Sunday, October 6, 2013

Is "Gravity" a great movie? Depends what you mean by great, I guess.

An untethered Sandra Bullock tumbles through space in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.

I have now seen at least three Alfonso Cuaron movies -- Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and now Gravity (2013) -- and I'll be damned if I can find any thematic connection between them. The guy gets around, that's for sure. As I'm writing this, I've just come back from the experience of seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D, mainly because this review in the AV Club told me to. (What can I say? I'm a mindless sheep sometimes and can be easily led by just about anyone who sounds even halfway convincing.) The movie couldn't be any fresher in my memory than it is now, so I figured I'd write about it sooner rather than later. As you may notice, most of the flicks I review around here are 50 years old or more, so this is a rare occasion indeed.

I suppose I wanted to write about whether or not Gravity can be truly considered a "great" movie. Matt Pais, the often-contrarian critic for Chicago's feisty Red Eye, made a special point in his three-star review to declare it "not a great film." Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern has been making the rounds to discuss his review in which he declares Gravity to be unlike any movie that has ever been released before, a true landmark in cinema. Obviously, the greatness or not-greatness of Gravity will be decided by history. In our instant-oatmeal society (thanks for that analogy, Lisa Simpson), we're often too eager to rank every new movie that comes out and determine its place in the pantheon. Cuaron's picture has been out for about three or four days now. All we can do is guess. History makes monkeys of us all, so we should prepare to be wrong whenever we start prognosticating.

This still from 2001 clearly shows its influence on Gravity.
Based on my initial impression, I can say that Gravity is indeed an impressive technical achievement and is frequently something marvelous to look at. One of my core beliefs about movies is that they should provide us with "extraordinary things to see and to hear," and Gravity accomplishes that. Offhand, I can't think of a recent film which used special effects more convincingly in service of a compelling story. Gravity is a very effects-heavy film that tries not to look like an effects-heavy film. Cuaron is going for realism and plausibility here rather than impossible fantasy, and I believes he succeeds at that. In that sense, his film is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was obviously one of the inspirations for Gravity. At one point, Sandra Bullock's character, stranded first-time astronaut Ryan Stone, is seen curled up in the fetal position attached to an umbilical-cord-like tether, and it's damned near impossible not to think about Kubrick's space baby. (Speaking of homages, is it possible that the scene of Bullock removing her space suit in zero gravity is a descendant of Jane Fonda's free-floating striptease in Barbarella? Just a thought.) A major difference, though, between Kubrick's film and Cuaron's is that 2001 is open-ended, philosophical, and abstract, while Gravity is sentimental, inspirational, and uplifting, complete with heartwarming music and a sympathy-building backstory for its lead character. Did Cuaron, who also cowrote the script with his son Jonas, add these conventional storytelling elements because he truly believed in them... or was it just to make Gravity (which must have been expensive and time-consuming to produce) more commercial? Either way, the very traditional plot of this film will probably make many viewers enjoy Gravity more, but it sort of lessened my enjoyment. I'll put it this way: Gravity didn't shake me to my core and make me re-examine life or anything. When it was over, my thought was, "Hmmm. That was pretty neat," and not, "I have just seen a masterpiece." I might not have gone in the direction Cuaron did, but then again, my version of Gravity might have lost $100 million.

I thought about Dark Star while watching Gravity.
The other movie that I was thinking about during Gravity was John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974), a satirical sci-fi film with a vaguely similar "we're stranded in space and what the hell are we going to do?" plot. Very briefly, Carpenter's film -- set in the 22nd century -- centers around the crew of a scout ship whose mission is to destroy "unstable planets" in the deepest reaches of explored space. These men have been out in space so long that they've lost all interest in each other and in the mission. Frankly, they've all gone a little crazy -- in some cases, a lot crazy -- from isolation and boredom. Without spoiling things, a life-threatening crisis arises aboard the ship, and we see how these men deal with it. Or, more accurately, how they fail to deal with it effectively. Made very cheaply (an alleged "alien" is quite obviously a beach ball), Dark Star is one of those films which did manage to rattle around in my subconscious after I saw it. That's probably why I've revisited it periodically over the years. I can't see myself doing that with Gravity. Does that mean Gravity is not a "great" movie? Hell, I don't know. Time, my dear readers, is the only true indicator of that, and I just don't have enough of it. But I wanted to record my initial impression. Let's check back in ten, maybe twenty years and see if I was right. Deal?

By the way, if you're wondering whether it's worth the extra dough to see this flick in IMAX 3D, I'd say sure. Visually, it's trippy and transportive, and it's worthwhile to see the film in the immersive surrounding that an IMAX theater can provide. But, if you're running a little light on cash this month, you can live without it. The AV Club says that, if you don't view this movie on the largest-possible screen, you're not really seeing it at all. But I don't necessarily agree with that. You can see Gravity in a regular theater, and you'd still get the film's single-best element: a career-best performance by Sandra Bullock, who spends a great deal of screen time alone and conveys a lot of her character's emotions not through words but through facial expressions. You don't need IMAX or 3D for that.

7 comments:

  1. First off, you should definitely check out Children of Men. Seriously. Get on that.

    As for Gravity, I'm thinking of checking it out in IMAX 3D this week. I've heard a fair amount of drool over it, so I feel like I need to give it the right viewing experience. I've yet to be disappointed by a Cuaron film.

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  2. Oh, man. I've kept meaning to see Children of Men for years now. Been putting it off a loooong time. Definitely need to catch that one. I'm 99% certain you'll like Gravity. It was a little bit syrupy for me, and it forces the sentiment a bit, but a lot of other elements make up for it. I was expecting it to be darker and more experimental, but it's not that kind of film. I didn't really talk about her in this review, but Sandra Bullock gives what is (to me) clearly the performance of her career here, eclipsing everything she's done previously, good and bad. This film must have been grueling. I can imagine her being yanked around on harnesses in front of a green screen for months. But she manages to do some honest-to-goodness, real acting.

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  3. I've seen at least one reviewer who was less than enthused about Bullock's performance, but as I walked out of Gravity, my first thought was that it was shame she won Best Actress for The Blind Side, because she totally should win it for this instead.

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    1. I was thinking that, too. I actually saw The Blind Side, which is pretty dreadful stuff, and I think Bullock got an Oscar for that because her performance is showy and gives the film whatever life it has. I thought she was magnificent here, much more subtle than usual. My absolute favorite scene is the Chinese radio transmission. I actually thought it was going to end that way.

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  4. Nice review Joe. It has some of the best visuals I've seen since Avatar, and continued to have me more and more involved with the story as it went along.

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    1. Glad you liked the article. This film definitely sets a new bar in terms of visuals. Those looking for the state of the art of visual effects need look no further than this film. I'm sure James Cameron is watching and planning his next move.

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