In 2012, Peter Jackson released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, displayed at 48 frames per second (fps). He, along with James Cameron, claimed that shooting at a high frame rate made viewing 3D a more stable experience and would prevent the headaches they sometimes cause. Here, Ang Lee (Life of Pi) brings us a film shot at 120 fps in 4K 3D. I was lucky enough to see the movie in one of the few theaters that are equipped to show it at its native 120 fps.
The film tells the fictional story of a Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a young soldier who recently earned a Silver Star when caught on video leaping into the line of fire to save his Sgt. Shroom (Vin Diesel; The Fast and the Furious). Lynn and his team are invited to come on stage during a halftime show by football team owner Norm Ogelsby (Steve Martin; The Jerk) while they are temporarily back home for Shroom’s funeral. Along the way, Lynn reconnects with his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart; The Clouds of Sils Maria) and has a brief romantic encounter with a cheerleader.
The most immediate and striking aspect of the film are its visuals. The images are perfectly clean, without the slightest hint of grain or imperfections, and movement appears differently. The high frame rate means motions are almost too smooth. While initially jarring, the unique look quickly becomes acceptable. To Lee’s credit, the high frame rate significantly improves the 3D effect. Unlike viewing normal 3D films, where the images to separate when your eyes dart back and forth, here the 3D effect always holds constant and Lee uses it for impressively staged shots that take full advantage of the increased image depth.
The drawback to the image clarity is that it puts acting, good or bad, into stark relief. Lynn’s team has the back and forth expected from a tight knit group of young men, but the cheesy banter is made even more blatant by the visuals. The moments when an actor deliberately pauses before responding with a memorized quip are obvious and it makes the acting from the younger cast feel forced. The real standout is Garret Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) as Sgt. Dime. His loud, but incredibly eloquent and often hilarious diatribes convey his strength but also his love of his reports. Hedlund’s confident acting steals every scene and exemplifies the potential benefits of the shooting at this frame rate.
The film is at its best in scenes of action. Whether it is the fireworks of the halftime show or the deafening gunfire of battle, the film’s look is transportive. Normally, we look at films displayed on a flat screen. Here, it feels as if we are looking through the screen. In flashbacks of Lynn’s service, exploding buildings feel within reach and it makes every gunshot immediate. Lee smartly compares war scenes with the pyrotechnics of the concert to portray the effects of PTSD. The soldiers of Bravo squad leap at normal sounds because they are taken back their tour in Iraq. Using the strengths of his chosen medium, Lee is able to do the same to the audience.
Some have claimed that claimed that the format of the film is distracting and a step in the wrong direction. This idea is too narrow-minded to be correct. Using 120 fps will likely never become the standard. Instead it is a unique alternative that offers different strengths from the regular 24 fps we are used to. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk makes a strong case for the potential of the format, especially in action films. The increased image depth pulls in the eye and brings out details that would otherwise have been missed. While slightly diminished by some obvious acting, Ang Lee effectively uses the new technology to create heightened immersion into a character’s world and state of mind.