During the "golden age" of 3D in the 1950s, the majority of films that employed this gimmick were genre pictures. Aside from a couple of standouts like House of Wax and Creature from the Black Lagoon, most were silly B-movies. But for a year or two, Hollywood was semi-serious about this technology: a handful of major titles, specifically Kiss Me Kate, Hondo, and Dial M for Murder, were shot in 3D. But the annoying red and blue glasses were a deal breaker, and the novelty quickly wore off.
Over 50 years later, James Cameron's Avatar would prove to be the (sort of) live action blockbuster that legitimized 3D for a new generation. In the wake of that film's record-breaking box office, a number of A-list directors decided to try their hands at three dimensions, from Scorsese and Spielberg to Baz Luhrmann and Ang Lee.
But once again, the bulky 3D eyewear (and their pricey upcharge) started turning audiences off. It's notable that both Gravity and The Great Gatsby were supposed to be 2012 releases. Only because of technical delays were both pushed to 2013. They now stand as the sole "prestige" 3D pictures this year. Most of those A-list directors returned to 2D for their follow-up films, suggesting that 3D was merely an experiment for them and putting the lie to James Cameron's pronouncement that soon all movies would be in three dimensions. Today, Peter Jackson and Cameron himself are the only top-tier filmmakers still committed to the format, mainly because they're locked in to their Hobbit and Avatar franchises.
However, with Gravity already an enormous financial success, it remains to be seen if 3D is going to stay relegated to animated films and superhero movies, or if Cuarón's achievements will inspire a new crop of "artistic" blockbusters to use the format.
The long time it took Cuarón to perfect his film has clearly paid off. The visual effects are astonishing, and the long takes work well with the 3D. Gravity is also a serviceable nail-biter, as we float around with hapless astronaut Sandra Bullock while she attempts to flee the terrifying emptiness of space and return to Earth, despite the fact that a surprise explosion of space junk - thanks to a Russian missile that accidentally hit a satellite - has destroyed pretty much every working spacecraft in orbit.
Every 15 minutes or so, Gravity puts Bullock in a position where I found myself literally saying, "She's got to die at this point. How could she possibly survive?" Then I'd have to remind myself that, this being a 90 minute film, the story was obviously not over yet. Yes, this constant tension is effective, and I played right into Cuarón's hands. But the Perils of Sandra start stacking up so much that they become a little overblown. The actress's schmaltzy monologues about (and to) her dead daughter - a truly unnecessary plot device - do not help. But if anyone can sell good ol' Hollywood corn, it's Sandra Bullock, and she's why a 3D space movie has appealed to such a wide swath of the American public.
You will see this film for its astounding effects, for its thrills and spills, and for its relatively unique setting (we don't really have all that many astronaut movies, when you think about it). You might even see it a second or third time. But for me its sentimentality left a bad aftertaste. I'd like to think that anyone smart enough to be assigned to space walks would be a bit more businesslike about their survival. Surrounded by no-nonsense suspensers like Captain Phillips and All Is Lost, Bullock's gal-next-door babblings seem a bit sophomoric.