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On Trend: Gravity, IMAX 3D, and the Burden of Front-Row Seating

I’m so thankful I moved in time to take in the indelible shot of Sandra Bullock floating in an embryonic state.

Photo: Warner Bros.

I made it to Gravity right on the button. Seeing the film on my own time (and dime), as opposed to catching a press screening, I ordered the tickets online and arrived precisely at the 7 p.m. start, at one of three Manhattan theaters that were showing the movie in IMAX 3D—on opening night. Which is to say, I was very, very late. Even before we entered the auditorium, my partner and I resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d be sitting separately. And, sure enough, after rounding the corner of the entryway, and seeing the jam-packed stadium seats, it was clear we wouldn’t be gripping the same armrest when Sandra Bullock hurtled into space like a boomerang. Any open, acceptable seats had coats and bags on them as place holders, or, in a few cases, the firm hand of someone who seemed to be eyeing me with a silent dare: “Touch this seat, and you’ll be wearing the nachos my husband’s buying right now.” I found my partner a half-decent seat in the third row, far right. But, eventually and inevitably, there was only one last option for me: the front row.

I knew there’d be trouble before the film even started. Sitting at the far left, and watching the 3D trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I had to crane my neck in order to watch the arc of Legolas’s arrows as they shot across the screen, and physically follow, with my head, the snout of Smaug the dragon, as he loomed larger and larger, creeping into the frame. During the film proper, things weren’t much better. One might think that Gravity’s much-discussed opening shot, wherein a blip at the edge of the Earth takes long minutes to come into full view as a space shuttle, would be all the better if seen as up close and personal as possible. Nuh-uh. The gradual power of this image is lost when not seen in its proper compositional glory, and I soon found that the same was true for the rest of the film.

I made it through a little more than the first act—essentially the parts that everyone’s seen in clips and trailers, which boast Alfonso Cuarón’s virtuoso unbroken takes, and see Bullock terrifyingly cut loose from that shuttle. I wouldn’t say the grandness of those scenes were lost on me, but as I strained to absorb everything, it all became so disheartening and arduous. There was the matter that an IMAX 3D ticket costs 25 effing dollars in New York, and that this was not the viewing experience that I paid for, but infinitely more vexing was the knowledge that this wasn’t the way this movie was meant to be seen. I’d already made the rare assurance to not just settle for 2D (an option that would have been acceptable in nearly every other case), and I kept hearing Cuarón’s words from this interview in my head: “Gravity in 2D is only 20 percent of the experience.” Despite the venue and the glasses, I felt like I was still getting that 20 percent. I was so close to the screen that I could actually see its pixel-y texture, which, in effect, made this state-of-the-art work seem disturbingly lo-res.

Eating the organic granola bars they’d smuggled in, the WASPy couple beside me seemed to have fully surrendered to their position, but I could take no more. I got up, walked about halfway to the top of the theater, and sat on the steps. I’m pretty sure this made me an eject-worthy fire hazard, but suddenly, there was a tremendous sight in front of me—a sleek, clean, and immersive space opera that could be marveled at in full view (though the image is justifiably divisive for all its Steve McQueen-ish deliberateness, I’m so thankful I moved in time to take in the indelible shot of Bullock floating in an embryonic state). I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be getting another shot at seeing this film in this way, and though a few bathroom-goers had to sidestep me and my bag, I felt an enormous sense of relief. No cushiony seat, no problem. I could now have a fully valid emotional response to, not to mention opinion of, this movie whose effect largely hinges on how it’s viewed.

Many would argue that a film should hold up just fine no matter the medium, and I’m not about to defend the weaknesses of Bullock’s character’s arc or certain stretches of Gravity’s dialogue. But with movies of this sort of technological caliber, there is absolutely a visceral, goosebump-inducing facet to the widescreen, 3D visual experience—a substance that’s inherent to what some have labeled as hollow style. I can recall the sheer beauty of Avatar actually bringing me to tears, if only because I profoundly appreciated what great leaps the film had clearly taken within the cinematic medium. But, then, I also had what I’ll call the best seat in the house, at the finest IMAX theater I’ve attended. When still living in Philly, I caught Avatar at the United Artists theater in King of Prussia, and sat on the edge of a mid-level mezzanine, in front of a screen that was nearly as tall as it was wide. When Jake Sully climbed vines to reach those floating mountains, I climbed too, in what felt like midair.

So, back to the front row. Is there anyone out there who likes it? Is there anyone who actually hopes to get a seat all the way in the front? The term “front-row seat” has become a near-indisputable positive in our culture, even used as an expression to describe being close to any notable event. For a live concert or even a theatrical production, it’s generally a good thing, because there’s still an entire stage and actual humans occupying space in front of you, not a flat screen against which your face is practically smushed. A 3D film can do a lot of things, but it cannot magically create the intimate, personal breathing room of front row seats at a stage show. The fact is, the front rows of movie theaters are preposterously close to the screen, and almost never yield a positive experience. Even my “fondest” memory of front-row seating is laced with pain. I saw Brokeback Mountain in the front row of a small theater near my hometown, and my neck was terribly sore by the time Heath Ledger looked longingly at his precious pair of shirts. This was in the wake of my own coming-out, and in a mix of guilt and dedication, I decided it was somehow appropriate that I endured physical torment watching this film, which I lied about going to see.

But to hell with all that. Front-row seating as a positive in regard to movies is a myth and a sham. If I’m to learn anything from my Gravity experience, it’s yet another lesson pertaining to my terrible habit of lateness. That’s what the front row truly is: it’s a dumping ground for latecomers, a moshpit for the hoi polloi who get off on the wrong stop on the 7 train, and instead of jumping and screaming, keep their rage inside until it radiates into their aching necks. I will say that I’m deeply pleased I walked into a packed house for this film, a soulful and minimalistic artwork despite its flaws, and a movie that has nothing to do with superheroes or fantasy brands. That was one more benefit of finally ditching the front row and moving up to the stairs: I got to see the rest of the crowd entranced by Cuarón’s creation, watching the enveloping experience—from good seats.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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