Last night, I saw Gravity in 3D at the AMC Burbank 16 ETX theater, which features a Christie projector with RealD XL and a Dolby Atmos sound system. It was also playing in the Imax auditorium across the hall, and while Imax 3D is brighter than the ETX presentation (two projectors versus one), I strongly prefer Atmos over Imax audio.
That preference was fully justified in this case—the soundtrack was one of the most effective Atmos mixes I've ever heard. It's no spoiler to say that the movie stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (essentially the only two on-screen actors in the entire movie) as astronauts struggling to survive after a catastrophic accident occurs while they're repairing the Hubble space telescope. The sound of debris flying all around the damaged space station, the direction from which the radio voices emanate as the camera angle changes, even the music—all were artfully steered throughout the room.
I didn't expect this movie to be very loud, but it actually was—an average level of 84.2 dBA over 1 hour, 44 minutes (including most of the trailers; it's a pretty short movie), with the highest 1-second maximum of 98.7 dBA. The level remained above 89.3 dBA 10 percent of the time, 81.8 dBA 33 percent of the time, and 75.5 dBA 50 percent of the time, and the OSHA dosage was 5.82 percent. Not the loudest I've measured, but I did need to put my fingers in my ears several times. (I didn't wear my earplugs because I wanted to hear the Atmos soundtrack as clearly as possible.)
The visuals are gorgeous. Apparently, most of what's on the screen is CGI (computer-generated imagery), except for the actors' faces in space suits and a few live-action scenes, which were shot digitally using Arri cameras. As a result, the 3D is mostly native except for those few live elements, which were post-processed into 3D by Prime Focus. It looked quite seamless to me—the 3D is extremely effective and really enhances the sense of floating in space. Speaking of which, the black of space might not have been quite as deep as I've seen elsewhere, but it certainly didn't bother me. And the sweeping shots of Earth below were breathtaking.
UPDATE: I saw Gravity again in Imax to compare the presentations. Imax was certainly brighter and bigger, but the audio was nowhere near as immersive as Dolby Atmos. The levels were marginally higher—84.5 dBA average, 99.3 dBA 1-second maximum, above 89.4 dBA 10 percent of the time, above 82.5 dBA 33 percent of the time, above 77.4 dBA 50 percent of the time, 6.60% OSHA dosage—but not dramatically so. For me, there is no question—I would pick an Atmos showing over Imax if possible.
As for the movie itself, it's a gripping tale of survival with a strong, competent, yet understandably terrified woman in the lead role. Bullock plays bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone, a mission specialist sent to repair the Hubble space telescope. Commanding the mission is Matt Kowalski (Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his final trip to space. When Russia uses one of its own satellites for missile target practice, the debris crashes into other satellites, causing a chain reaction that sends tons of shrapnel hurtling toward the astronauts at a relative 20,000 miles per hour, damaging the shuttle, the International Space Station, and a nearby Chinese space station beyond repair. Stone flies off uncontrollably, but Kowalski reaches her with his jet pack, and they head for the ISS to see if its Soyuz escape capsules are intact, knowing that the debris field will return every 90 minutes.
I was especially mesmerized by the incredibly long tracking shots in space—the movie opens with a single continuous shot that lasts 17 minutes! There are lots of other long shots, mostly when the characters are floating in space rather than in a space station or capsule, which really places the audience right there with them. In fact, the entire movie has only about 200 cutaways, far fewer than most feature-length movies.
The story is pretty implausible—for example, why would a bio-medical engineer be sent to fix the Hubble telescope? Also, the Hubble and the International Space Station are more than 100 miles apart in altitude, yet they are in visual range of each other in the movie. I found myself wondering why the movie is called Gravity, when it's mostly about zero gravity and angular momentum. (In the end, gravity does assert itself.)
Then there's the physics of a weightless environment. As astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has noted, Bullock's hair does not behave as it would in zero-G, and the scene in which Kowalski detaches himself from Stone before they both go flying off makes no sense—by the time he makes that decision, they've both stopped moving relative to the ISS, so there was no need for Kowalski to sacrifice his life to save Stone's.
On the other hand, apart from Bullock's hair and the detachment scene, the depiction of weightless motion is quite good. Reportedly, Bullock spent up to 9 or 10 hours per day in an elaborate mechanical rig because it was so difficult to get into and out of. And I applaud director Alfonso Cuaron for keeping all sound effects out of the space shots—I've always hated it when filmmakers add the sound of explosions and such in an airless environment.
Geeky quibbles aside, Gravity is a powerful, intense movie that transcends the typical sci-fi thriller. No evil aliens, no time travel, just a riveting drama that explores the inner space of psychological resilience and transformation in the face of disaster and the importance of human connection. I highly recommend it, especially in an Atmos theater.