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On 'Gravity' and the Resilient Magic of Movie Theaters

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | January 9, 2014 |

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | January 9, 2014 |

As an employed, married adult with employed, married adult responsibilities (work, plus all the chores my wife doesn’t feel like doing), I don’t get to the theater as much as I used to. Certainly not as much as I’d like. My affinity for movie theaters stretches back to my teenage years. My first true summer job was as a concession worker at a second-run theater in the mid-90s. It fit me like a velvet condom. I remained in “the movie business” throughout high school, becoming a projectionist at 16 and an assistant manager the following year. Whatever, it was no big deal.


There were downsides - working nights in high school limits the extracurriculars, and you never, ever, stop smelling like popcorn. Perks abounded, though. Free soda, for one. John Waters showed up once to shoot some scenes for a movie called Cecil B. Demented. Great guy. Stephen Dorff was there filming scenes, too, but even then - at the white hot nexus of his fame - I couldn’t bring myself to care. And you haven’t lived until you and some co-workers roll a keg through the back door, invite dozens of friends, and watch a yet-to-be-released film at 1 AM on a 40 foot screen. Hashtag suburban thug life.

My respect for movie theaters is unwavering. And it’s that admiration that led me, last night, to perform a pop-culture experiment. Using completely legal quasi-legal flagrantly illegal channels, I managed to secure a high-def copy of Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s wildly successful, preposterously entertaining space adventure.

(Before you all track me down, slap a patch over my eye, replace my leg with a wooden stump, and hand-deliver my parrot-shouldered corpse to the MPAA, know that I paid to see Gravity twice already. In 3D. And I pre-ordered the Blu-Ray. Save the sanctimony for someone with a soul. I have diabetic cats to feed.)

Gravity currently sits atop my 2013 film rankings (there it is - the reveal the Internet has waited 12 months for). Equal parts thrilling, memorizing, terrifying, and astonishing, Cuaron’s galactic showcase is a rare cinematic achievement. Of the 100-plus films I’ve been lucky enough to experience on a big screen, only Saving Private Ryan instilled a similar sense of awe.

(I watched grown men utterly break down - shaking, tears rolling down their faces - during the film’s first 45 minutes. Some got up to leave and couldn’t make it down the aisle without assistance. That scared me more than anything on the screen, and partly fostered an interest in World War II that continues to this day.)

Obviously, I wanted to see Gravity again as soon as possible for enjoyment purposes. But there was an ulterior motive. Since October, I’ve suspected sentiment will turn on Gravity after its home video release, that those who didn’t catch it in theaters will view it for the first time not just in their living rooms, but on tablets and smartphones and inevitably ask, “What’s the big deal?” I wanted to understand how much, if any, of its distinctive allure is theater-dependent. Not just for my own edification, but because it’s likely that a fair number of Academy voters will view Gravity in this manner. Could a viewing experience prove the difference between a Best Picture nomination and a Best Picture win?

post-29967-Detached-from-Gravity-gif-ISS-0xGD.gifLet’s answer this right up front: does Gravity succeed outside its optimal habitat? In short, yes. Is it an equally transcendent experience? Of that I’m less sure. Every possible measure was taken to recreate the theater setting. I queued up the pristine HD version on a large flatscreen. The lights were off, the surround sound cranked, wife asleep, emails answered, and the phone on silent. Despite this carefully constructed environment, the theater’s irreplaceable sense of immersion still eluded me. The steady tumble of the dryer, the dishwasher’s rhythmic sloshing, the GD raccoon that wouldn’t stop messing with the garbage can, even the wind rattling gently against the window - these all discretely but substantially chipped away at the illusion Cuaron spent seven years crafting. We’re not just untethered in an airless hellscape, frantically dodging the lethal remnants of a Russian satellite. We’re also glancing at the cable box clock to make sure we grab our sweaters out of the dryer before they shrink. Nothing caps a monologue about the universe’s meditative silence like a heat pump kicking on in the next room. As much as we try to minimize it, home viewing permits the intrusion of ordinary life into a film about extraordinary circumstances. Once the illusion shatters, it’s awfully hard to rebuild.

Distraction isn’t the sole difference. So much of Gravity’s effectiveness stems from its ability to place the viewer inside Sandra Bullock’s increasingly precarious situation. Much was made about Cuaron’s stunning use of 3D, and rightly so. The extra dimension added depth that went well beyond mere visuals (our planet deserves its own SAG card). But the theater’s inky blackness and gargantuan size play equally critical roles in making us feel alone in the cosmos. A dark IMAX theater is the closest approximation to the universe’s inhospitable void as we’re likely to encounter outside of a Ted Cruz cat scan. Or a Cleveland Browns game in December. There’s no refuge from the disorienting detachment, nowhere to avert our eyes when the tension stalls the breath in our chests. Trapped in a blackened, cavernous room, Cuaron forces us to confront humanity’s fragility and interstellar insignificance. That experience simply can’t be replicated in a warm basement. The brain won’t permit it.


Conversely, different scenes showcase Earth’s splendor, size, and magnificence in ways that stir the soul. On my second theater viewing, the film’s plot points already digested, I spent long stretches just looking around, marveling at the sheer spectacle. Is that the horn of Africa down there? My god, look how tiny the shuttle seems floating near the Earth. One of the film’s scariest moments (spoilers for anyone who hates America and didn’t see this yet) - the destruction of the ISS by debris travelling 17,500 miles per hour - may also be its most beautiful. The station isn’t destroyed as much as it silently disintegrates into fractals 300 miles above our world. Breathtaking. On an eight-story screen, there’s nothing else to do but gawk. Watching that scene last night, I couldn’t help but long for the same emotional resonance I felt back in October. There’s weight to the moment, without question, but it’s lighter, less substantial; a rock in lunar gravity rather than one in Earth’s atmosphere, to clumsily force a metaphor.

But does that matter? Do films have to resonate equally in every viewing medium to truly become canonized? We’ve never set those criteria before, so I’m not sure why we should start now. Sure, classics like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Schindler’s List shine regardless of whether you’re watching it at an ornate theater or on your phone in the bathroom at work. Yet two of cinema’s most celebrated accomplishments — The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind — were unabashed theater spectacles designed for maximum big screen impact. Both have endured long past their last theater screening, capturing the imagination of generations whose first viewing probably resulted from a TNT marathon.

That Gravity loses some of its effectiveness outside the theater shouldn’t diminish Cuaron’s achievement. It’s not an inferior movie, exactly; Gravity is still incredibly enjoyable. It’s merely a slightly different one. You can process that contrast one of two ways: disparage Gravity for its inability to fully translate between mediums, or tip your cap to Cuaron for finding a way to resuscitate the cinema’s distinctive magic. You can probably guess which side I’ll choose.