Saturday, October 19, 2013

Okay with My (Orbital) Decay

Film: Gravity
Format: Kerasotes 16 IMAX.

It’s not often that you walk out of a film thinking that you’ve seen something that could legitimately win all five major Oscars. It’s even rarer when the film in question not only could but should win every technical award as well. Sadly, Gravity probably won’t win every major award because Oscar hates science fiction. Gravity isn’t really a science fiction film; it’s a drama that takes place in space. The technology shown in the film isn’t futuristic. It’s current, real-world stuff. But since the film takes place miles above Earth’s atmosphere, it’s suddenly science fiction. It probably will win most of the technical awards and it will be nominated all to hell and back, but it probably won’t win.

I say this as someone who is ambivalent to the acting charms of both stars, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Both are fine actors, but both also have made a number of really bad film choices in the past. Here, aside from the shocking cinematography, they are all we have to carry the full weight of the film and both are perfectly cast.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and career astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are in the middle of a spacewalk. Kowalski is testing a new jetpack while Stone is making repairs on the Hubble deep space telescope. There are a few problems getting the Hubble to work again, but progress is continuing apace when a message comes in from Mission Control (voiced at the start of the film by Ed Harris, who makes a good Mission Control voice). Russia has detonated a defunct satellite with a missile. This has caused a cloud of debris traveling at high speed in orbit. The debris is wrecking other satellites, causing the damage to spread, and the shuttle lies directly in the path of the incoming cloud of shrapnel.

What follows is an exercise in vertigo. The wave of debris smashes into everything, sending Dr. Stone spinning off into space and killing everyone onboard the shuttle. Only Kowalski, thanks to his jet pack, manages to avoid being ripped to shreds. The entirety of the rest of the film, probably 70-75 minutes or so, is Stone and Kowalski doing everything they can to get back home.

Regular readers will (or at least should) know that I don’t pull out the potty mouth too often here. Use it constantly and it loses its power. So when I say that Gravity is holy-shit good, I mean it. It’s worth repeating: Gravity is holy-shit good.

There are a lot of reasons for this. I really couldn’t say which of these reasons is the most important or most compelling, so I’m going to go through them more or less as they come to me. It’s also worth noting here that as good as these elements of the film are, the sum is much greater than the parts.

I did say there wasn’t an order, but the first mention has to be the way the film was shot. I have no idea how Cuaron managed to get many of these shots. Certainly they are effects, but they are virtually flawless. There were moments when the 3D stopped working for me, but I attribute that more to myself than to the film. I regularly have problems with 3D movies and have to keep refocusing my eyes. Gravity’s 3D is better than most, so the occasional blurry spots I attribute to my own physiology rather than the film. But without the good and bad of 3D, there are still a number of shots here that I simply can’t explain. I’m sure in 20 years I will revisit this and see all of the seams, but right now, it is virtually flawless visually, and that says a lot for a film that takes place in zero- and micro-gravity environments.

This is true throughout the film. Those moments when the debris cloud rushes past us are obviously computer generated. I say “obviously” only because I know they weren’t actually filmed in space. There’s a sense of reality here that must be acknowledged. It all looks like the real thing.

George Clooney is a great presence here. As an experienced astronaut on his last mission (yes, a bit of a cliché, but still), he is a calming presence even in the worst situation. A knee-jerk reaction would be to suggest sexism in Clooney’s calm vs. Bullock’s panic, but I didn’t read it that way. This was experience over inexperience. It’s a critical difference because both her panic and her humanness is what allows Sandra Bullock to put the weight of this film on her shoulders and carry the whole damn thing. We might root for Matt Kowalski because he comes off as heroic, but we immediately sympathize with Ryan Stone because most of us are more like her than we are the tough, experienced commander. This is probably Sandra Bullock’s defining role, at least up until now. I don’t know that she can play a role better. That’s not disrespect—that’s a suggestion of just how good she is in this.

So let’s talk about the script, which in this case means talking not about Bullock’s performance, but her character. In a Hollywood that is increasingly gender-defined, it’s fantastic to have a film like this one that allows us to completely forget the gender identities and roles of the characters. Dr. Stone simply happens to be a woman. She’s not a woman trapped in space; instead, Stone is a person trapped in this situation. Her gender is less important than her eye color in how the story plays out. It would be conceivable to switch the genders of the two main characters and essentially make the same film, no other changes. That is the sign of a smart screenplay.

I’m fairly certain that among my regular readers I am the last person to see this. If by chance you haven’t seen Gravity, you should go. You should go this week. You should see this on the largest screen you can, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) you should see it in 3D. (You were right, Nick.)

