I don’t do this too often, but I’m going to have to write this review as a blogger and not an amateur movie critic. I’m going to have to put the “no first person point-of-view” rule of journalism to the side and just write. If I end up sounding like an aimless stay-at-home-mom blogger today, I apologize, but I can’t keep thinking this hard after four hours of starts and stops, edits and deletions, and computer restarts. I’m just going to react, ramble, and editorialize while reviewing. Maybe I’ll rewrite this all nice and tidy later, but, for now, you’re getting all the tangents and angles that are fit to print.
Earlier today, I saw Gravity, the first film in six years from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, whose decorated resume is highlighted by Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien. The movie is arguably the most hyped and anticipated film since Man of Steel back in June. Therein lies the hill in my way: HYPE.
Gravity’s absolutely thrilling trailers and TV spots have been burning up the multiplexes and internet. It lands in a weak October movie season that is starving for a legitimate box office hit. The season also brings the early scent of Oscar inside the popcorn and films of pedigree like Gravity, starring a pair of Oscar winners in Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are starting to make their case for next February. The early reviews from the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals have been nothing short of extraordinary. The film resides on Rotten Tomatoes with a staggering 98% positive score as of now. That’s Pixar perfection territory. That’s huge and rarified air.
Want more? Here’s the hype cherry on top. When director and self-made explorer James Cameron, arguably the tip of the Hollywood spear for envelope-pushing special effects in cinema and reigning box office king of the top two movies in history, comes out and calls your movie the "greatest space film ever made," that's high praise and not the Andy Samberg/Nicolas Cage Saturday Night Live variety. That's quite a feather to have in your cap from the man who transcended visual effects with Avatar, Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and The Abyss.
That raises the bar entirely to a whole new level of hype. Because of all of that advance word, I’ve now read too many reviews for Gravity. I’ve read overwhelmingly positive ones from big-time critics like Chicago’s own Richard Roeper from the Chicago Sun-Times and Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune. I’ve read overwhelmingly negative ones from Examiner.com and fellow bloggers I respect like Tim Day on “Day at the Movies.” Normally, I don’t read reviews in advance. When I do, it’s purely for curiosity and to make sure I don’t repeat other people’s points. I’m astute enough that, when I do read other people’s stuff, it doesn’t skew me into any direction of agreement, favoritism, or partisanship. Simply put, I’m tough enough that I don’t care what they say. If anything they make me want to see a movie more.
This time, though, the competing reviews and the wide valley between the positive ones and the negative ones completely have me torn while sitting at my computer writing my own right now like a crafty mom blogger instead of a confident critic. They caught me caring for a change. They caught me buying all the enormous hype and, you know what, I’m not mad about it one bit.
I liked Gravity a ton and I’m not afraid to say it. I think it’s the best science fiction film from this year’s generous slate of original work in the genre that I’ve been tracking all year here since Oblivion in April on down through Pacific Rim, Elysium, and even the small-scale gem Europa Report. It’s an entirely worthwhile big screen experience that I completely recommend every single man, woman, and PG-13 eligible child to see for themselves. It’s a special experience that I will go into more detail on in a second. First, the other side has to be answered and supported.
Before the bouquets are thrown, the negative reviews you will read on Gravity are all dead on. I can’t argue that. Those critics aren’t snobby, cynical, unimaginative, or missing the point just to be contrary. Gravity has an extremely thin plot and takes plenty of liberties to skip character development by casting recognizable and well-liked star essentially playing their typecast selves as astronauts. It does move fast that it’s hard to care about the characters you just met. That’s fine that they want the power of Kubrick, Spielberg, or even Apollo 13 with their science fiction adventure. Gravity could be even better with those improvements and I can’t argue that.
You know what, though? I don’t care one bit again. The positives outweigh the negatives in so many ways with Gravity. One man’s “thread bare” is another man’s slimmed down straight-shooter. I like that this film skips some arbitrary half-hour “getting to know everyone” first act and gets right down to business. It’s a boxer that doesn’t wait for three rounds of jabs and dancing. It’s a movie gunning for a first-round knockout and scores. The film rarely lets up for 91 minutes and I consider that a strength.
In a colossal single-take opening, we witness veteran Explorer shuttle commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney) on his last ride working alongside bio-medical engineer and first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) as they are spacewalking to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. They are shooting the bull with Ed Harris’s voice coming from Mission Control in Houston. Work is finishing up when a chain reaction of self-destructing retired Russian satellites kills communication and creates an immensely dangerous debris field that is racing their way.
When the mission abort is initiated, it’s already too late as a shower of shrapnel strikes and catastrophically takes out Hubble and Explorer, sending Stone and Kowalski tumbling through low-orbit space. All of this is shot in an effects-assisted long take that swoop, zoom, and spin with the actors from up close to far away as the silence of space masks the disaster unfolding around them. It’s the best pure action scene since the plane crash from Flight last year and it’s just the start for even more thrilling sequences to come. I promise the skeptical out there that Gravity is more than the big action scene you see in the trailers and then two hours waiting for two characters to die like the independent head-turner Open Water.
