2013 Academy Awards, 86th Annual Academy Awards, Academy Award Nominee, Alfonso Cuaron, All Is Lost, astronauts, auteur theory, Best Actress nominee, Best Cinematography winner, Best Director nominee, Best Film Editing winner, Best Original Score winner, Best Picture nominee, Best Sound Editing winner, Best Sound Mixing winner, Best Visual Effects winner, Children of Men, cinema, disaster films, Ed Harris, Emmanuel Lubezki, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, George Clooney, Gravity, lost in space, marooned, Movies, multiple Oscar winner, outer space, rescue mission, Sandra Bullock, sci-fi, space shuttle, special-effects extravaganza, thriller, trapped in space
My Oscar-prep viewing for the last week of February continued with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Of all of the nominees, I was probably (initially) most excited to see this one, since I’m a huge fan of Cuaron’s previous film, the wonderfully dystopic Children of Men. After waiting seven years for a follow-up, how would Gravity stack up? And did it really earn all ten of its Oscar nominations? Read on, gentle readers…read on.
As a boy, my twin loves (above and beyond anything else that I loved) were dinosaurs and outer space. If there was a book about the subject(s), I read it. if there was a show or movie, I watched it. I’ve always been fascinated by huge, open expanses but my inability to swim has always rendered the deep-sea about as terrifying as diving into an active volcano. Space, however, was a different story. As frightening as the notion of all of that vast emptiness was, I never ceased to be fascinated and drawn to it. As time went on and I got older, my former obsession with dinosaurs gradually faded into my childhood, although I remember being fairly agog when I first saw Jurassic Park in the theater. My obsession with space, however, has never waned. If anything, I find myself more fascinated by it now then I ever was: we truly live in a glorious time for anyone who’s ever wondered about what might be “up there,” since we seem to get word of astounding new galactic discoveries on a fairly regular basis. If there’s one thing me and my boyhood self would agree on, it’s this: outer space is pretty damn amazing.
Interestingly enough, however, my lifelong love of space hasn’t really translated into a love of sci-fi films. I’ve found many, over the years, that I really enjoy and a few that I even love: 2001; Alien; The Black Hole; Event Horizon, to name a few. For the most part, however, I’m not really drawn to the space shoot-em-ups of stuff like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. I’m much more interested in low-key, intellectual films like Moon, Europa Report, 2001 and Solaris. Part of the appeal of space, to me, has always been the inherent mystery of it: the best sci-fi films manage to preserve this sense of mystery while still giving something to thrill along to.
Gravity could certainly be said to exist in the same company as the aforementioned “intelligent” sci-fi films, but it’s not quite the same thing. There is nothing lunk-headed or especially clumsy about the film but its heart is definitely more interested in action (sometimes so non-stop as to almost seem real-time) than it is in wonder or inquiry. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you, but it immediately puts Gravity into a slightly different category and is one of the reasons why I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed after the whole thing was over.
Story-wise, Gravity is simplicity itself: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are American astronauts on a routine spacewalk when disaster strikes. The Russians have accidentally bombed one of their own satellites, which has caused deadly space debris to travel into the Americans’ vicinity. Too late to avoid the bombardment, Stone and Kowalski find themselves adrift in space, no contact with Earth and only their connecting tether keeping them from spinning away into the vastness of forever. Using every ounce of their strength, courage and cautious optimism, the two must do everything they can to make it back home, lest the far reaches of space become their frigid tomb.
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much it: just slightly over 90 minutes of Bullock trying desperately to get back home. In many respects, Gravity and All Is Lost (Redford stuck at sea on a sinking sailboat) are kindred spirits. Both are claustrophobic, quick-paced thrill rides that feature one protagonist (it’s no spoiler to say that Bullock spends the majority of the film alone), almost no supporting characters or additional actors and minimal locations. While I heartily enjoyed Gravity, I’ll have to give the edge here to All Is Lost for one very important reason: it didn’t dilute its impact with unnecessary emotional baggage. In All Is Lost, we end up knowing as little about Redford’s character as possible: he doesn’t even get a name. This isn’t to say that there’s no character information whatsoever: through a few small, subtle scenes, we find out enough about Redford’s character (wife and kids back home, well-to-do older man) to become invested in his struggle. At no time, however, does the film wring unnecessary mileage out of the emotional beats: they’re just there to humanize the character.
In Gravity, however, Ryan’s back-story directly influences her actions in the film and, at times, is used as the sole emotional ballast. For my money, this wasn’t the best way to humanize the character and, to be honest, had a bit of the opposite effect for me. At times, I found myself questioning Ryan’s actions: she would be unthinkingly swift and decisive one moment, curled in a fetal position and looking “lost” the next. While this might be a natural reaction for any normal person caught in the situation, it still had the effect of dragging down the film and injecting a maudlin, overly emotional tone that was at odds with the film’s more clinical inclinations. It’s almost as if Cuaron was unsure if the audience would be fully invested in the actual things happening to Bullock’s character (who the hell wouldn’t find being lost in space terrifying and thrilling?!), so he decided to hedge his bets by piling on a tragic back-story for her to overcome. It’s a reductive measure and, effectively, boils down Ryan’s entire experience in space to “overcoming personal adversity.” It’s equivalent to Ripley coming at the Mother Alien with the robot suit only to end up shaking hands and hugging it out. This is particularly puzzling since, aside from the too obvious back-story and some beats with Clooney’s character, there isn’t anything obvious about the actual film. This was a pretty big disappointment for me, since it seemed like a concession to what modern audiences expect from films, not what filmmakers actually intend. I keep wondering how amazing this film would have been as a non-stop, tightly-shot, A-B-C thriller and it makes the final product even more disappointing.
But, let’s be absolutely frank here: most people going to see Gravity won’t be going for the character development, the writing or anything of that nature: they’ll be going to experience a huge, eye-popping visual smorgasbord. And on that count, Gravity absolutely does not disappoint. In fact, I daresay that I really have no appropriate words to describe how utterly, sumptuously amazing the film looks. There isn’t one frame that didn’t look meticulously composed and I still have no idea whatsoever how many of the shots were achieved. As far as I can tell, Cuaron took a small crew into deep space and filmed: that’s about the best explanation I have for a lot of the film. The SFX are seamless, the space visuals are so stunning that I got teary-eyed (really) and the sound effects put you right in the thick of everything. If there’s one part of the filmmaking I didn’t care for, however, it would definitely have to be Steven Price’s intrusive, too-obvious score. Something more minimalist and moody would have helped the film but I felt like the score tried to be too leading: I’m not a fan of hand-holding between filmmakers and the audience and the score was definitely that. As far as the technical awards and the Best Cinematography statue, however? There was simply no other film in the running after this one: even discussing other films’ effects as being equitable is absolutely ridiculous.
At the end of the day, perhaps my own unreasonable expectations led me to be disappointed by Gravity. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed most of the film as I was watching it (save for the overly emotional bits referenced above). I was even stunned at several points, especially that jaw-dropping opening. It was a fun, exquisitely crafted film with a rock-solid performance by Bullock (not Oscar worthy, IMHO, but damn close), a very Clooney-esque performance by George C and a totally awesome reference to my favorite scene in Jaws. It was also, unfortunately, a rather slight film, almost more of an effects exercise then anything else. I remember how much I found myself pondering and returning to Children of Men after I first saw it. After watching Gravity, my only thought was, “Damn: shoulda seen it in the theaters.” While Gravity was a good Cuaron film, it looks like I might have to wait another seven years for a great Cuaron film.