Fearing that the golden age of television will make the public overlook cinema’s charms, studios and their filmmakers are desperate to find ways to lure audiences into the theater. Much of their arsenal relies on technology, including immersive 3D, eye-popping visual effects, bone-shattering immersive sound — and now, 3D delivered at a super-high frame rate via Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
In banking on Lee, new Sony chairman Tom Rothman believed lightning could strike twice. In 2012, as the chairman of 20th Century Fox, he introduced Lee’s 3D spectacle “Life of Pi” as a potential Oscar contender and game-changer. At CinemaCon 2016, Rothman launched Sony’s presentation with Lee’s true-life drama about an Iraq War vet (Joe Alwyn) who is celebrated as a hero. There was palpable excitement over the prospect of two-time Best Director Oscar winner Lee (and four-time Best Picture nominee for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Life of Pi”) again jumping into the forefront of technology.
Like fellow technology pioneers James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and Bob Zemeckis, Lee loves playing with a more elaborate toolkit. But R&D experiments don’t always work for audiences.
Zemeckis, for example, put the full weight of his company, ImageMovers, behind the then-novel performance-capture technology he introduced in 2004 with “The Polar Express.” Between that film, “Beowulf” (2007), “A Christmas Carol ” (2009), and the dismal global flop “Mars Needs Moms ” (2011), audiences determined that the technology was just plain creepy. (Disney got rid of ImageMovers in 2011 and Zemeckis returned to live-action.)
Jackson, along with his Weta VFX master Joe Letteri, successfully advanced computer-graphic animated characters from Gollum to King Kong, as well as the intricately moving digital battle soldiers in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But he stepped into the unknown with the prequel “The Hobbit,” insisting (with his earned leverage) on shooting at twice the usual 24 frames-per-second rate, in 3D. The press attacked the film for looking like video; moviegoers stayed away.
Cameron has made a career of pulling people into movies with daring new VFX advances, from “Terminator 2” and “Titanic” through “Avatar.” Marketing materials for his giant blue aliens initially put off audiences, but once they sat in a darkened cinema and immersed themselves in the 3D world of Pandora, “Avatar” joined “Titanic” atop the all-time global blockbusters list.
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Lee is also a tech explorer. He first tried ambitious visual effects back in 2003 with “The Hulk,” which had heady goals and was roundly drubbed by critics and fans. The filmmaker went on to take full advantage of swiftly advancing digital tools, delivering a dozen years later the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s literary sensation “Life of Pi.” This time, Lee wedded his storytelling and visual craftsmanship with lavish spectacle, reinventing the cinematic language of 3D. The movie won four Academy Awards in 2013, including Best Director and Best Visual Effects, and grossed $607 million worldwide.
That helps explain why Rothman backed Lee’s lofty tech ambitions for $40-million “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” based on the bestselling novel about a decorated Iraq soldier on leave at the Super Bowl. Significantly, on this film Lee decided to apply the high-speed 3D technology he’d initially wanted to use for his delayed and untitled Mohammed Ali/Joe Frazier boxing movie.
Lee’s cameras used an even faster frame rate than Jackson’s “The Hobbit”: 120 fps. Shown at the New York Film festival in super-bright 4K 3D, the movie was excoriated by some critics as unwatchable. Last week when I caught up with the film at the Vine Theatre in Los Angeles in 2K 3D — which was “softer and prettier,” Lee told me after the screening — it was not as bad as I had feared from the early reviews.
The sequences that first excited Lee when he was imagining the movie are the ones that are best enhanced by the super-clear, crisp imagery. The young soldier is going through a fairly mundane lead-up to a public appearance with his jittery infantry platoon, led by an excellent Garrett Hedlund, at the noisy, jarring 2004 Super Bowl in New Orleans. Throughout the movie, Lee flashes back to intense desert beige warscapes that are surreal and heightened, zinging with the soldiers’ urgency and fear. (The Dolby Atmos sound on the movie is also sophisticated and immersive.)
“The senses open up,” said Lee of the war scenes. “Our eyes can see a lot more. …Your eyes pick up so much visual detail.”
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When you find yourself examining a soldier’s hair follicles in close-up, that can be distracting. But other moments sing, like luminous close-ups on the faces of Lee’s best, most natural actors, Alwyn and Kristen Stewart as his guilt-ridden sister, desperate to keep her brother alive. Lee manipulates the point of view so we fall into their eyes. “In a movie when you see a face, it’s a face,” said Lee at the Q&A after the film. “How do you make that into a movie? It was quite challenging.”
What doesn’t play so well on-screen is everyday behavior from the likes of Chris Tucker and Steve Martin; they’re in a different movie and are revealed as patently fake. (None of the actors were allowed to wear makeup.) We get that this band of brothers, hardened and bonded by battle, prefer to stay together rather than escape their futile war. There’s no better role for them to play at home. It’s the same message as Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker.”
Like many filmmakers before him, Lee turned to technology to try to make his movie more extraordinary. As his industry colleagues may appreciate Lee’s daring moves, it’s clear that he’s still figuring out how to best deploy this new technology. And Rothman’s Oscar hopes are fading away.
Before the BAFTA Britannia Awards last Friday, where Lee accepted a directing award, the director still seemed shell-shocked from the negative reaction in New York, after living with the movie’s look for so long. While admitting that making the film was “scary for me,” he had no idea that the experience of watching it would feel so foreign to viewers.
Lee wants to keep learning. He hopes that Sony and Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8 will let him continue to play with high frame rates on his next, the Thrilla in Manila boxing movie. But if drama “Billy Lynn” bombs at the box office without strong reviews and a big awards push, we may have to wait for always-reliable Cameron, who is mounting his own attack on fast frame rates. With the first “Avatar” sequel set for 2018, he has three more after that to get up to speed.