Why to watch Gravity: Because there is not a single bad thing about it.
Why not to watch: If you’re prone to vertigo, you will throw up.


  1. Great review. You and I picked up on many of the same things.

    1. We did pick up on the same stuff. I avoided your review until now. The fact that we independently came to similar conclusions leads me to think we're both probably right.

  2. Getting this one out early before it inevitably makes the list next year? I don't blame you. :)

    I unfortunately have to agree that this probably won't win too many non-technical awards. It'll get the nomination (Picture, Director, and hopefully Actress) just from the hype coming out of the gate, but yeah, it probably won't win. I do, however, have to disagree that this has the chance to win the Big 5, mainly because the script is not heavy with dialogue and thus it stands a much less chance of winning for its screenplay, but if for no other reason than Clooney should definitely not win Best Actor, and I'd be surprised if he got the nom; he's basically George Clooney in this, and while it works for the material, essentially playing yourself does rarely an Academy Award make.

    Also, for a little proof-reading: Clooney's character is Matt Kowalski, not Mike.

    But yeah, everything else - spot on. Loved this film in every way and went to see it twice. I posted a status update on Facebook after seeing it that basically said if you're my friend and you don't go see Gravity, I'm not quite certain we can be friends anymore.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I may have confused the name of Matt Kowalski with that of Mike Wazowski.

      Screenplay, though is more than just dialogue. The Naked Prey was nominated for screenplay and that film has maybe 100 lines of dialogue total, and that's if I'm being nice. Of all the awards, that and Best Actor are the two long shots for winning, but I think it will be nominated for screenplay.

      Clooney does play himself, but Clooney almost always plays one version of himself, doesn't he? As it happens, he's been nominated four times for acting and won once. Oscar seems to like George Clooney.

      Well, we'll see what happens. If it doesn't get a shit-ton of nominations, there'll be a riot.

  3. Whoo! I like being right. :P

    Glad you enjoyed this. Like the others, we're pretty much at the same conclusion, as well.


    I knew Clooney was gonna die because of the whole "my last mission" cliche, but I didn't realize he'd die so early on (or at least what felt like so early).

    1. That particular cliche was the only wrong note I found in the whole film, and it's such a minor thing that I don't care about it too much.

  4. You're not the last to see this. I finally watched it about a week ago. I only remembered this morning that you had written a review of it, so I sought it out.

    I agree the visuals are fantastic. I saw it in 2D. Unless and until they get real 3D movies, not 2D ones with a strobing light, I'll never see another film in that format. For me it's a question of why pay twice as much to get a massive headache. It's not your physiology that's off; the human eye is not meant to continually have to refocus like that on what is actually a flat image. It's the people who never actually focus on anything on the screen that deal best with the fake 3D.

    I don't think Clooney will be nominated for Best Actor, not specifically because of his performance, but because the role is more that of a Best Supporting Actor. Also, nominating him the "lesser" category gives him a better chance of winning.

    I liked Gravity quite a bit, but not quite as much as you (I gave it four stars out of five. I saw you gave it 4.5 on Letterboxd.) Unfortunately, a couple of glaring (for me) science errors greatly lessened the impact of the most emotional scenes, especially Clooney's big scene.

    I COMPLETELY agree that this is not science fiction. I couldn't believe all the people on IMDB who think it is just because it takes place in space. The same people would probably not think of Children of Men as science fiction because it takes place on the ground here on Earth (although it is set in the near future.) I agree that way too many Academy members are among these same people for it to probably win Best Picture. Of course, I haven't seen a number of the other probable nominees yet so for all I know there's one among them that I will consider to be a clear favorite over Gravity anyway.

    1. You're probably correct that Clooney, if nominated, will be nommed for Supporting Actor. I'll be very shocked if Sandra Bullock isn't nominated, though. She really carries the whole film. The special effects might be the reason to watch it, but if we don't care about her, it's just pretty pictures, and this is far more than pretty pictures.

      I don't regret seeing this in 3D, which is not a sentence I say often. I really don't regret seeing it in an IMAX theater sitting in the sweet spot of the theater where the screen encompassed virtually the entirety of my field of vision.

      I acknowledge the science problems, but I choose to overlook them in order to allow the movie to play out.

    2. I agree on Bullock. I should have mentioned that in my first comment. I'm curious if this will get a cinematography nom when the vast majority of the images were cgi. I think the chances are good. Avatar was not only nominated, but also won, Best Cinematography and that film is completely animated for 60% of its running time, let alone just having background images be cgi.

    3. Oh, I'll be terribly surprised if it doesn't walk away with a host of technical awards, and cinematography wouldn't shock me a bit.