Unless you live near one of the five theaters in the world that are currently equipped to show Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 120 frames per second, 4k resolution, and 3-D, you won’t see the film in the format director Ang Lee intended. According to many critics, this might be for the best. Most films are shot at 24 frames per second, which creates an abstract, well ... movie-like quality that viewers are used to. (When the camera moves, for instance, the action blurs.) In a higher frame rate like the one in Billy Lynn, everything is clear all the time, which creates a disorienting effect that even the movie's positive reviews have singled out for scorn.
Are the visuals really as bad as everyone's been saying? In the spirit of giving Lee’s much-ballyhooed technological innovation a fair shake, I set out to compare the experience of seeing the movie in the highest possible quality and then also in good, old-fashioned 24 fps. (To be extra fair, I saw the film in 120 fps, then in 24 fps, then in 120 fps again.) As the film goes into wider release, it will also be available in a variety of other formats, thanks to a battle between Lee and Sony head Tom Rothman, but we figure you can get a good sense of those from a look at the extremes. So, what's the difference between the two versions?
• The extreme clarity of the 120-fps format makes it easy to get distracted, especially you're supposed to be listening to dialogue. As Billy Lynn wanders through a Dallas Cowboys game, it's easy to find yourself spending a lot of time noticing details in the background: spreads of food, advertisements rolling on a Jumbotron, extras who are clearly engaged in fake conversations. In a lower frame rate, you can focus more on the dialogue, and the jokes — Billy Lynn isn’t filled with quips, but anecdotally, it got a lot more laughs in 24 fps.
• This is also true for the scenes that take place in Iraq — especially the battle sequences, where you might find yourself staring at a palm frond or tarpaulin flapping in the wind instead of Billy and his squad in battle. In 24 fps, you can focus on the more immediate contours of the action; it's easier to keep track of which soldier is going where, and why. It’s less immediate, but more legible.
• The crisp contours of Lee’s high-resolution filmmaking (especially apparent in a high frame rate, but noticeable in both versions) make many of the long shots feel especially empty. At a distance, the fans in the football stadium look like doll-sized figurines surrounded by an oppressive amount of negative space. The same goes for the soldiers, civilians, and enemy combatants in the battle scenes. It’s like watching a stage play on a set built to the wrong specifications.
• It’s no fun to watch close-ups in the higher frame rate, as the clarity heightens every micro-movement of the actors' faces. With that level of scrutiny, you can’t shake the sensation that Joe Alwyn, who plays the titular Billy, is acting, or that poor Steve Martin, who plays the devious owner of the Cowboys, is very old. The two actors who hold up best? Garrett Hedlund, who embraces the chance to be a ham, and Kristen Stewart, who is very good at the whole acting thing.
• In 24 fps, you accept things like dissolves (there are several), jump cuts, focus-pulls, and other standard parts of film grammar. In 120 fps, many of the standard tropes seem feel heavy-handed — as Slate’s Daniel Engber puts it, it's like “reading a book in which all the commas and periods [have] been put in bold and underlined.” In one particular conversation between Billy and a commanding officer played by Vin Diesel, the camera cuts between both actors as they speak. In 24 fps, this feels like standard coverage. In 120 fps, You. Notice. Every. Single. Cut.
• While Billy Lynn’s more rote scenes fare better in a lower frame rate, the film’s big set pieces are more astounding in a higher one. A Destiny’s Child (yes, really) concert at the center of the film crosscuts between a battle in Iraq, and in 120 fps, the total sensory overload of the experience is hard to shake. That's a compliment!
• There are a few moments where objects — footballs, ammunition, a pill bottle — fly at the screen. These flourishes only really make sense in 3-D and 120 fps, though they have the side effect of making the movie feel like a Best Buy product demonstration.
• In both 120 and 24 fps, I was left with the clear impression that Billy Lynn wanted to have sex with his sister. This seems like something you can't blame on the frame rate.
In sum, Billy Lynn is a better film in the lower frame rate. The contours of the plot become clearer, and more importantly, it's possible to forget you’re watching a film in the first place. If Billy Lynn at 120 fps is a lumbering effects demonstration, in 24 fps it’s a more of a bleak farce. There’s a cheerleader who only likes Billy when he’s going back to the war; a development exec (Chris Tucker) who's trying to contort the soldiers' trauma into a film; and most of the other characters care more about Billy, the icon, than Billy, the person. The film invokes the trappings of American patriotism — the soundtrack is full of early-Swift guitar twangs — to reveal how empty most patriotic gestures are.
But after seeing Billy Lynn in 120 fps, you also understand the thematic benefits of the higher frame rate. It's not clear whether Lee intended the higher frame rate as a Brechtian distancing effect, but that's the way it works in practice: At 120 fps the construction of the film is so obvious, that the movie's central thesis can't help but be driven home: Spectacle misses the point. The high frame-rate version of Billy Lynn is pretty good at making you mad at the emptiness of the movies. Too bad it makes you mad at Billy Lynn, too.