Gravity and IMAX

GravityGravity opens with on screen text explaining that no sounds can be heard in space and that life is impossible. This is the first of many things in Gravity that don’t really need to be explicitly spelt out, but this common issue in the storytelling is thankfully not something that distracts too greatly from the cinematic marvel in front of us.

There are many examples of great magic tricks in cinema and I would argue that cinema is often at its best when it’s pulling the wool over our eyes. Not necessarily in the obvious way that one would first think of – the magical effects of George Melies or the CGI wonders of Gravity – but also in the way in which we are captivated and emotionally moved by something that is, of course, an illusion.

We know that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are not really in space but we are utterly convinced by the technical mastery on display, consumed by the illusion presented to us by Alfonso Cuaron and co. We can probably very easily guess to what degree particular characters are actually in any danger, in what is ultimately a relatively mainstream Hollywood movie, but we are gripped by the struggles that Sandra Bullock, in particular, faces in just trying to remain alive. Life, after all, is “impossible in space”.

It is in convincing us of what we are seeing in the visuals and in convincing us of the perilous situation that Alfonso Cuaron really shines and Gravity is an extraordinary and spectacular thriller. But it is in the emotional resonance and connection with the central characters that the illusion begins to unravel.

An early scene in which we see three astronauts in the midst of a EVA is our introduction to the only three characters that we see – one a rookie, one a seasoned astronaut who is in the midst of their ‘last day on the job’ and one a jokey empty shell of a character. And the development of the characters and their story continues in this relatively stock fashion from there. This does not negate the thrills that we experience but it does make them a little less intense.

What director Alfonso Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the many, many talented people who worked on this film have done though is astounding. Gravity is a heart-pounding spectacle and one that I will undoubtedly return to again and again.

Now, a few words on how one should watch the film.

There appears to be something of a grassroots campaign online to tell people that they must see the film at the IMAX but it is definitely worth looking into what the reasons are for why you should or shouldn’t do this and what your other options are. I thought I’d take some time to discuss this here.

I, fortunately, saw Gravity on a very large screen but it was in a cinema which, unfortunately, uses Dolby 3D and has a less than perfect sound system. I have found Dolby 3D to be lacking in many areas and it seems to result in a lot more issues, particularly in the peripheries of what we see in a 3D image, than something like RealD.

Gravity is a film that has been labelled by many as an expensive and impressive tech demo and whilst I think this is an unfair simplification there is certainly something to be said for how well it shows off or shows up a cinema’s set up.

It is therefore baffling to me that so many are encouraging people to see Gravity at the IMAX. Gravity is after all a film presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the IMAX screen is 1.43:1.

Seeing the film on a large screen is recommended but there are plenty of screens that are still very large. If you intend on watching it in London, for instance, the VUE at White City and the Sky ‘Superscreen’ at the Cineworld O2 are both not all that far from the 2.35:1 chopped down screen at the BFI London IMAX.

In addition, the 3D at the London IMAX is plagued with even more problems than Dolby 3D. Ghosting and issues with the viewing angle as a result of set up are something I have seen on a number of occasions at the London IMAX – compared like for like with the same film in RealD – presumably largely due to issues with the size of the room.

The room also presents issues with the sound, as it is very dependent on where one sits. And even if one finds the sweet spot it is worth mentioning that the London IMAX is not equipped with the Dolby ATMOS sound system that Gravity was specifically mixed for and that Cuaron has recommended that the film be seen in.

So, why IMAX?