Gravity (2013) – Alfonso Cuaron (Dir.), Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, the infinite abyss of deep space, Neil Degrasse Tyson’s voice in the back of my head going “Na-uh, not how it works”
There is a place in Chicago. It is a dark place, its covert shadow hidden behind the facade of infinite twinkling lights and signs for Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. A world, a candyland, if you will, of actual candy and misappropriated dreams. It is, at once, a monument to a crowning achievement of civic engineering and, at second, a cesspool of fantastical nonsense. Yes, I talk of course about Chicago’s Navy Pier. It’s neither navy, and it barely gets under the rope of the definition of ‘pier’ but, this hellscape of a tourist trap is the location of the city’s only IMAX theater. The pilgrimage to this end of the universe, this Harry Carray-infested ring of the Inferno, is an ordeal both annoying and existentially testing for any who are willing to endure it. How much do you really need to see Gravity in IMAX 3D BS OMFG HPV ASAP? As much as you needed to see those three scenes from Iron Man 3 that are actually appropriate for a massive fucking screen? Hmmm?
Well, the lady Coleman and I braved the thronging masses of cheapened Chicagoan touchstones as we traipsed into the massive undulating snake tail that is the line into the IMAX theater. To call it insanity is doing a disservice to the mentally ill. It is putrid humanity at worst. And, because this place is run by the version of Schrodinger’s cat that was poisoned in that box and then clawed its way out by way of sheer will and a heart of throbbing evil, one cannot get both snacks AND a movie, seeing as the lines for both are a MILLION MILES LONG. So choose! Would you like sustenance but miss the first fifteen minutes of film? Or do you want a movie while sustaining a mouth drier than the Sahara in a drought? Choose ye and despair!
Erin and I chose the second option. And we were not disappointed. A little parched, but not disappointed.
For all my bellyaching, the concept of this IMAX in 3-Dimensions nonsense has probably saved the theatrical experience from itself. Too often, as technology makes a product more easily accessible, the industry that this practice hurts usually stamps its feet, gnashes its teeth, and holds its breath. However, eventually, people innovate or die. It’s a simple law of the universe. IMAX is an experience one cannot see anywhere other than those monstrosity orbs latched onto museums and theme parks like benign civic tumors. But, lordy, are they incredible. Assigned seating. No bathroom breaks. It’s like going back to school. However, the magic of IMAX is, if done correctly, you can truly be transported. Until this point in my life, I’ve never fully understood what this means, what with the meager offerings of The Dark Knight’s specially filmed scenes or the five minutes of Iron Man 3 that weren’t shot in extreme close-up on RDJ’s beard (don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine beard, but it’s not going to win the mantel of PORE-COUNTING: THE MOVIE aka Les Miserables)…that was, until I saw Gravity.
Mr. Alfonso “One Take” Cuaron, otherwise known as Mr. Children of Men, perhaps my favorite film of all fucking time, or as Mr. “The Guy that Destroyed Harry Potter 3”, as that one girl furiously stated on Facebook when Prisoner of Azkaban was released is one of those bastards audacious enough to have taste and to encourage artistic merit even in his movies about fictitious wizards. What a piece of smegma. Well, after taking a break from, well, the universe, Mr. Cuaron has returned to the screen with his development-hell tale hanging in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Gravity is pretty simple. Sandra Bullock is a medical doctor inexplicably working on the Hubble Telescope, cracking jokes with George “He’s Never Not George Clooney” Clooney as a veteran NASA space-man. During a routine upgrade, the Russians blow up a satellite which then causes a barrage of 20,000 mile an hour debris to shred them like one ply toilet paper. From there, the script takes the hero’s journey in its elemental form: get from A to B to C. I’m talking physically. The script is basically a set of celestial GPS directions. And that’s just fine.
