Oscar-winningSandra BullockGeorge ClooneyEd Harris
Medium: film
Year: 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writer: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
Keywords: Oscar-winning, SF
Country: USA, UK
Actor: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Phaldut Sharma, Amy Warren, Basher Savage
Format: 91 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454468/
Website category: SF
Review date: 29 December 2014
It's the mind-blowingly realistic space survival movie with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It's revolutionary, from its painstaking recreation of what it's like to be in space to a script that's beyond minimalism. Real astronauts have been blown away by it, although in fairness Cuaron himself points out that they bent a few scientific principles in order to have a watchable movie. It cost more to make than a real, albeit frugal, space mission (India's Mars Orbiter Mission). It won seven Oscars. Everyone from James Cameron to Quentin Tarantino has raved about it.
I admire its purity, but I got bored. It really won't have helped that I didn't even see it in a cinema, let alone in IMAX, but my ideal movie would stand up without that.
My problem: the storyline, obviously. Almost everything that happens in it is in the lap of the gods. Most of the movie's scenes would still work if you replaced the humans with Lego figures. A synopsis of the character-based drama in this movie would be "X is unhappy and nearly gives up, but doesn't." The movie's best scene was written by George Clooney, after Alfonso Cuaron had got stuck trying to find an angle on it.
No, hang on. Let me clarify further.
It's minimalist in the sense that the plot has very little to do with the characters. If you replaced the Clooney and Bullock characters with, say, Amy and Rory from Doctor Who, it would make no difference to the plot. The same things would still be happening. There are a couple of points where the characters' actions depend on who they are as people (Clooney unclipping, Bullock's despair), but for the most part it feels, to me, like those survivalist Alistair Macleans I've always found dull. (I'm not talking about Maclean in general, but about certain specific books of his.) The characters face a succession of natural obstacles that turn them into plot puppets. A synopsis would go "ship sinks, attacked by sharks, washed up on beach, climb mountain, etc." Those incidents could be made dramatic, but (for me) they're not, if one defines drama as "actions and decisions that grow from character".
Anyway, it also doesn't help Gravity that its heroine is drab. Sandra Bullock's working hard and giving a painstaking, fitting performance that serves Cuaron's script, but I found her dreary. In contrast, Clooney's charisma wakes the film up.
The technical side has been much praised, but let's not get carried away. Yes, it's a staggering technical achievement. Yes, it's amazing and your eyeballs will dribble... but you'll already be getting used to it before Cuaron's even halfway through that thirteen-minute opening one-cut. Tomoko also had a problem with the CGI construction of two-shots with someone in the foreground and someone else further away. The focus seemed wrong to her.
All that said, it is amazing. No arguments there. Its portrayal of zero-G is sublime. I admire the fact that it's in love with real-life space travel, decades after the era when that was fashionable (1950s-1970s) and instead coming at a time when we're actually pulling back from the stars. You've got to appreciate the artistry involved in creating this film, even if one of its shots reminded me of a computer game. It's turning cinematography into poetry. It's pared-down, minimalist arthouse cinema that goes at the speed of an arthritic snail, except that it also happens to contain spaceships, explosions and a man with a frozen hole in his head that you could put your fist through.
It's taking great pains with its physics, as far as I can tell, but with certain deliberate lapses, e.g. the Hubble space telescope being 347 miles up and the International Space Station only being 260 miles up.
It is what it is, proud and uncompromising. I'm delighted by the fact that it exists, because there's nothing else like it. You'd think it had been tailor-made to lose money, yet people fell in love with it and it took the world by storm. It's also paying gentle homage to Sigourney Weaver. (It's just a visual thing. Bullock reminded me of her in Alien when she's in her underwear in space.) However the film nearly put me to sleep and Sandra Bullock's hard work in the lead role is in the service of a character I just didn't find very interesting. Less importantly, there are also some basic points that aren't communicated too well to the audience, e.g. "why did Clooney unclip, despite having apparently come to a stop?" and "why not remove your spacesuit earlier at the end, you idiot?"
This next paragraph is just anecdotal, by the way, but I was talking to my father about Gravity afterwards and we discovered that the reactions in our very small sample size seem to have split along gender lines. He could think of seven people (including himself) to whom he's talked to about this film. Apart from me, there are three men (who all liked it) and three women (who all disliked it). Perhaps explosions in space with very little character-based action might be more of a boys' film? The main character is female, of course, but "has lost the will to live because her child died" isn't a motivation that spoke to Tomoko, for instance. She didn't sympathise.
Maybe we should be viewing this as a stage play? Live, in front of an audience, its non-plotting and near-subliminal character work would be almost normal. Experience this film, by all means, but in an IMAX cinema and/or having anesthetised your attention span.