Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gravity: A New Kind of Film

by Stephanie

Last week I went to see Gravity with a friend and my son. We shelled out for the 3D experience since everyone had advised us it was essential, and we sat pretty close to the front. I'd heard it was a visual fest and you needed to be practically inside the screen to get the full effect.

Let me report that everyone was correct. It is indeed a CGI extravaganza. In fact, you could probably mute the score and toss the script and still get a lot out of the movie—it's aimed directly at your visual cortex. The term "CGI" is used almost as a pejorative nowadays, as if it's all just a bunch of fakery, but let's face it: spectacle is what cinema does best. Moviemakers only have two hours with their audience: you can't shoehorn a lot of plot or character development into that time. Novels and TV series just do storytelling better. Cinema has one thing to offer, and Gravity absolutely nails it.

Total sensory immersion can have a downside, though: I was not prepared for how hard the movie would be for me to watch. People kept telling me it was "fun," "like a rollercoaster," and "wheee!" It was not fun for me. By the end my shoulder blades were hitched up so high they'd nearly fused with my ears. My fingernails had left clawmarks in my thighs. If I hadn't been with two people I loved who seemed to be enjoying it more, I might have left the theater.

But I'm glad I persevered, because it really is a masterful film. We're used to technology in cinema bringing us films like Avatar or Life of Pi, where the fantastic is brought to life. In Gravity, reality is brought to life. This is a space drama with no aliens and nothing that couldn't actually happen. (Except for a few very minor science nitpicks.) Gravity is a reminder that space is inherently dramatic. According to Aristotle, "Man vs. Nature" is one of the four essential dramatic plots, and there isn't much more menacing in nature than the infinite void of space. For me, the blackness of space was a far more terrifying enemy than any monster or man. Within a very short time from the first shot, we are spinning into space along with Sandra Bullock, being swallowed up into nothingness, utterly helpless. I was overcome by a peculiar mixture of claustrophobia and agoraphobia during this scene, not to mention a little bit of vertigo. Movie theaters ought to stock air-sickness bags for this film.

Gravity is a triumph of camera angles. The way director Alfonso Cuarón uses point-of-view, you are attached to Sandra Bullock's character in a visceral, emotional way that makes all the drama that happens to her feel like it's happening to you. The camera starts off at a long distance from the action, slowly closing in on the spacecraft and then on Bullock over a very long uncut first take. Eventually we end up inside the space helmet, viewing the action from Bullock's POV. My son leaned over and whispered in my ear, "first person!", which told me Cuarón had, perhaps, learned this technique from video games. There is nothing wrong with this: it's an excellent choice for cinema.

Bullock has as many critics as fans, but I thought she did a great job in this movie. The obvious comparison, for me, was with Sigourney Weaver's character in Alien (maybe it's the skivvy-shots), and there is some overlap. But in keeping with the theme of "space reality," Bullock's Ryan Stone is more fragile and frightened than Weaver's Ripley. I admired Ripley from afar, but felt kinship with Stone. Her reactions to each crisis felt like they would have been my own, which is unusual in a film. Usually protagonists in action films are either impossibly brave and level-headed (like Clooney's character, and like Ripley) or they are making obviously stupid decisions that serve to advance the plot. Stone is clever and brave enough when it comes down to it, but she spends a lot of time yelping and panicking—in a way that feels natural, real, and raw. Considering how tightly choreographed this movie was, the ability to do any acting at all has to be applauded, and I won't be surprised if Bullock gets an Oscar nod for this performance.

This is not to say there aren't problems with the film, but most reviewers say they didn't really notice them at the time—they start to bug you later, when you're thinking about it. There's too much going on at the time to pay attention to the flaws, for the most part. One problem is the script. It's odd that such a meticulous, thoughtful film could have such a terrible script, but this one does. Mostly I went along with it, but a few lines were so awful I was yanked out of the movie: I wasn't experiencing it, I was watching it—and grimacing. Another common complaint is the score, which is rather heavy-handed. It didn't bother me, but others might find it distracting or manipulative. The third criticism is the sentimentality. Stone's tragic backstory seems unnecessary to the film, contrived to force audiences to care about her will to survive. The situation itself—lost in space, disconnected from Earth communication—is dramatic enough. We don't have to be manipulated into rooting for the protagonist.

