Gravity has been high on the list of movies I want to see ever since I first read about it because the film: 1. Takes place in Space, 2. Features a female as the lead, and 3. Is directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The recent Oscars it won for technical elements and direction just add to that desire.
When it arrived at the second-run theater in town (where I could watch it in 3-D for $5), I made time in my schedule to go see it.
Short Review: I’m glad I did.
Long Review: See below the Spoiler Warning
On a pure technological level, this film is amazing and revolutionary, and the technical Oscars justly earned. Often, new technology is used in a “Ooh! Look! Shiny!” manner (See: Transformers series), instead of tell the story. Gravity is one of few films that introduces and advances technology, while having all the wizardry fade to the background and leave the characters and story at the forefront. As the audience is immersed in space and zero gravity, the brush of computers is barely felt.
This is also one of few films worthwhile to see in 3-D. My movie buddy for the evening, Katie, had seen the movie in 2-D and remarked on how much is lost in a 2-dimensional space. With the use of 3-D, the audience is lost in the vastness of space, the depth and layers of debris and space-stations, adding to the overall tension of the story. While watching, I often forgot it was in 3-D. Instead, I felt I was dangling over the earth, barely anchored from drifting into outer space.
As for the technology within the film, there is clearly some creative license with current space technology. However, everything still feels organic and practical. The believability grounds the film and builds the helpless urgency driving the film.
Simplicity and Survival
While technological marvels occur in the background, the real brilliance of this film is in its austere simplicity. There are explosions, and grand, epic moments of danger and tension. However, the tale of survival and the will to live is told in a straightforward, continuous manner. There are no flashbacks or forwards, no jumping away from the immediate event. Everything happens in real time, skipping only over the waiting and travelling periods between events.
Only two characters are seen live on film: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Voices of other characters fill-in information and add atmosphere, but the sound design fades those into the background for most of the film. The primary focus is on the two survivors, and then the single survivor. As they are left alone, without Houston to call to, both Stone and Kowalski shade in the edges of their character with back-story delivered via dialogue. This gives us only a glimpse of their characters outside of the situation, with Stone opening up about her daughter who died, and Kowalski telling potentially exaggerated tales of his social exploits. Their histories are told in snatches and pieces, each story not quite completed because it is not the real focus of the film. The focus of the film is on reaching the next safe harbor and taking the next chance to survive.
This apparent simplicity gives Gravity a near-allegorical feeling, a dream-like quality. It allows the audience to either simply enjoy a survival story, or seek out symbolism of human existence. There is both depth, and a purposeful lack of depth which reflects both astronauts tenuous hold on life as their oxygen is depleting and they are at risk of tumbling into the abyss of outer space.
Two Complete Characters
There is some debate over whether Dr. Ryan Stone is a positive portrayal of a female character in a post-feminist society. On one hand, the film is centered on a female scientist, definitely a positive. On the other hand, Stone is often hyperventilating, while Kowalski remains calm and collected. I argue that the fact that we can have this debate is a positive for the portrayal of any female character in a science fiction film.
Katie (my movie buddy), who was seeing this for the third time, said this was her favorite viewing. Part of it was she saw beyond the male/female dynamic and saw how it was really about experience vs. inexperience, and the desire to live vs. giving up. These are two characters with a real relationship, and real emotions. Yes, it complicates things that the male is the person with more experience and a calmer presence. However, it really boils down to two things: Kowalski has a jet pack and years of space experience, and Stone is running out of oxygen and tumbling into space. Kowalski has control over his trajectory, while Stone has none. This does not matter whether someone is male or female.
At the beginning of the film, Kowalski is Stone’s camp counselor in a dire situation. He is remaining calm and collected on the outside, but it probably freaking out on the inside. When in an emergency there are only two paths: 1. Remain calm and focus on what needs to be done next, or 2. Panic, hyperventilate, and risk further problems. Kowalski uses his camp counseling skills to get Stone calm and get her to focus on surviving. This allows room for Stone’s character to grow once Kowalski sacrifices himself and leaves her alone to fend for herself. She loses that calming voice, and must choose whether to fight or die.
