Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

“I did three 3D films and every one of them was directed by a one eyed director. Now figure that out. Is that Hollywood?” – Lee Marvin

“Where is everybody?” Enrico Fermi

Gravity is not a perfect story, nor are it’s character’s perfectly drawn, hell, even it’s rules of space aren’t that accurate according to some. But Gravity is a perfect MOVIE. Gravity is perfect as a communal experience in a darkened theater with all the rituals of going to the movies: popcorn, heavy air conditioning, twenty minutes of trailers, a seat crammed in between some chatty Hasidim and braying teens. It’s a perfect testament to the audacious production of the Hollywood studio system. And it’s a perfect reminder of why at $18 a 3D film is still better than a similarly priced “experience” elsewhere (Twenty bucks, not including drinks, to see a group of bearded twenty somethings do an acoustic cover of  Rhiana’s Umbrella anyone?).

If you haven’t seen Gravity already, it’s the story of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an astronaut who along with Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), gets hit by some hurtling space debris while on a routine mission and dislodged from their shuttle. The film follows Ryan’s attempts to get back to earth. You can use any movie review catchphrase to capture the tone of the film, “pulse-pounding”, “edge of you seat”, “thrill ride”,  and they’re all fully warranted.

Gravity combines the calculated majesty of Kubrick and the unrepentant populism of Spielberg with Cuarón’s languid camera. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse but the camera work in this film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen (and I once watched a forty minute hand held video that my brother recorded as he ran through the woods trying to find a model rocket he launched).  Cuarón achieves the impossible by using the camera to mimic the weightless environment of space, sustain tension, and define every character’s spatial locations, all with unbroken tracking shots that feel totally organic. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman, but Cuaróns’ long takes make the opening shot of The Player look like Coven.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was initially skeptical, and still kind of am, of 3D. It costs more. I wear glasses now so I have to put glasses over glasses (If 3D does become the norm they need to make a 3D version of flip downs.) And most importantly 3D wasn’t adding anything to movies other than gimmicky spectacle. It’s like putting ice cream on top of your ice cream. I don’t need any more fucking ice cream.

Yet 3D is important to Gravity not just because the film wants to push visual boundaries (seriously, the three dimensions really do immerse you in the endless void of space) but also because 3D is used to heighten the movie’s themes of loss and our primal need to feel connected to something, anything. Basically, the 3D fits. On so many others movies the 3D feels slap dash and cumbersome, but in Gravity the 3D is beautifully integrated from the opening image of earth’s curvature to the last image of Ryan rising on the beach like a female kick-boxing Godzilla.  By far the most powerful example of 3D adding a layer that 2D couldn’t is when Ryan’s will snaps and she begins to weep in the frigid escape capsule. As she sobs her tears freeze and float weightlessly away from her face. This scene is Cuarón at his most ingenious and sardonic. Even when our hero sobs there’s no gravity to hold the tears to her face. Her tears float toward the audience and hang there as little pieces of hopelessness.

Yes, some of the jabbering between Ryan and Matt is forced and corny. But as A.O Scott helped make clear in his review, they’re in the middle of a silent void. They’re not tethered to anything but a hunk of metal. Matt and Ryan need to keep talking to stay sane even if their dialog is uninspired. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from friends or critics is about a scene near the end when Ryan verbalizes an inspirational monologue. She’s decided not to give up and instead use her escape pod to try and reach a nearby station. Even though her monologue lacks any subtly, it isn’t too far fetched to believe Ryan would deliver this speech out loud. It’s the same as me pumping myself up in front of the mirror before I go out on the third date with a girl who intimidates me because she makes five figures and wears tasteful jewelry ( C’mon Will, you can do this! Make the impossible possible! Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar! ). Except instead of a 26 year old trying to get some from a professional woman, it’s a distraught astronaut trying to overcome the ceaseless black of space and re-enter earth’s atmosphere (if any moment called for a little pump up monologue this might be it).

The other question to be discussed after seeing Gravity is where this film falls in oeuvre of Cuarón. As distinct as Gravity is, I’m still putting it behind Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men. For all it’s beauty and tension, Gravity lacks quite the emotional resonance you get in other Cuarón films. Unfortunately you care enough about Ryan to see if she gets out alive, but not enough to care about her life after. Even though the three dimensions do reinforce the themes and there are some important things to be said about our need to be pulled toward something, they don’t dig deep enough.

Because I rarely review new releases on this blog, it got me thinking about  how Gravity will be remembered in twenty years. Will it be a film worth re-discovering? Will it even need to be re-discovered? Will it have permeated the culture so much that it runs in endless marathons on whatever the future equivalent of TBS is? Or better yet, will even be watching movies? Or will our heat immune simian overlords  just implant the vague memory of movies deep within our gray folds to keep us docile so we’ll continue our back breaking work in the Beryllium mines? (Like a post-global warming shell beach).

In all seriousness Gravity feels like the kind of movie people will remember as an event like Avatar or Titanic. Not the most nuanced, but a big, spectacular MOVIE. While no one will be quoting the lines or comparing their friends to characters from Gravity, they will probably say “Ahhh, it was so intense!”. In many ways Gravity really is like a “roller coaster”, you wait in line, sit next to your friend, hang on tight, and then when it’s over you unbuckle and talk about how crazy the drops were. It doesn’t fully express some ultimate truth about our relationships to one another but damn if when it’s over you don’t want to ride again.



Random Notes:

– The film is predicted to gross north of 250 million domestically. Great news for a space epic that’s short on dialog and heavy on people breathing hard while floating away from things. The question remains will there be a Gravity 2: The New Recruits “This time it’s more personal” (starring Dave Franco and Blake Lively)?

– Another thing that caught my attention throughout Gravity were all the reflections. Whether they were in the glass of the space helmets, the metal of the base, or the ship’s windows, some visual affects artist did a hell of job mapping where reflections would fall and then matching them to the movements of the characters.

-Do children still want to be astronauts when they grow up? I know that NASA’s budget has been slashed in the last few years, not to mention they cancelled the shuttle program. Is space still enough of a cultural force that it fascinates? Do astronauts still have a place in the imaginations of children? I always assumed top kid dream jobs were doctor, fireman, veterinarian, and astronaut. Are we finally to the point where hedge fund manager or political talking head have become more desirable?

-Better yet, do people still have sexual yearnings for astronauts? Astronaut Mike Dexter anyone?

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