by Alex Huntsberger (not to be confused by the one Andrew wrote)
Gravity (2013) – Alfonso Cuaron (Dir.), Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
God I fucking hated the first two Harry Potter movies. Like, seriously, you guys. Especially because I loved the first two Harry Potter books. (Well, okay, I basically shat my pants with rainbows when I read the first book and then read the second book and only really liked it.) I was in…lemme see (checks IMDB, realizes how long it’s been since these movies came out, weeps) my freshman year of high school and while most of my friends were definitely more excited for the Lord of the Rings movie coming out, I was 500% more into Harry Potter. JK Rowling didn’t waste 3 pages telling you the history whatever goddamn hillock her protagonists happened walking along at the time. Those books were lean, mean wish-fulfillment machines and their films were gonna wipe the floor with those stupid, prancing hobbits. It was gonna be great.
Until it wasn’t. Lord of the Rings got entrusted to some weirdo director of low-budget New Zealand gore-comedies, Kate-Winslet-starring teen lesbian psychodramas and Michael J. Fox ghost-buddy flicks whose strange, obsessive version of reality turned out to be just the thing that made Tolkein’s magical kingdom leap off the screen bestride a majestic steed and ram its motherfucking elvish blade right through your goddamn soul. Harry Potter got Chris Columbus, the guy who made Mrs. Doubtfire. He took a world teeming with originality and wit and flying motorcycles and moving stairwells and three-headed dogs and secret train stations and I MEAN QUIDDITCH FOR CHRISSAKES and he turned it into a fucking Thomas Kinkade painting with weirdly anti-semitic goblins.
So by the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was set to open, I was pretty much over it. By then I was reading Hunter S. Thompson and listening to Bright Eyes and, you know, the country was mired in Iraq so I had that to worry about and I just really didn’t give a shit. I was still gonna see it, cuz I was still a nerd who didn’t like the outdoors, but I wasn’t going to enjoy it.
And then I loved it. And the reason I loved it was because someone over at Warner Bros. had realized that Chris Columbus was as good at making movies as the explorer with the same name was at sailing to India. Chris Columbus had been fired and replaced by a little known Mexican guy by the name of Guillermo Del Toro I know it didn’t happen but how freaking cool would that have been Alfonso Cuaron. Whereas Chris Columbus was like a quarterback who wasn’t trying to score a touchdown so much as he was trying to not turn the ball over, Alfonso was like a quarterback who wasn’t a quarterback at all, but was actually a sexy, bearded poetry professor who seduced his students (both male and female) and read them Neruda while feeding them Turkish wines out of handmade clay cups and who just sped across the football field one day on his moped, grabbed the football out of the other quarterback’s hands and zipped into the end zone as pages of his never-to-be-finished-but-still-brilliant novel fell out of his bag and scattered to the wind behind him and the entire stadium was filled with a spectacular sense of effervescent joie de vivre. It was an upgrade, to say the least.
2 years after Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuaron released Children of Men, a piece of dystopian sci-fi that remains to this day one of my favorite movies. But after Children of Men there was nothing. For years and years and years, absolutely nothing. One of the best director’s working in film had all but vanished. I personally just assumed that he moved to Italy to study the art of cobbling, because if everyone was crazy in the way that Daniel Day-Lewis was crazy then the world would be a better place. But no, Alfonso was not cobbling. Or rather, he was cobbling, but not with shoes. He was cobbling with the very nature of filmmaking itself. He was constructing and, for the most part, entirely inventing anew a rig that would allow him to shoot a live action film entirely in Zero G. And not just floaty-floaty Zero-G but floaty-spinny-out-of-controlly-zoomy-zoomy-law-of-Murphy Zero G. It took him 7 years to complete.
And it’s called Gravity.