Stone’s continued despair and fear is understandable. There is no safety net, and always only one chance at survival. My favorite scene is when she is in the International Space Station’s escape pod, stuck without thrusters, and listens to the AM radio. She has a moment of connection over the radio to some man on earth, with dogs and a baby in the background. Just before she gives up, she howls with the dogs, letting out the pressure and sorrow. It is a moment of semi-madness and a moment of mourning and a moment of being part of something beyond herself and her desperate situation. It is a real, human moment.
What Didn’t Work
Once again, I want to note I really enjoyed the film. However, whenever I am watching a film, I often have two tracks going through my mind. The first is the “just enjoying the film” track, and the second is the “I analyzed 200 films for my film degree” track. As a film goes on, I try to be in the first track, but sometimes find myself flipping over to the second.
Gravity was a weird experience, because I often found myself in both tracks at the same time. Below are the reasons why.
“I Have A Bad Feeling About This Mission”
Kowalski repeats this line several times, as does Stone at least once. While it adds to the film that he has a bad feeling about the mission, it pulled me out of the film because this is an iconic Han Solo line. Perhaps it was meant as a throwback. This, I think, is a personal issue due to my lifelong fandom of Star Wars.
Another personal issue is the fact that Kowalksi also strongly reminded me of Buzz Lightyear.
Strong chin, cavalier attitude, manly voice, and an astronaut? Yes to all of these. Does that make Stone Woody’s character? Worries, gets stressed about emergencies and change, but will step-up when needed?
Luckily, I was able to turn off this last thought early in the film.
But then, it gets worse…
While the film has some breathing moments, and brief glimpses of humor to relieve the tension, it also applies the basic writing idiom: Think of the worst thing that can happen, and then make it even harder.
Not only is he juggling a chain-saw, but he’s on a tight-rope over alligator-infested-water, during an earthquake, as a hurricane is about to start launching sharks at him!
As Gravity wears on, it becomes predictable in that something is going wrong. This is the downside for its simplicity. By the time Stone reaches the Chinese space station, her last chance at survival, it is starting to crash into the Earth’s atmosphere while the debris that has nearly killed her twice catches up with her again. As she tumbles through space, she nearly grabs onto the station multiple times, but it is only the last rung she is able to grab onto. While this builds tension, it also felt like a bit much at this point in the movie.
When she finally reaches Earth, the capsule lands in a small lake. She opens the door, and water gushes in, dragging her and the capsule down. Even though I enjoyed the movie, I started giggling. My mind had reached the second track, and was analyzing the screenplay, and I had a moment of, “Are you serious?” She can’t just land on Earth after nearly dying in space multiple times? She has to be at risk of drowning too?
I do realize being under the water is symbolic of rebirth and rejuvenation. However, from a simple story-telling standpoint, it was one too many things. I think the problem is this was just past the point of climax, and I, as a viewer, needed the resolution a little sooner.
Then, the film ends with Stone standing on the bank, breathing in fresh air, and the film fades to black. I turned to my movie buddy after the credits rolled and asked if the sequel was her surviving through a barren wilderness, trying to reach civilization, after surviving in space.
“This is easy. At least I don’t have to worry about breathing.”
On the other hand, I don’t have a Best Director Oscar.
What To Look Forward To
Despite my few criticisms, I want to reiterate that this is a great film. With its success, here are some things I hope we’ll see in our future:
- More good films about space exploration
- More lead roles for females in science fiction, especially hard sci-fi
- Sandra Bullock in more lead drama roles, because she was really, really good
- More explorations of science fiction / fantasy by Alfonso Cuaron. Or, really, anything by him, such as a television show on NBC… oh, wait..
- Future generations of filmmakers being inspired by this film, just as Cuaron was clearly inspired by Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
I think the best summary of this movie was my brother’s after watching it a few days before me. He came home and spun around the kitchen, bumping into cupboards and throwing his arms around. He then told me I had to see it. And, he was right.
Have you seen Gravity? What is your favorite movie set in space? What would you do if sent tumbling into an abyss of outer space? I would want cookies.
Other Thoughts On Gravity:
There’s a cool website I just discovered called Story Bundle which features a group of Indie books bundled with established authors to give new authors more exposure. You pick how much to pay. March 2014 features Brandon Sanderson’s The Emperor’s Soul and Neil Gaiman’s The Monarch of the Glen.
If you’re interested, check it out here.