Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Cinema File #259: "Gravity" Review

In the past, I have been accused of indulging in cinematic contrarianism, specifically taking a negative position on beloved, critically acclaimed films purely for the novelty of it, or to maintain some sort of imagined curmudgeonly cache. Even in light of the fact that one of my first reviews was little more than a bile fueled rant against one of the highest grossing and highest rated superhero films of all time, I would still emphatically submit that this is untrue, and that the accusation in fact says more about the person making it than the person receiving it. To attack a critic's motives for not liking a film purely based on the assumption that said film's quality is self-evident is an appeal to emotion bordering on fanboyism. It belies a realization on the part of the devoted fan that the work they are so passionate about is otherwise indefensible, requiring an attack against the credibility of the critic rather than the substance of his or her critique. How does one adequately argue against the charge that they just love to argue for the sake of arguing? Anyway, here I am again, spitting in the face of a modern masterpiece that left me colder than the vacuum of space from whence it came, and I just can't help myself. Call me whatever you like, its not going to make Gravity live up to any of its outrageously unearned praise.

Contrary to what you may think, I didn't walk into this film with any preconceptions one way or the other, beyond a slight nagging feeling that much of the hype surrounding it seemed to be a bit out of place. I understood it for a movie like You're Next, an attempt to be innovative in a genre desperate for innovation, but apart from the somewhat rare hard science setting of a realistic space station, Gravity just looked like Open Water in space. That wasn't in any way dispositive for me, as I rather liked Open Water even if I thought it was a better concept than a movie, and the shift to space is at least as novel as the ski lift in Frozen, but still, I just didn't see what all the fuss was about. As it turns out, the film is less like Open Water and more like the third act of Cast Away, with a little 127 Hours thrown in, a story less about the horror of a hopeless situation than the triumph of maintaining hope and discovering how far one is willing to go to survive. That sounds pretty grandiose of course, and had Gravity actually lived up to the profundity of human drama implied by that theme, the tenor of this review might be a lot different. Alas, while it is often very pretty to look at, that's about the only truly positive thing I can say about this listless mess of a movie.

I usually try to find a nice visual metaphor in movies to encapsulate my overall feelings about them, and for a while I was tempted to be lazy and just throw out the massive unforgiving void of space, but I think that's a little too easy. The visual experience of Gravity is actually a bit of a sore spot with me to be honest, as more than one breathless fan of the movie insisted that I go out of my way to see the film in 3D (which I didn't). The implication, whether they realize it or not, is that I would be doing a disservice to myself and to the film by seeing it in something as static and primitive as the traditional medium that has facilitated every one of the greatest films in the history of film. Well guess what, if you need a gimmick to make your movie reach its fullest potential, such that without that gimmick it is less than the experience it should be, then you as a filmmaker didn't do your job. James Cameron's Avatar, the film that arguably started the 3D trend, couldn't hide the fact that on a story level it was little more than Dances With Smurfs in Ferngully. Fritz Lang used technology rudimentary by today's standards and didn't need stuff popping out at my face to craft some of the most stunningly beautiful and haunting imagery anyone's ever seen on screen, but now I'm supposed to grade on a curve?

Sorry if I'm jumping around from one soap box to another, but this movie did in the end have a very profound effect on me, just maybe not the one that was intended or experienced by a majority of its fawning audience. First of all, nausea, and I mean that literally, not just in the sense that the overall quality made me sick. For a movie set amid the infinite vastness of space, its surprisingly claustrophobic, which heightens the personal level of the action, but often at the expense of solid ground. I guess that's the point, but it doesn't make it less distracting. To the film's credit, Gravity does a good job of the one thing it seems like it cares about doing, putting you in the main character's space boots and feeling her relatively short journey along with her, but its attempt at such a close visceral connection only took me so far, and the increasing over reliance on spinning POV shots of essentially me in a space suit exploring CGI environments reminded me more of a videogame than anything else. Actually, had this been a videogame instead of a movie, something like a more kinetic and less gun intensive first person survival game a la Portal or Mirror's Edge where the enemy is the physics and the environment, it would be revolutionary. As a movie, it just drags...and drags...leaping along with its protagonist from one soon to be exploding platform to the next.