THE BASICS: During a routine mission by the crew of the Space Shuttle Explorer to service the Hubble telescope, disaster strikes. The shrapnel from a recently detonated Russian satellite destroys both the Hubble as well as The Explorer itself, stranding long-time-scientist, first-time-astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in the middle of freaking space. Kowalski, who Clooney pretty much plays as a cross between George Clooney in real life and every other character he was ever played, calmly explains that he and Stone are simply going to mosey on over to the abandoned International Space Station and take one of their escape pods back down to earth. (They have a different and actually official name but, fuck it, they’re escape pods.) But when they arrive at the ISS it turns out that neither escape pod is a go-go for re-entry. Kowalski, ever the cucumber, says that this isn’t a problem, as they can just use one of the escape pods to jet on over to the Chinese space station a little ways away and use on of their escape pods. It is at this point in the film that things really start to go awry. And remember, this is a movie that began with its characters getting stranded in the the middle of freaking space.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, (And don’t worry, I’ll be berating you in a second) I’m going to stop this summary here. Some things just have to be enjoyed in the moment. For instance, the act of wiping the poop of your pants after this movie makes you shit yourself with horror.
Now, once again, for those of you who haven’t seen the film…What the hell is wrong with you?! Go see it IMAX 3-D right now! For those of you who have seen the film but haven’t seen it in 3-D, let alone in IMAX 3-D… What the hell is wrong with you?! Go see it IMAX 3-D right now! For those of you who have seen the film in regular 3-D but had the option of seeing it in IMAX 3-D…What the hell is wrong with you? Go see previous instructions.
Certain critics have derided this film as pure spectacle, and this is not entirely inaccurate. The script is pretty pro-forma, with moment’s like the revealing of Sandra Bullock’s tragic backstory coming off as such an awkward info dump, it’s like living at the bottom of the info outhouse and then hearing that Newt Gingrich just ate a whole buffet full of info and is currently headed your way, Wall Street Journal in hand. But to write this movie off as just a spectacle is to write the Grand Canyon off as just a pretty sizeable divot. Gravity is a visceral experience. It doesn’t set out to make you think, it just wants to make you feel. And in that regard the thing, is a friggin’ masterpiece.
AND THE NOMINEES MIGHT BE…
Best Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Cinematography, Production Design and, fuck it, throw in Short Film (Animation) too cuz this bitch is gonna clean UP!
While a lot of people have been calling Gravity an Oscar front runner, it is in these categories that it can really be considered a juggernaut. There is barely a shot or moment in this movie that is special effect free. This because the nature of the story that is being told. These characters are trapped in outer space, orbiting above earth. As this is something that cannot be captured casually (for instance they couldn’t pull a Joss Whedon and just go film it at Cuaron’s house unless Cuaron was secretly Magneto and lived in a floating asteroid fortress), so the special effects are an integral part to the story. And even the few shots in the movie that essentially amount to “look how fucking beautiful Earth is from space, you dicks” are so well done that you really are just sitting there thinking “damn, that shit IS purdy.” Without the special effects, this movie would not work. It’s why it took Cuaron so long to make. He was obsessed with getting it right. Hell, they filmed the thing in 2011. All the rest of that time was spent in post.
When I remember the sound of this movie, the only thing I can recall is Sandra Bullock hyper-ventilating. Since the movie is set in space, where sound doesn’t travel, there are far fewer ambient elements to work with. The sound design here is very sparse, very elegant, and very terrifying because of that. And while some people might ask, “well shouldn’t we be rewarding the films that had the most complicated sound design?” these are probably the same people who listen solely to speed metal because those musicians can play the fastest. The soundtrack starts out very gentle, with the reassuring buzz of Mission Control bantering back and forth with George Clooney. Once the shrapnel hits and the astronauts are cut from their communications with home, that silence become deafening. It didn’t even hit me until a later scene where Bullock is able to pick a transmission coming through via HAM radio just how nice it was to hear the electric whirr of static. It’s become such a signifier of connectedness, of home.
I won’t get too much into the other visual effects, other than to say that this movie is beautiful. I think Gravity stands to wipe the floor in these technical categories, possibly setting it up for Titanic-esque Oscars takedown. It could definitely challenge Slumdog Millionaire’s eight statues and possibly go after Return of the King’s eleven. However, it most likely won’t win as many as Titanic, which I’m pretty sure won all of them. All. Even the shorts.
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Yes. This is going to happen. Maybe in a stronger year with a stronger crop of leading ladies she could be edged out…except that no, she would still be in it. Right now I would even call her an early favorite to win the whole damn thing. One could even say she’s…driving the bus?