Those criticisms aside, the film is a shoo-in for an Oscar. I find it almost impossible to believe it won't win at least one category, most likely one of the visual-imaging categories. Eighty percent of the film is animated; essentially, all but the actor's faces is CGI. It never feels like it. Everyone walking out of this movie says "I've never seen anything like it," and I agree. It seems groundbreaking in a number of ways that I can't even articulate. The only element that could have made this film any more immersive would have been to set it in one of those flight-simulator machines they have in museums: the kind that actually bob you around as the screen angle changes. Considering the leaps forward in 3D technology, I wonder how long it will be before exactly that kinetic technology is incorporated into movie theaters, bringing us that much closer to cinema becoming a virtual-reality experience.

Have you seen Gravity? What did you think? Do you agree that cinema has a different kind of narrative power than the long form of novels or TV shows? Is the trend toward spectacle a good one for cinema? Or do you wish we'd go back to smaller, simpler, low-tech films?


  1. Yeah, only a real bastard would walk out of a movie their friends seem to be enjoying. ;)

    1. Ha! I didn't even think about that. I was the driver, and it was only my child and my friend with me, so a different situation than our Star Trek moment. :) Also, I knew it wasn't a bad movie, just a slightly traumatic one.

  2. Great minds think alike! I watched Gravity last week and was also thinking about reviewing it for my next post! :)

    I really loved this film, Sister Steph. I usually don't like to watch films in 3D because they give me headaches but I think sitting in the back made a difference (I can see why your shoulders hurt after sitting in the front!) I felt somewhat dizzy at times, but I didn't mind it much because I was so immersed in the action. The effects were impressive but to me what mattered was the story. I think the film dabbed into one of our greatest collective fears: what if we were lost (stuck) in space? Not only does it show us how small and insignificant we are when confronted with the vastness of the universe, but it also appeals to our undying curiosity of space. I agree with you that it was much more scary than any monster they could have placed in front of us because it was so REAL (if they had shown an alien I would have probably walked out) let me explain: I like some Sci-fi, for example Prometheus. But a film like Gravity is way scarier because it makes us face our own mortality and how fragile our lives really are.

    I can see why her backstory bothered you. I also felt somewhat manipulated but it didn't bother me as much. Like you say, it was a quick/easy element to make us sympathize with her immediately. I was more upset when I realized (spoiler alert) she'd been dreaming a certain encounter (but upset in a good way, I guess).

    I was also fascinated by the fact that it was such a small cast and the story developed in just a few hours. I find that to be such challenge but really works when done right. It becomes a very personal story as opposed to the overdone grand scale end-of-the-world films out there.

    1. "It becomes a very personal story as opposed to the overdone grand scale end-of-the-world films out there." Yes! That's a good way to put it. It was a grand spectacle, yet small and intimate. I'm so tired of the superhero movies with all the crash-n-smash, entire cities leveled to save the girl (some superhero), where you just feel the director is throwing random things at you as fast as he can till your adrenal glands are completely burned out. Nothing in this movie was random. It took some four years to get this movie made and except for some of the script choices, I never felt talked-down to.

      "But a film like Gravity is way scarier because it makes us face our own mortality and how fragile our lives really are." That's exactly how I felt, too.

  3. One more thing: I like how this film makes you realize what we take for granted (gravity). Seems like such a simple, small thing, doesn't it?

    1. It's funny how a movie titled "Gravity" is centered around the complete lack of gravity. Except! In the other sense of the word. I remember one reviewer saying "Man, all the movies in the theater right now are soooo dark, dreary, and heavy. I mean, the most popular one is titled 'Gravity!'"

  4. I've not seen this film, but like everyone else have heard a lot about it. My husband (who is a techie-gadgety guy) looked into the company that created that weightlessness you see in the film. It is truly fascinating how they took things like robot arms and made them look so realistic in the film! I will probably eventually go and see it, but I'm not one of those who love a lot of stuff thrown at me on the screen (why I loathe superhero films). I guess I'd have to say I like the simpler, low tech stuff. The bare bones of the story are what seem to matter to me. And, I like a good surprise ending!

  5. I don't really want to see it, but I know I should see it because of the experience. It's the same way I felt about Avatar.


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