Can 'Gravity' Save 3D?

Alfonso Cuaron's space opera gives the faddish format a huge boost – but will it last?

Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity'
Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity'
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For once, critics and ticketbuyers are in sync: Gravity is the rare movie that's really worth splurging extra to see in 3D, on a giant screen.

Awed critics contend that Alfonso Cuaron's space opera – with its lengthy, fluid takes; its astronauts tumbling through space in every possible direction; its dangerous space debris hurtling at your face; its huge, looming Earth, almost always within view; and even the droplets of Sandra Bullock's breath and the round globules of her zero-gravity tears – demands to be seen as Cuaron shot it, in state-of-the-art 3D, preferably on a planet-sized IMAX screen. The reviewers' consensus is that it's really the first film since Avatar four years ago where 3D is essential to the storytelling and not just a superfluous bell-and-whistle meant to sell higher-priced tickets.

Stepping Into the Void: The Magic of 'Gravity'

And audiences seemed to agree. Gravity's opening weekend set several October box office records. One of those was that it earned 21 percent of its take from IMAX screens and 80 percent from 3D screens. Those are huge percentages, considering how few IMAX screens there are, and considering the disenchantment among both fans and filmmakers toward 3D

Even James Cameron, who earlier this summer told Cuaron he thought too many movies were being released in 3D that didn't have to be, gave Cuaron's spectacle a thumbs-up. "I was stunned, absolutely floored," the Avatar director told Variety. "I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time." 

Cameron's earlier skepticism toward the format he'd helped popularize came during a summer when audiences routinely ignored 3D screenings if 2D screenings were available. 3D movies were opening with 3D sales percentages of about 30 percent, nowhere near Gravity's 80 percent. Industry observers were wondering: had the 3D fad run its course?

The short answer was no, especially since overseas audiences, which now make up the bulk of a Hollywood movie's box office, still haven't tired of the gimmick. Indeed, when Gravity opened abroad, it did about 70 percent of its business in 3D on its first weekend. In Russia, the figure rose to 75 percent; in Italy, 95 percent; and in Germany, 97 percent.

Ironically, Gravity's success at pulling people into theaters could further marginalize the theatergoing experience, as box office pundit Scott Mendelson worriedly writes in Forbes. That is, people will go out to see clearly exceptional movies like Gravity, but that will only encourage them to stay home to watch the more mediocre, run-of-the-mill movies that are less dependent on larger-than-life visual spectacle or group audience dynamics. "Will we end up with nothing but films like Gravity and The Avengers playing at multiplexes while pretty much everything else outside of would-be Oscar bait like American Hustle, CGI animated epics, or occasionally star-studded comedies like This Is The End (which play better to a packed house of laughing audience members) relegated to the art houses and/or Video On Demand? It’s the current push-pull of the industry," Mendelson writes. "If every film offered the kind of theatrical bang for your buck that Gravity does, I imagine movie theaters would be in pretty good shape. But most film lovers don’t want every theatrical to be something along the lines of The Dark Knight or Avatar. That’s the conundrum. The very kinds of films that we all wish the studios would make more of are also the very kind of films that arguably play just as well on blu-ray as they do in theaters."

In the short run, however, Gravity's success will just mean a lot more movies with retrofitted 3D. "The near-80 percent 3D sales share tells the industry that format is still marketable when it's not being abused," writes Shawn Robbins at BoxOffice.com. But of course, it will be abused. And then, Hollywood will wonder why those haphazardly-made movies don't enjoy similar sales to Gravity, whose 3D effects are integral and carefully wrought. The cash registers will keep ringing overseas, and that's all that matters.