out a small fortune to watch 3D movies they tolerate but aren’t crazy about, how soon before they come back? Going to the movies used to be a great pastime. Now it’s an event, and that’s a shame. One of my favorite quotes from any film comes in Jackie Brown when the bail bondsman, played by Robert Forster, says he’s leaving the office in the middle of the afternoon to go to a movie. His sidekick asks Forster what he’s going to see, and he replies, “Whatever’s on next.” When I heard that line, my whole life flashed before me. Now I wonder if I’ll ever say those words again.