Gravity

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I’m sorta in two minds about popular sci-fi filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (full name ‘Alfonso Ka…koo…how do you say it?’). One the one hand, his two American-released movies, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, were among my favorites as a child and adult respectively.

But on the other hand, no one likes admitting that he’s a sci-fi filmmaker. I mean, quite aside from the movie about time-traveling teenage wizards, or the feature-length Twilight Zone episode, there’s his latest movie, the space-action blockbuster Gravity. Critics up to and including the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who has the unparalleled honor of having his reviews at the top of every Rotten Tomatoes page he’s on, try to avoid the guy’s genre-movie roots.

Orr calls the movie “a fascinating experiment in hybrid filmmaking, an awesome display of cutting-edge special effects deployed in the service of a compact character drama.” You’ll notice that nowhere in there does he mention it’s about astronauts in the future trying to escape a series of explosions and spectacular destructions, when that’s the focal point of the film’s ad campaigns.

What a fascinating experiment! I want to see this compact character drama, right away!

What a fascinating experiment! I want to see this compact character drama, right away!

Yeah, I’m one of those people who are annoyed by the terms “magic realism” – it’s like calling “anime” a genre. Yeah, you can argue that it’s too far apart from everything else to escape a specific classification, but at the end of the day you just can’t say that Groundhog Day isn’t fantasy or Children of Men isn’t sci-fi. Just like how, by the same token, you can’t say that Neon Genesis Evangelion is in the same genre as “Yotsuba, and!

(NOTE: The author wishes it to be known that he has never watched or read Yotsuba And, and in fact only knows about it from his brief, cautious forays into 4chan.)

The real meat of the problem is not that people refuse to classify Cuaron’s films as science fiction, but that those films are so very good. Gravity, as I’ll get into, is really really entertaining, and is the exact sort of movie that everyone has a reason to love. The art house snobs get a story told with the minimum of characters and words, and the popcorn-munchers get the aforementioned explosions. The young get a wonderful story of cutting-edge science gone wrong and right, and the old get a reminder of the days when space really was the final frontier.

The movie starts with a beautiful view of Earth as seen from orbit, which rotates slowly as some astronauts revolve around the planet. Don’t forget that Gravity is like Waiting For Godot or The Thin Man: the title character doesn’t show up a whole lot.

We meet our astronauts: The team leader is George Clooney. He’s not the star of the movie, but he sure is the hero. He’s tall, stentorian, ridiculously handsome, bestubbled, and communicates almost entirely in inspiring speeches, technobabble, or cliches – just like Star Trek Voyager!

Among his first lines are “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, “This is one prime piece of hardware”, and “This is my last flight”.

Among his first lines are “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, “This is one prime piece of hardware”, and “This is my last flight”.

The thing about Space Captain Clooney is that I used him to predict the entire narrative arc of the movie. “It’s obvious”, I said before even seeing the movie, “That they won’t give Clooney second billing just so he can be killed off really fast. And yet, it’s equally obvious that he’ll die early on to give Sandra Bullock a chance to shine. So I think he’ll die early on, then he’ll show up at the end of Act 2, in a flashback or something, to give her inspiration.”

And yeah, it turns out his role in the narrative arc is just as predictable as everything else he says.

Anyway, the other astronaut is Sandra Bullock, who’s the audience surrogate – she had much less training than she was supposed to, and she’s a medical doctor rather than the combination engineer/astronomer/triathlete that astronauts usually are.

Why is she up here in space, you may ask? Because Cuaron likes subverting standard narrative conventions, and so here he’s trying to bring across that normal unlikely heroes without any of that fancy book learnin’…would be completely out of their depth in a real high-tech crisis, and the only Armageddon involved would be their own.

However, the in-story reason she’s up in space is that she designed a special computer program that will drastically improve the Hubble Space Telescope, which is the Jefferson Memorial of space – not as popular as things like the ISS or Saturn, but everyone knows what it looks like and what it does.

No need for “GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT - ABOVE AFRICA - 15:24 UST” or whatever.

No need for “GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT – ABOVE AFRICA – 15:24 UST” or whatever.

As Space Captain Clooney and Dr. Bullock work on the telescope, not much happens for a while, letting the viewer ease in to the graceful, frictionless cinematography. Pretty much the entire first act is done in a single take, and it’s the good kind of single take.

Okay, I take that back. There are two kinds of good single-take shots. One is this one, where the film is being shot in such a style that you don’t notice the extended take unless you’re paying attention, and the scene is largely unaffected. The second good kind is stuff like that long group shot in The Avengers or the opening scene of John Travolta and Samyalel bantering in Pulp Fiction, where the tracking shot is supposed to very obviously set the tone of the scene and show how seamless and interconnected everything in it is.

Between them there’s a boring and pretentious dead zone, of really obvious extended takes that aren’t there for any discernible reason. I’ll admit that Children of Men had a few of these, but they sort of get lost in the shuffle among all the better examples that were there.

Gravity’s relaxed and free-flowing feel manages to avoid this, as well as providing a good buildup for when shit really starts going down. In fact, the burn is so slow that the audience is only really clued in when the radio back to Houston mentions that there’s some space debris heading the astronauts’ way, and you realize that the soundtrack has been playing foreboding strings for the past minute.

This is the villain of the story, played in a dynamic cameo by the Red Comet from Game of Thrones.

This is the villain of the story, played in a dynamic cameo by the Red Comet from Game of Thrones.

