So, I’m kind of a big movie nerd, if you haven’t come to that assessment yourself, and I love everything about movies. The deeper I go down the rabbit hole of fascination with the medium the more I come to appreciate technical achievements in film making. There are so many disparate elements that have to be created, and then brought together, for a movie to exist; It’s a wonder that they even come to fruition at all. Seriously, think about some of the classics. Like, The Wizard of Oz, or something less fantastical, like, Citizen Kane. There is a level of technical craft going on in those films that blows my mind. How did they accomplish those things before the digital age? The effort that had to be put forth to achieve those types of visuals, that most modern folks would probably take a hammer to their own faces in frustration. Citizen Kane is so visually sophisticated, both in camera placement, camera movements, and use of dissolves, that the rest of the world didn’t really catch up to it for the better part of 60 years. That’s why the film is still shown in film schools. It’s head scratch inducing ahead of it’s time, and people are, still to this day, trying to suss out how some of those shots were achieved. It’s almost as if Orson Welles had a time machine, and lifted ideas from movies far into his future. Okay, I better stop there. Otherwise I’ll just keep writing about Citizen Kane and Orson Welles. Not that that would be a bad thing, but that’s not the point of this rigmarole! Let’s talk about Gravity, shall we?!
The reason I went into all that clap-trap was that, more than anything else, is because Gravity is an astounding piece of technical film making. Over the next few decades, when film nerds head into a cave and discuss movies that pushed the medium forward, I have an inkling that Gravity is going to be part of that conversation. A big part of it too. Sure, I’m sure Avatar, a movie I don’t really care for(It’s a big, loud, bloated mess, and no amount of technical wizardry is going to change that.), will be part of the discourse too, but I think this film will be held in higher regard, because it achieves it’s goals, mainly because they are pretty modest. That’s the most important thing to me when I think about movie on an objective level. Did the film accomplish what it set out to do? Even if I didn’t enjoy it, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t successful. So, now I guess the obvious question would be: Does Gravity achieve it’s goals? Well, yes, and just a little bit of no.
Okay, let’s talk about the “yes” part of the film’s success’. Gravity just might be one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the effects are great and cinematography is so incredible that I’m struggling to make a comparison to something that’s already been made. In fact, I can’t. Just the opening shot alone is more impressive than anything that I’ve seen. It’s an almost a 17 minute continuous shot that leads up to the first tragic event, and it’s pretty incredible. Now, I suppose someone could make the argument that it’s “not that impressive” because of all the CGI, but the reality is, whether it was on a sound stage covered in a blue screen or not, they actually shot it. In fact, a lot of the movie is made up of impressively long takes, and what makes them special is that they are used to effectively create tension. You’re waiting for the ball to drop, so to speak. You are always kept with Sandra Bullock’s character, but you know something terrible is coming just off of the frame. It’s done to a dizzying effect. There’s a few moments when you are put into the POV of the lead character, like when she’s spinning off into space and the only sound that can be heard is her panicked breaths, that really worked for me, and really put me into the characters shoes, or space suit, I guess. It’s a master class in “audience immersion,” and the most impressive part of these techniques is that they never overstay their welcome, and draw attention to themselves. Alfonso Cuarón knows just how long to hold onto moments for dramatic effect.
Another aspect in “yes, successful” column, is the sound design, or, I guess you could say, the lack of sound. Other than the crackling voices, there isn’t much that isn’t somewhat muffled. Why? Because science, that’s why. This aspect of “soundless-ness” is another aspects that is used to build tension. We see the approaching tragedy in the background, and not being able to hear it makes us even more afraid for the main character, because she is, more often than not, blind sided by the events that take place. It’s pretty basic “Hitchcockian” stuff, but that doesn’t mean it works any less. By showing us the danger, before showing it to the character(s) that will be effected by it, makes our “empathy meter” jump up a few notches, because we know that eventually the character will have to deal with it, thus creating more dread, and even more tension. Well, that is if you are empathetic towards the characters plight.
For some reason, I was never really able to really connect with Gravity, or it’s main character. In a weird way, I found the character’s “journey” to be kind of superfluous. Listen, I know that’s a weird thing to say. I’ll explain. This movie is a really tight experience, and this means there isn’t a lot of time for character development. You are almost immediately thrust into the action, and the only thing you know about the characters is what they say, and how they interact with each other in those first few minutes, and because of the sparse dialogue, which is totally appropriate, the sub-text of the characters journey ends up being really “on the nose,” to the point that I actually rolled my eyes a couple times, and I actually found it more distracting than anything. As Sandra Bullock’s character explains it, she’s gone through some tragedies that have made her feel disconnected, or “un-tethered” from life and society. She has been aimlessly wondering through her existence, and has become solitary, lonely, or “drifting.” So, at the end of the day, the title of Gravity tells you exactly what, in an existential sense, she needs in her life. The tag line of the poster is “Don’t Let go,” but this movie is all about letting go, thematically. Oh, I know, they are super clever, eh? Through her experiences in the film, the character finds rediscovers reasons to live, and is “re-born.” Actually, the “re-birth” visual motifs were used so many times in the second half, that I was all like, “Okay, movie! I get it!” Yeah, that’s a little harsh, and I can’t really hold it against the film in any real way.
Movies need characters, and those characters need emotional arcs to gain our sympathies. We need something identifiable to emotionally attach ourselves to, but the thing is, I think just her attempts to survive was emotional enough to gain my empathy. I didn’t need the obvious and heavy handed back-story. The idea of floating helplessly through space was enough for me, and that’s what was most engaging. Her plight didn’t need to be of an existential nature. This is a survival film, at the end of the day. But, like I said, I understand why it’s there. Maybe, the film makers were afraid that people wouldn’t find the survival aspect engaging enough, and adding some sub-text would make people feel like they had watched something with more profundity, or something. I mean, I’m sure this aspect worked well for plenty of people, because, hey, people like to feel smart just because they could pick up on this kind of stuff, but, in my opinion, it wasn’t really necessary. For instance, if I were to watch a documentary or a movie about people climbing Everest, I wouldn’t need to know about their personal journey to care. My investment comes from just wanting to see them succeed, and, in a weird way, vicariously experience it.
Even though, I found the emotional journey a wee bit too obvious, Sandra Bullock’s performance is pretty strong. I don’t really have a very strong opinion about her as an actress, and I’ve always thought “Well, she seems like a really nice lady,” but she carries the film pretty well. It’s pretty much a one women show, and she always kept me somewhat invested. The thematic, sub-textual stuff doesn’t hinder her. She’s appropriately stressed and scared, and it kept me in her corner. Also, her “breathing acting” is pretty great, and there were times that I thought I was going to have a mini panic attack. So, there’s that.
So, I really enjoyed my time with Gravity. It was a really great theater going experience, and makes a good case for the continued use of 3D, but I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it outside of a cinema, honestly. I think a lot of what works in this film, namely the technical work, would be totally lost to a viewer at home. It’s like a fun amusement park ride, and watching it on a normal sized screen, with an average sound set-up, would be analogous to watching videos of people on roller coasters. Well, in my opinion, anyways. It might be a major technical achievement, and it certainly deserves attention for that alone, but as a “movie,” in the traditional sense, it’s a little too heavy handed.