Of course, she makes sure to spend enough time at each location to talk to herself just so we have some dialogue in a movie mostly centered around one person alone, sometimes crying over the flimsy excuse for a backstory she's been given to pad out the slow beats, and sometimes making inexplicably flippant quips even though she's constantly one second away from mortal danger. I know that sounds like a nit pick, because every movie does those things, but Gravity doesn't want to be every movie. It strives to be a little slice of stead fast realism, until the constraints of big budget movie storytelling force it to muck about in silly cliches, which only makes them worse for all the effort. Everything might look and feel real, but the hackneyed melodrama is as fake and jaw droppingly stupid as ever. There are so many moments of obviously manipulative tear jerk fodder that in other films is usually masked by a tone that allows for them, but here, the shift from "like real life" to "like a movie" is sudden and jarring. Even if director Alfonso Cuaron would never conceive of it in these terms, Gravity seems to strive to be the thinking man's Armageddon, or at least the third act of it, a real-ish action adventure in space with more to say than the average popcorn flick, but it gives me nothing more, taking out all of the fun and just leaving the cheese, and then it presumes to act like it did something deep and contemplative.

Not knowing all that much about physics, I can't speak for the scientific accuracy of the film, though I'm told its quite good on this score. Even if it weren't, I wouldn't care, because I'm able to suspend my disbelief over stuff like that. For instance, I can believe that a woman's hair can resist the effects of weightlessness while everything else around her doesn't. What I can't believe is that this same woman is anything close to competent enough to actually make it to the end of this movie like she does. For the record, that sentiment has nothing to do with gender, its just that Sandra Bullock's character is set up as barely an astronaut, a specialist at one job who has to be constantly reminded of the basics of operating in space, ready to give up and die at a moment's notice, and by the end, she's using a fire extinguisher to Wall E her way between space hubs and piloting not one but two space shuttles that she previously only crashed in simulators. Oh, and the second one is Chinese, with a completely incomprehensible control system, and she successfully pilots it by literally pulling a Homer Simpson. If you're too young to get that 20+ year old reference, that's when you're faced with a life or death situation involving many buttons you don't know how to use, and miraculously save yourself by playing "Eenie Meenie Minnie Moe." That happens in the movie!


Sorry for the minor spoilers just then, but if you liked that, here's some major ones. Skip this now if you don't want to know the thing that pissed me off the most about this movie, but I can't in good conscience write a Gravity review without referencing it. While I've been describing the film as largely a one character movie, it actually starts out with two. One of them (guess which) dies about half way through (in another one of those cloying moments that doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the movie). Except, then he comes back. In the first second when you think this might be real, its the biggest cheat in the history of anything, that someone so obviously dead, lost in deep space, would somehow find their way back. Then in the split second it takes you to realize this is just a hallucinatory ghost, it goes from a cheat, to just a cinematic bitchslap right to your face. A movie so proud of its emphasis on realism introduces a segment in the third act that turns out to be all a dream. With a ghost in it. And that ghost provides crucial plot information too, reminding the main character of something she and we didn't know she knew so she can save herself. Again, in a movie where the tone allows for this sort of thing, fine, throw in dream sequences and ghosts, but in this movie?

Did you ever notice how movies about space almost always have aliens and high tech gadgets and stuff like in Star Trek? I'm pretty sure that's because THAT'S WHAT'S FUCKING INTERESTING ABOUT THE PROSPECT OF SPACE TRAVEL IN A FICTIONAL CONTEXT!!! You don't make a cop movie about having to file paperwork every time you fire a bullet when you can just make Lethal Weapon and have Riggs pop his shoulder back into its socket. I know that's extremely reductive, but think back to the last time it wasn't true. You're probably thinking of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, but now think of the last time you were excited to watch those movies, versus the last time you were excited to watch a movie with "Star" as a prefix in the title. For many, it seems like Gravity might be that next great boring as hell space movie, but personally, I just don't see it. I suppose its easy to mistake the immersive feeling of a movie that compels you to ask what you would do in a given situation as an actually engrossing story, but even that doesn't explain the box office numbers already. But there I go, impugning the motives of critical opinion as I have been so impugned. You'll probably like this movie, as most people seem to for some reason I can't fathom. I'm not a fan, but then the last movie I really liked starred Chucky the Killer Doll, so what do I know?

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