There are few things that have to be acknowledged with Mr. Cuaron’s achievement here, because it is an achievement of almost every kind. First and foremost: technical. I don’t know the name of his cinematographer, but the man must have been touched by god in the womb. This guy is the Jesus of the long-take. Cuaron approaches him being like, “Yo, I have like four shots…” and this guy shakes his head and, like water into wine, is like, “Nah, son. ONE shot.” I think you can count the number of shot breaks in Gravity on one hand. And, while in Children of Men this was more a gimmick, a penis-showing contest, if you will, in Gravity it is nothing but seamless. I completely forgot that the camera hadn’t broken from its subject after a while. Granted, with this thing showing more CGI than a George Lucas Weight Loss Convention, it might be considered a dubious honor. There is no question that Cuaron has crafted something harrowing, intense and all-consuming. In the few moments of breath Ms. Bullock takes before leaping into yet another Zero-G Shit Fest (note to self: open club called Zero-G Shit Fest), we too are forced to come up for air if only momentarily before being dragged into the emotional maelstrom on display. For the length of the film’s 90 minutes I never once tore my eyes from the screen. Such an act would be one of sacrilege, an affront of the gods of cinematography. You might miss a panoramic view of the Earth’s surface at sunrise, or Ms. Bullock sucking down the last of her oxygen while escaping the current of her suffocating panic attack. If seen in the right way, you won’t be able to look away. In this day and age, that demands an award of the highest order.
Though, with any experiment in technicality (because, let’s be real, that’s what this is) there are some drawbacks. Through Cuaron’s constant employment of POV and the excessive prevalence of CGI the action looks more of a video game than anything else. This is a meager complaint because that comment usually means that the movie is about as exciting as watching your 12 year old cousin play Call of Duty for about 10 hours straight. Here, the opposite is true. In fact, it seems as though Cuaron has finally realized the mecca of video-game cut scene excitement that all Call of Duty games reach for. Unfortunately, those network-connected plebs (read: most males between 18 and 30) are too locked into a video game to come and see this exercise in zero-G storytelling. The other drawbacks are that of character and literary theme. When most of the movie is people screaming and begging for lives versus nature, there’s little room for nuance. Granted we get snippets of backstory for both Clooney and Bullock…but who gives a shit? Other than one fascinating comment from Bullock about her daughter, their characterization is a futile experiment. Most of the dialogue is directional and plainly objective. Any subtext is fairly useless when the ISS is exploding behind you.
Between the eruptions and the tension, there are some clever strings being pulled. Cuaron is a smart man, smart enough to make a movie about a lack of child birth into something about hope for a dying future. This movie plays with a few themes in a subtle manner. Firstly: nature vs. humanity. It’s clear from the opening credits that space is uninhabitable. It seems as though Cuaron intends to encourage humanity to keep its feet firmly on the ground. Though it is called “Gravity“, that character never makes an appearance. It is the Godot to Bullock and Clooney’s Didi and Gogo. They beg for it to be there and yet it isn’t. Cuaron is careful that very little of this movie, in space terms, is extraordinary. The events of the catastrophe come from nothing more than routine work. Even when the missile strike is discussed over the radio, Housten is barely worried. The entire movie is an example of how deadly the universe is when humans are stripped of their basic assumptions namely: gravity, oxygen and heat. I mean, it seems obvious, but with movies such as Star Wars and Star Trek purveying absurd inaccuracies about the very nature of space travel, it’s refreshing to see a genre dragged back to its roots. Unfortunately, for the most part it’s a one trick pony, unlike its brilliantly bizarre and superior predecessor 2001: A Space Odyssey (SPOILERS: George Clooney is the massive space baby). It’s interesting to note that it’s a sad day for NASA when movie makers need to historicize a fictitious event that had to happen in the PAST when concerning SPACE TRAVEL. That’s right, since the shutdown of the space shuttle program, this movie is impossible. What the Carl Sagan fuck, guys?
Cuaron carefully plays with both space and time (no joke intended – okay, fine, there was a joke but I was too lazy to make it. DEAL WITH IT). Firstly, though space is infinite, I’ve never felt so claustrophobic. Both he and his cinematographer are obsessed with examining the beauty of the cosmos…but that beauty is a distant creature. All they have in the meantime is the vacuum of nothingness. Every vessel they visit is the size of a boarding school bathroom stall, barely enough room to fit two children, even if one of them has their head in a toilet, and that kid is totally not me, I’m just using a hypothetical situation to prove a point and I certainly don’t still have a debilitating fear of clockwise rotating water. All things taken for granted on earth (100 meters, fire, momentum, etc.) are a mess in space. Seeing Bullock and Clooney handle each challenge moment to moment is thrilling and, somehow, never hits the point of diminishing returns. Even that video-game-esque excitement of the POV shots adds to the crushing sense of closeness, our protagonists’ faces always reflected on the meager barrier between them and the obliterative death of deep space. Likewise, time takes on a new meaning out in the black. You are constantly aware of the debris barrage coming every 90 minutes, though each second seems an eternity. There is a moment when Bullock reaches safety for the first time and removes her suit, she lies, floating in the airlock, like a baby in the womb, curled tightly into a fetal position. The seconds tick away and she doesn’t move an inch. It is not only a powerful moment of relief, it’s also a transformation where, for the first time, we see her as a fully-fledged and vulnerable human being.