But soon, disaster strikes in the form of the above cameo, and everyone is sent flying out of control in a sequence that manages to be fascinating and nauseating in that order. Dr. Bullock ends up hyperventilating, spinning and flailing her arms helplessly, until she’s rescued by Space Captain Clooney. It’s nice to see that the hero is the completely incompetent one, who has to shape up and learn how to space good to survive. It’s a pretty compelling arc, and gives the opportunity for quite a lot of emotional weight since the question of how much she can and can’t do is always up in the air.

Space Captain Clooney is still handling things for now, though. He’s keeping a tight leash on Dr. Bullock after he rescues her – literally, since a tether is the only way they can stay near each other. It doesn’t stop her from having a quick horror-movie scene, when she encounters the remains of her crew, flash-frozen and suffocated in the vacuum.

Since the Pyramids of space are no longer tenable, Space Captain Clooney decides they should head for the Hollywood Sign of space – the International Space Station. There’s a great shot of them flying off into the sideways, curved horizon.

They should have kept this ‘til the end, honestly. And put the sun setting, too - so you’re literally turning a cliche on its side.

They should have kept this ‘til the end, honestly. And put the sun setting, too – so you’re literally turning a cliche on its side.

As they float to the ISS, Dr. Bullock shares her story. Her daughter died tragically, and since then she’s pretty much devoid of any sense of purpose, meaning or fulfillment in her life – which somehow didn’t forestall her creating super-advanced technology and undergoing months of grueling astronaut training.

Y’know, come to think of it, this could be seen as a really anti-scientific movie – everyone who relies on technology is completely put through the wringer, while the only survivor is Dr. Bullock, who symbolically returns to old-timey natural simplicity at the end by going back to Earth.

But I might be just reading into things too much, given the level of complexity the movie’s operating on: When the astronauts reach the space station they spiral out of control, and Space Captain Clooney ends up hanging on to Dr. Bullock and the space station by a literal thread. “I’m holding you back!” He says. “Let go! You have to learn to let go!”

Hey, it’s almost like the predicament she’s in now is a metaphor for her place in life! Ha ha ha, a very smart man has died to prove this relatively meaningless point!

“Hope these billions of dollars’ worth of property damage inform your purpose in life, Doctor!”

“Hope these billions of dollars’ worth of property damage inform your purpose in life, Doctor!”

After Clooney continues to advise Dr. Bullock up to his literal last breath, she manages to get herself into the ISS, whereupon everything goes quiet. Since this movie has such a thin plot, you start to notice all the technical stuff that usually stays in the background – the sound mixing is really good, and combines with some excellent ambient music to complement the VFX that are the real focus of the movie, which are so good they make this the second movie actually improved by 3D that I can think of offhand.

Back in the plot, Dr. Bullock is about to catch some R&R at the station, maybe relax with a sippy cup of Tang and jam with Commander Hadfield, when she discovers that everyone has left in such a hurry that they forgot to turn off the space gas. That’s right, the entire structure is now on fire.

No, seriously. This actually happens. She floats over to try to put out the fire, but the extinguisher doesn’t work as well in zero-g. And of course, we get a weightless version of that old sci-fi standby, having to escape a giant fireball coming down the hallway.

Again, “experimental character piece” are the first words that come to mind.

Again, “experimental character piece” are the first words that come to mind.

Yeah, the movie’s pretty dumb. as we see when our hero encounters even more trouble just trying to disengage the escape pod from the space station. The laws of thermodynamics don’t apply in space, but Murphy’s Law still works just like normal. There’s not much point in talking about almost anything that happens in the rest of the movie other than “Things go wrong by sheer bad luck, and Dr. Bullock only just manages to escape”. She tries to fix the escape pod, the Red Comets come back again, the escape pod can’t land, the nearest space station is also abandoned, the only person on the radio is a random Inuit who doesn’t speak English (and has somehow wandered onto the Equator), and then she starts running out of oxygen yet again.

In fact, all these bad things combine to make some good things happen: As she passes out from oxygen deprivation, she has a flashback/hallucination of Space Captain Clooney, who gives her some pithy, unoriginal advice before vanishing. Galvanized by this stirring assemblage of stock lines, Dr. Bullock improvises a way to get her oxygen back and land the escape pod. “I’m not quitting!” She says. “Let’s go home!”

This would be…okay if this improvised method didn’t consist of using a fire extinguisher to fly around in space, like a jetpack. Now, I’m on the older side of the Pixar generation, but even then I can’t be the only one to have seen this and immediately thought of the space dance from WALL-E.

“Directive! Pla-a-a-ant...directive!”

“Directive! Pla-a-a-ant…directive!”

And that’s about it. The rest of the movie is a single, uninterrupted action sequence as the escape pod crashes down onto Earth. There’s not much reason to care about the characters before now, but I’ll admit that this made me seriously want as much cool looking stuff to happen as possible.

And the scene delivers – not only do we see the reentry and splashdown in exquisite detail, but to cap everything off the escape pod malfunctions and starts sinking to the bottom of whatever body of water she landed in, meaning she has to swim to safe, high ground. She does, glories in the fact that she’s safe, and that’s it.

You know, I feel like I’m really underselling the movie in this review. On paper, it’s pretty dumb, thin and hackneyed, and yet I enjoyed it. It’s all in the presentation, I guess – if you’re looking for a dumb thrill ride of a movie, it’s a much smarter dumb thrill ride than things like Transformers or After Earth, and is better for your soul too.

…unless you call it “magic realism”.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: Visuals
THUMBS UP: Sound
THUMBS DOWN: Story

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Clooney

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