For me, enough character quirks and hues are revealed along the way to make me completely interested in Gravity as a survival thriller. I don’t need a backyard barbecue prologue back in Texas or Florida of knee-slapping and beer-swilling camaraderie to feel at ease with my characters in peril. I don’t need a training montage of bonding. I don’t need Apollo 13’s shots of their spouses back on Earth tensely waiting at home in agony. I don’t even need to see Ed Harris with a headset and a buzzcut again. I get the basics and that’s plenty. The basics have enough weight in the weightlessness. When they don’t, fresh British composer Steven Price reminds you with his pulsating, intense musical score.
I like that Gravity’s pacing doesn't make time for that. What it sacrifices in character development, it delivers with suspense and twists. Like a real accident, cute details are out the window. I like that the film has that level of mystery and see-for-yourself nature. Enough notes are given to you to write your own book on these characters without handing you obvious, manufactured heartstrings and anchors that some screenwriter thinks we can’t come up with ourselves. I’m sure tired of some movies that tell me what I should like and care about. Gravity allows me to choose and hash that out on my own.
One man’s “Sandra and George are always like this“ is another man’s comfort food of watching someone know what they are good at and sticking to their strengths. The casting is not the problem of this movie. Sure, I can agree with the negative reviews out there again when they state that putting a pair of unknowns or lesser-knowns in those spacesuits would add a layer of intrigue to the core drama. They’re right, but the familiarity of Bullock and Clooney don’t hurt the movie. It helps with the character development shorthand at work to cut the crap and keep things moving. There’s still plenty of melodrama, but less than the norm for this kind of story.
I had zero problem with the twists and shades Cuaron gave his characters in this short time. I have no problem with the wringer he puts Bullock through. I’ll take ten scattered minutes of her character weaknesses over an hour-plus of Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball in Cast Away. I don’t feel like I’m lacking a connection I don’t care what Robert Downey, Jr., the original choice for Kowalski, would have done instead of Clooney. These two mega stars do their job and entertain. That’s all I was asking for and that’s all you need with the gas pedal to the floor.
Make no mistake, Gravity answers Cameron’s hype. The technical quality of this movie is off the charts. Sorry Apollo 13, 2001: A Space Odyssey and every film with “Star” in the title, but this is the best and most realistic the environment of space has ever been depicted on film, thanks to astounding detail and 3D craftsmanship from Framestore, a new visual effects house working on their first feature film. The entertainment website Cinema Blend, which thoroughly tests every 3D release for quality and value for your ticket price, gave Gravity just their fourth perfect score ever (following Hugo, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and Oz the Great and Powerful). They weren't wrong. This one is a treat that is worth the up-charge. If you can find IMAX, go see it there.
The film work side of Gravity matches the 3D. Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (The Tree of Life, Children of Men) is going to get his sixth nomination this winter for Gravity with no hesitation. The view is astounding for something on a green screen and Cuaron’s own editing is spot-on to move on a moment or linger just right. The story of how this movie was made, with complicated rigging, daring camera work, and LCD technology is its own thesis for breaking new ground.
As a final analysis, I will weigh both the good and the bad of Gravity and score it four out of five as I have here. It has its clear flaws and I can’t call those opinions wrong. There are better examples of pure science fiction that flex the science and the pump up the wonder of fiction. Those are different movies out for different goals than Gravity. I can echo the same sentiment with survival movies, but this wasn’t going to be Robinson Crusoe in space. There are better examples of high adventure and zeal set in space. Those fantasies are fine and sell a lot of toys. That doesn’t mean I can’t find zeal and fantasy in Gravity and its heightened realism. There are better performers out there for tension and suspense than Bullock and Clooney. I’m fine with two familiar faces answering the bell and playing by knockout rules. Most of all, it’s a movie that gets the most out of the medium of cinema and pushes the envelope further than the norm. It may not answer all the hype and promise, but it sure changes the game going forward.
LESSON #1: THE DANGEROUS JOB OF BEING AN ASTRONAUT—Those fisherman on Deadliest Catch can keep their waders and handwarmers. Try working in an absolute lifeless environment, dozens of miles above the Earth where the temperature ranges from hundreds of degrees above and below freezing. Work with a limited supply of oxygen, strict protocols, little room for error, and zero options for live rescue and then go hunt some crab.
LESSON #2: THE RESOURCEFUL ELEMENT OF SURVIVAL—Astronauts are no dummies. They train for months for these missions and simulate dozens of scenarios. They are the ultimate MacGyvers with means and science on their side. They will exhaust every resource at their disposal for its usefulness or possibility when necessary.
LESSON #3: REACTING TO DISASTER WITH CALCULATION AND POISE—Panic and shock to some level are unavoidable in life and death situations, especially in the dangerous and imposing environment of space. The ability for someone to regain their composure and make calculated decisions is remarkable in disaster situations. The poise and determination you take on may save your life.