From here on…there be SPOILERS. Beware…
This, as with Children of Men, is a story about hope. It’s the tale of a person facing insurmountable and deadly odds, one that will not only kill but utterly dehumanize before the end. It’s about people seeing the end of their fate and deciding to press on into the darkness. In CoM, because, yes that movie is so essential to society that it requires an abbreviation, we see Clive Owen beaten, slammed, shot, tortured, chased, and generally emotionally mutilated, all in service of saving the first child born in 20 something years. Gravity plays with similar themes though reduced like a fine sauce to a simmering and simple delicacy. The is no need to save earth, it’s just a tale of survival. For the length of the movie I expected Bullock to bite the proverbial space dust. However, she persists, hallucinating her way into action and doing the impossible to find her way back to Earth. Every inch of the way, your heart is hurting for this poor woman as she has to go through catastrophe after catastrophe all of it caused by a routine satellite SNAFU. Cuaron makes an interesting point of highlighting the deadliness of the mundane especially in Bullock’s story about her daughters death (hackneyed choice, b-tee-dubs, guys, but I’ll let it slide. The script isn’t exactly the work of a master. “GRAB ONTO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!” is just a teensy bit short of Shakespeare. But whatevs) she discusses that her kid tripped while playing, hit her head and died. Nothing more to it. It’s that spark of the minor devastations that drives this tale to its optimistic end. But while my heart yearned for her to survive, my mind begged this movie to be slightly more complex. It’s not. There was something chilly to the ending of Liam Neeson tour-de-wolf-punching-force The Grey (both literally and figuratively), where it becomes apparent that the film following the survivors of a plane crash in Alaska slowly succumb to the elements until they’re left as frozen meat-cicles. I hoped for a similar end to Gravity. Perhaps something mildly ambiguous…not Sandra Bullock standing in red mud while the orchestra climaxes (both literally and figuratively).
The only actual complaint I could have about Children of Men is the ending. The same is mostly true of Gravity. You beg them to survive, you pray and hope and clench and hold your breath and then…when they do, you find yourself lacking. We, the audience, are children screaming for a big-kid meal…but when we get it, we’re disappointed, unaware that we didn’t actually want a positive ending at all. It’s beautiful to think there is an intelligent artist doing good work in the horrifically existentially disemboweling creature that is Hollywood, pumping out tales of unfettered hope. I guess…I don’t want that. I wanted Sandra Bullock to die. And this is the first time in like two years that I wanted it to happen for a reason other than because she won the Oscar for The Blind Side. I wanted this to be about man’s folly in confronting nature, just like I did with Sunshine. But then people win against nature and, once more, it transforms a harrowing tale into one of a power fantasy. Where’s the ‘cautionary’ in the cautionary tale? Le sigh.
In the end, sci-fi is a limping, damaged filmic genre. These days people are more content to settle for nonsense like Star Trek Into Darkness and everything to come out of the penis that spawned Transformers and Battleship. It’s refreshing to see something different, something challenging. Should it win Oscars? Maybe for technical achievements. Anything else? Not in my humble (read: not humble in the slightest) opinion. Remember Avatar? No? Good. This is a piece of technical brilliance with a thematically cogent tale laid over the top, like flesh over the metal innards of the Terminator. In a few years, these tricks and techniques will be old. Watch Avatar again and yawn. Why? Because it’s fucking stupid. The magic of newness died long ago. It’s amusing to read Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comments about the factual inaccuracies of this movie. A fire extinguisher will not propel you in a direction while in a vacuum. Why? Because science. Maybe, hopefully, one day this movie will simply be an artifact of past ignorance. Future children (new band name!) will view this on a zero-G hologram computer and laugh, much like I giggle my ass off at Bullock’s absurd indictment of the Internet in 1995’s The Net. Until that point, well done, Cuaron. You are still one of the most talented and interesting directors out there. And I love you.
Wait. Ignore that last part. I don’t want it to be creepy.