Okay, with my requisite Speed joke out of the way, I can actually talk about her performance. Cuz it’s kind of a doozy. Bullock here is that thing she does best: she’s our every woman. Dr. Ryan Stone ain’t no spacetronaut. She’s just a normal brilliant scientist that for vague and/or unintelligible reasons has been called to service the Hubble Telescope. You know, cuz sometimes that just happens. What’s amazing about her performance though is a) the relative dearth of quality dialogue she is given to deliver and b) that she spends almost the entire movie in various degrees of nervous breakdown without ever once losing our sympathy. Never once in this movie did I think “God, Sandy, why don’t you just pull it together already?!” Instead I just kept thinking “pull yourself together, Huntsberger, it’s just a movie, it’s just a—OH GOD SANDY WATCH OUT.”
Throughout her entire career, Bullock has possessed this inner steeliness that’s made her Hollywood’s go to Tough-Ass Cookie. She’s an Oreo made out of coal and C-4. Oddly enough, it’s also the thing that’s made her a pretty damn good romantic comedy lead as well. When allowed to bring the sass, she’s actually got a very down-home-style Katharine Hepburn vibe. In Gravity, she uses that steeliness to mitigate Stone’s outright panic. Even when the character is literally hyperventilating her air supply away, Bullock maintains this undertone of control, of inner strength the mutes the panic and keeps you on her side.
That steeliness is also why her entire character arc works. Once Stone is called upon to take charge of the situation and get her ass home, Bullock turns into a one-woman wrecking machine of pure will. If Bullock didn’t seem like she had it in her from the very beginning, then this moment would be laughable. But I wasn’t laughing. I was cheering. I was yelling “Go Sandy Go! Fuck Space! Kick it’s fucking Ass! U.S.A!!! U.S.A!!!”
In summation, Sandra Bullock is a goddamn national treasure, so much so that the third National Treasure movie isn’t even going to have Nicolas Cage in it. It’s just going to be Sandy getting kidnapped and then saving her damn self. She’s getting nominated for an Oscar. Take that, terrorists.
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney
SPOILER ALERT!!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!
So yeah George Clooney dies in this movie. Now he goes out like a fucking badass, sacrificing himself so that Bullock can make it home and then floating out into space, just talking about life and bullshit. But he does die. This is why he is in the supporting category and not the lead. It’s because he dies. (He DOES come back in a later scene as, basically, “The Ghost of Christmas Clooney” but he’s only a ghost because HE DIES.)
It’s not that George Clooney is bad in this movie, far from it. I think he’s great. Matt Kowalski a consummate good old boy, bantering back and forth with Mission Control about his various ex-wives and then later calmly prodding a panicked Stone into conversation in order to keep her calm. When he sacrifices himself, it feels like a huge loss because he was the one who knew (or at least pretended to know) how they were going to get out of this. The characters a security blanket, and nothing makes you feel more secure than the dulcet tones of El Clooney.
However, “security blanket” is different than “complex, human being.” Clooney serves his purpose in this film very well but he isn’t asked to do much. He is perfectly in his comfort zone. Hell, he is the movie’s comfort zone. His character exists long enough to get the audience situated and introduce some hope and then he floats away, taking the rug that the audience was standing on with him. Matt Kowalski is not a human, and the role is not a challenge. And while the Wrinkled Fuckers love them some Georgie Porgie Pudding & Pie, they don’t nominate him unless he’s stretching his comfort zone. He won the Oscar for Syriana, wherein he was schlubby and bearded and he was nominated again for Up in the Air where he had to cry and be a person and stuff. This role is not either one of those. It is “Danny Ocean in Space.” I’m not feeling it.
Best Screenplay: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
The script for this movie is essentially the script for a video game. It sets the rules of how things work, bridges the gap between set pieces A and B and throws in a little pathos for flavor. But the quality of the writing is about the same. The only way that this script is getting nominated is if it gets swept in on the coattails of a bunch of other nominations. That could definitely happen, but it’s not very likely.
