So. Gravity. It’s all over the Facebooks and the Twitters. People are gushing. The film has garnered a strong rating on IMDb – currently at 8.8 at the time of this posting. (The Shawshank Redemption, the highest rated film on that website, is holding at a 9.4.) The box office expectations have been surpassed. The film is an inarguable winner.
Gravity marks the third film I have seen in 3D, after Avatar and Life of Pi. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to skip this review. Or, stop reading after this sentence: Yes, you should probably go see it, and catch it in 3D, too.
Now, on to business.
Some excited viewers have called the film “a masterpiece.” Adjectives like “outstanding” and “magnificent” pepper the user reviews on fan sites. Some are eagerly slapping the “Best Film of the Year” sticker on it.
It’s been a long time since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Almost as long since Alien. And, after those, truly memorable, groundbreaking films are hard to come by.
Luckily, one thing Gravity Director Alfonso Cuaron does extremely well is break new ground. In his film Children of Men, Cuaron crafts a masterful scene with the main characters driving along through the woods when a gang of revolutionaries attacks the car. The POV for most of the entire scene is from within the car – a camera on a swivel in the center of the automobile makes use of an unobstructed 360 view of the action – putting you right in the center of it.
This same kind of intense immediacy is the staple of Gravity. Every conceivable method is employed seamlessly to place the audience right in the heart of the unfolding events. In short, the effects in Gravity are just astonishing. Not astonishing like big, huge, wow – but so well-handled and woven into the drama that they never announce themselves, but only enhance the story.
This is what effects should do.
The other thing Cuaron likes to do – and, WARNING; once again, if you haven’t seen it, you should stop reading now – is to have a main character die suddenly, and without fanfare. When we lose Clooney to the indifferent tug of eternity, there is nothing gratuitous about it. He simply drifts off, and then he is gone.
(The only thing about Clooney’s death that could strain credibility is with how calmly and nobly he meets his death. However, if you figure that being incredibly calm and noble is probably a prerequisite for anyone who is going to go up into space and float around in the name of humanity, then it makes sense.)
Back to the film being a masterpiece.
We may be a bit starved for truly good sci-fi. The brand new toys of computer-generated effects have given rise to a rash of sci-fi films that are big on flash and grandeur. Merits of its legacy notwithstanding, the latest Star Trek: Into Darkness, for instance, is a film with wonderful effects… that nearly put you to sleep. Elysium is just as dazzling (in a dirtier, grittier way), but the story succumbs quickly to formulaic trappings. Few sci-fi films from recent memory really reach in and do what good sci-fi ought to do: Take us to new heights emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually.
People are, after all, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these films. Their budgets soar beyond the gross national product of some small countries. We could be investing this money into schools, alternative technologies, or any number of things. Instead, we pile on the money for our entertainment. So maybe there is some social responsibility there to at least advance the culture in some way.
With Clooney gone, Sandra Bullock is now marooned on a space station. She has made her way to an escape pod that she realizes has no power. Exhausted, scared, she is calling out on the radio for help when she begins to communicate with someone from Earth. This person can’t help her (he’s just some Asian guy with a HAM radio) but she hears a baby in the background and is reminded of her own daughter, which she tragically lost some years before.
There in Outer Space, so unfathomably vast stretching out beyond her, Bullock is thinking about her child. It’s an amazing thing, and rings true, that even in such extreme conditions, the bonds we have with our children, our loved ones, are still bigger than anything the Universe can serve up.
Bullock also comes to the realization that she is going to die. She mourns herself, and that no one ever taught her how to pray for her soul. It is touching, and profound. It is enough.
Here, then, is where Gravity falls short of that lofty status of masterpiece.
Clooney reappears, and enters the pod with her, and drinks some vodka he finds, and encourages her to think her way out of the situation – to not give up. There are some landing thrusters, he says, which could propel her to the next space station, which is going to fall to Earth, and that’s where she wants to be.
But then Clooney disappears. He wasn’t really there (shocker), but was an apparition, or a figment of her imagination.
Once reinvigorated, Bullocks desultory attitude does a complete 180. She starts talking to Clooney in her mind as she rallies, introducing him to her departed daughter in the afterlife. As she presses buttons and flips toggles in a space station escape pod she thought had no power, the writers pour on the schmaltz. She continues talking to her daughter, mentioning something about how “Mommy found the red shoe, baby.”
So far in the film, everything has felt authentic. Likely a team of NASA experts were consulted in the movie making process. (Kudos for there being no sound in the film when the perspective is from Space. Bravo for the accuracy of all things related to zero-gravity. There is no cheating in Gravity.)
Yet the writing has suddenly started to spread on the cheese.
It would be enough to have Bullock rally – we don’t need to see Clooney come back and take a sip of vodka he finds beneath the cockpit seats. It would be perfectly adequate to have set-up her epiphany of what to do in order to get the escape pod powered with some bit of conversation earlier in the film. And it would have been enough for Bullock to cry for her daughter a little, and murmur to the HAM radio operator about her immortal soul. She doesn’t need to go through a second bout of tearful monologuing about how Mommy Loves You So Much. It diminishes the impact of the moments which preceded her rally. It turns the otherwise seminal film into business-as-usual.
The novelist and playwright Joyce Carol Oates said, “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”
Gravity, then, is a mass entertainment film.
It offers comfort. After all of the floating around in Space, just when Sandra Bullock has decided to give up, she has her magical moment with The Ghost of Clooney. The film has a different tone from this point on. It feels like the walls have closed in. What was riveting and authentic is now spoiled by the hand of the writers, in a give-em-what-they-want turn. Bullock, whose performance has been spot-on so far, now feels more like she’s playing the character in that movie about the homeless football player.
Morbid as it sounds, I found myself hoping that Bullock had actually died, and that her moment with Clooney was where she transitioned to the afterlife herself. And maybe something like Keir Dullea flying into eternity at the end of 2001 would happen now – we would be taken in an exciting, unexpected direction. Instead, we’ve turned the ship around and are headed for home, towards happy endings.
One last thing.
There is a strong birth metaphor in the film. When Bullock has first reached the space station, gasping for air, she pulls of her suit once the pressure has stabilized in the air lock, and she just floats for a minute. Tubes around her resemble an umbilical cord as she slowly rotates in an almost-fetal position. When she eventually crash-lands, she is immersed in water. She has to struggle through a small opening in the pod and then break the surface of the water where she takes her first Earthen breaths. Then, climbing onto the shore, she takes a few unsteady steps. The gravity is new to her, as it would be a newborn baby.
This too, is enough. This would have been plenty of an emotional core to the film without her talking to her daughter about the red shoe.
One red shoe can take the whole thing down. That’s how delicate things are out there in Space.