The Upshot of ‘Billy Lynn’: Movies and Virtual Reality Don’t Mix, But Shouldn’t They?

Owen Gleiberman
Variety

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is the most accomplished and provocative movie in a long time that ever went down as a debacle. From the moment it premiered at the New York Film Festival in October, it has been viewed by media culture as a colossal misfire, a highbrow “Ben-Hur,” a movie no one seeking a good night out at the movies would want to go near. Now that the film has opened wide and the numbers are in, the dire reaction seems complete: No one wanted to go near it.

Yet the film’s failure to connect isn’t as simple as it sounds. You might call “Billy Lynn” an audacious experiment that got cut off at the knees. Directed by Ang Lee, it’s an earnest drama about Iraq War soldiers that was filmed in a brave new format (3D 4K at 120 frames per second), but it only got to be exhibited in that format in two theaters out of 1,175 — a situation dictated by a combination of technology (most theaters weren’t equipped to show it) and economics (the film’s studio, Sony Pictures, wasn’t about to invest in upgrading those theaters so that they could show it), and by the fact that test audiences, overall, didn’t react well to the format. (If they’d been over the moon about it, perhaps the economics would have changed.)

This was not, to put it mildly, a case of genius planning. The movie, whatever its virtues (or limitations) as storytelling, carried a built-in hook, one that had the potential to speak to viewers who’ve been groomed by the digital age to be seekers of new technology. When you watch “Billy Lynn,” the high frame rate combined with the 4K resolution results in a crisp bright sharp image that turns the movie screen into a diorama with no glass pane in front of it, one that you feel like you’ve actually entered; at moments, you’re practically right there in the room along with the actors. Some have likened the experience to HDTV, but I’ve never encountered a TV image that had the tactile immediacy of “Billy Lynn.” Does that, in itself, mean the format succeeds? Not necessarily. Yet it’s bold and vivid and grabby and new. It’s an experiment that’s utterly worth seeing. To make a movie with a potentially revolutionary visual texture and then to basically say to audiences across the country, “Would you like to have this ground-breaking experience? Well, guess what — you can’t!” does not represent an instance of good marketing or smart cinema.

You could make a case — and I would — that Ang Lee, in choosing to hang his eye-popping hyperreality ride on a tale of Iraq War soldiers who are shipped, for PR purposes, back to the U.S., where they’re paraded like human action figures during the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys game, made a staggering mistake. If you find it hard to wrap your head around the concept of “Billy Lynn,” that’s because the concept sounds oxymoronic: a visual trip wedded to a subject that couldn’t have less to do with visual flimflam. Beyond that, let’s be honest: Is there an audience out there — has there ever been one — for an Iraq War movie that’s not an explosive combat action film like “American Sniper”? “Billy Lynn” has a couple of startling battle sequences, but it’s basically a wallow in highly tentative liberal message-movie emotions of alienation and despair. It’s the kind of movie that’s been failing to connect at the box office ever since 9/11 (just look at “The Hurt Locker,” which earned a grand total of $17 million domestic — in other words, it couldn’t even use its movie-of-the-year accolades, including the Academy Award for best picture, to break out of the indie ghetto). Combine that with the mostly inaccessible, not-coming-to-a-theater-near-you format, and you have a perfect storm of prestige-movie defeat.

Yet as one of the only critics who liked “Billy Lynn,” let me introduce a qualifier into the equation. For 10 years now, all of us have lined up, like joylessly dutiful junior-high students, to watch 3D movies. Once in a while the results have been spectacular (the obvious example: “Avatar,” that glowing extravaganza of light-show immersion), but 97 percent of the time, in movies from “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” to “Alice in Wonderland” to “Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience” to “Clash of the Titans” to “Resident Evil: Afterlife” to “Tron: Legacy” to “Thor” to “Hugo” to “John Carter” to “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” going to a 3D movie has meant sitting there in those glasses, taking in images that are always a little darker and more murky than you want, images that don’t, in the end, really look “3D,” all for the sake of a rote sensation of “popping” gimmickry. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that in those 10 years, I have only rarely seen a 3D movie that didn’t work just as well (if not better) in a non-3D format.

The 3D “revolution” has been a listless, half-baked experience, and the more it went on, the more clear it became that the ostensible reason for it — a way to make movies competitive in a marketplace of increasingly distracted eyeballs — was, to a degree, an excuse. The underlying motivation was that ticket prices could be jacked up. Now, with “Billy Lynn,” along comes a movie — one movie! — that truly tries to change the game. And it’s treated as a pariah. What makes the outright dismissal of “Billy Lynn” especially ironic is that we live in an era when the dream of virtual reality is perpetually being nattered about, and in ways (after 25 years of nattering) that dream is starting to come into being, and once you get past the tech lingo that’s what this movie is: an attempt to take the spirit of virtual reality right onto the big screen.

There’s a strange way that video and digital technology, as viewing experiences, can change our relationship to time. I first noticed this in a powerful way when I saw the 2001 documentary “Ghosts of Attica,” about the Attica Prison uprising, which took place in 1971. For most of the film, you were watching 40-year-old grainy newsreel clips from the early ’70s, but at one point there was startling footage, shot from inside the prison during the uprising, that was taken with a primitive early video camera. Suddenly, the film didn’t look or feel “old;” it felt like you were seeing things in the present tense. The technology shifted the whole time sensation, and that’s what the high-frame-rate technology of “Billy Lynn” does in an even more dramatic way. It’s not just that you can see the actors, or the backgrounds, in minute detail (resulting, in one much-derided example, in a close-up encounter with the 71-year-old Steve Martin’s less-than-perfect skin). It’s that their presence has a live, existential, this-is-happening-now vividness.

But is that, potentially, how we want a movie to look and feel? As someone who has never been much of a groupie for virtual reality, I have no idea. Maybe not. All I know is that when I watched “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” there were sequences that hit me in a way that felt organically fascinating and intensely alive. The film’s conversations seem to exist in a sphere somewhere between that of a movie and a live play. The halftime show, a fiery explosion of light and music and packaged patriotic signifiers, has a disorienting intensity that puts you right in the shoes of the soldiers who are being used as live advertisements for themselves. And during the film’s combat climax, I felt like I saw and (in a small way) experienced what a contemporary warrior has to go through — what “Kill or be killed” really means — in a way that no film had quite shown me before.

Ang Lee could (and probably should) have taken an easier route. He would have done well to showcase the new technology through catchy fantasy material, the way James Cameron did with “Avatar.” Instead, he chose to make a movie that carves out its own eccentric visual-tonal space somewhere between a VR headset and a live broadcast from the Golden Age of Television. It was an experiment, and it’s being written off as a failed one, though that assessment would hold more water if it had ever truly been given the chance to succeed.

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