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Look back at Cuaron’s previous films and Gravity is actually a very natural endpoint. It’s a huge leap forward, yes, but it is the movie that Cuaron has been moving towards for over a decade. Cuaron has always had a roving eye, wanting his camera to take in everything a scene has to offer. A lot of directors who wander in this fashion opt for either the 1st-person shaky cam (think Steven Soderbergh) or the sweeping tracking shot (Paul Thomas Anderson). Cuaron seeks to have both. He wants the scope that a tracking shot brings with the intimacy of the hand-held shaky cam. But both of those methods draw attention to themselves, to their sheer immediacy and/or virtuosity. Cuaron does not seek that. While his ambitions for the camera are far greater than probably any other living director (Orson Welles is honestly the best comparison I can think of) he does not want innovation for innovation’s sake. (Okay, so scratch Orson Welles. Citizen Kane is pretty much the original dick pic.) He’s a storyteller, who wants his stories to resonate at a deeper level than they have before. With Children of Men he pushed traditional methods about as far as he could go. With Gravity he creates something entirely new.
The reason to see this movie in 3-D is because it is movie that takes place in 3-D. When you take gravity out of the equation you go from a horizontal plane to a cubic one. The action can be moving in any direction at any moment. And with the complex rigging system that Cuaron constructed for this movie, so can his camera. The opening shot of this movie is 13 minutes long, covering the initial mission through all hell breaking loose. By never cutting away and instead staying in the chaos of the Stone and Kowalski’s world exploding he does not give you an out. He does not give you that split second to remember that this is just a movie. It is that immediacy, the result of extreme precision, that makes what Cuaron has done so amazing. Gravity doesn’t feel like it’s a movie. It feels like it’s just happening. Like it’s a force of nature. A force of nature like, oh, I don’t know, gravity ???
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Huntsberger, I hate you. I hate you so much.)
Best Picture: Gravity
The Wrinkled Fuckers love it when a movie looks expensive. They’re tacky like that. They don’t just want insights into the human condition, the kind of thing that can be executed solely through good acting/writing/directing. Nah playa. They want a little bit of grandeur in there too. You’re gonna set your story in modern suburbia with everybody wearing polos and sundresses and driving Nissan Ultimas? Well screw you, cuz THIS guy’s movie (note: it’s almost always a guy, and it’s almost always Ridley Scott) has got characters wearing doublets and they’re sword fighting in ballrooms and…oh my god is that a blimp! Holy Shit that is a fucking blimp! Oh I am SOLD. (note: it really should be called a zeppelin, and I’m pretty sure the film I just described is Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers.) When a movie like Titanic comes around, which isn’t often, the Wrinkled Fuckers are in heaven. Most other times they have to make do with a movie that wasn’t made with such an Ahab-like obsession, but they do often find a way to ultimately honor movies that have a little bit of technical oomph. Let’s look at the Best Picture Nominees from the past 10 years, shall we?
2012: The Artist
2011: The King’s Speech
2010: The Hurt Locker
2009: Slumdog Millionaire
2008 No Country For Old Men
2007 The Departed
2005 Million Dollar Baby
2004 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
The most recent three were all period pieces which means that production values are naturally going to be on display throughout. Before that was a war movie and before the war epic was a high-budget fantasia set in a foreign country. The four before that were all actually pretty modern, but even then: No Country for Old Men was a western slash action-noir. The Departed was a cops and robbers epic and Crash won because lot’s of people thought two dudes kissing was gross. Even Million Dollar Baby was a sports movie. And then of course there was Return of the King: a restrained, low-budget chamber piece if ever there was one.
Remember, The Wrinkled Fuckers are not just actors and writers and such. Their ranks cover every inch of the industry. A lot of them are scenic artists and sound engineers and Mickey Rourke fluffers. They like to see the technical elements represented on screen too, not just the hoity toity “art” ones.
And holy shit are the technical elements well-represented in this movie. So what if the script’s not great when the movie’s also got an incredibly solid lead performance as well as an incredibly Clooney supporting one? The movie is riveting, in that it is like being attacked with a rivet gun and having your brain drilled into. This movie is getting a nomination for best picture. It’s getting a nomination for best director too. And best actress. And best all-the-technical-categories-that-no-one-gives-a-shit-about.
Internet, meet your 2014 Academy Awards juggernaut, courtesy of the guy who replaced the guy who eventually made Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I look forward to its eventual close defeat at the hands of Machete Kills.