You won’t hear much from me this week — I’m leaving tomorrow for my Halloween vacation in Vegas — but before I go, let’s talk about the best movie I’ve seen all year.
I broke my “No 3D” rule for you, Gravity. I’m glad you were worth it.
Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) struggle to survive and return home after an accident sets them adrift in space.
1. This is the first film I’ve ever seen in IMAX, and overall, I enjoyed the experience. I wouldn’t make the trip for every movie, but for special occasions — like movies set in the incomprehensibly infinite vacuum of space — yeah, it’s probably worth it.
The 3D was surprisingly worth it too, despite the fact I forgot to wear my contacts instead of my glasses. Thankfully, the double eyewear didn’t bother me nearly as much as it has in the past. (It was kind of a pain in the ass when I watched Avatar.) The illusion of dimension worked well for this particular film, although I can’t say it converted me on the whole “3D is the future” thing. It’s still nothing I want or need from most stories, certainly not for the extra cost.
It’s also worth mentioning that while I definitely enjoyed the 3D/IMAX experience, I’m pretty sure I would’ve liked this movie just as much with a normal screen. (That might be an experiment I have to try out after I get back from Las Vegas.)
2. When the trailers for Gravity first came out, I read a lot of variations on this comment: “Man, this movie looks amazing. Too bad Sandra Bullock’s in it.” Or even, “I’d go see this, except Sandra Bullock sucks.” I don’t believe the criticism ever reached the “Ben Affleck as Batman” level of nerd rage, but the vitriol nonetheless seemed fairly widespread . . . so I hope to hell Sandra Bullock had a nice, private “Suck it, haters,” moment because she’s pretty great in this movie and is, in my opinion, a serious early contender for Best Actress Nominee.
This could not have been an easy role to play. Gravity isn’t exactly a one-woman show, but it is awfully close — there is really only one other supporting character in the whole movie. And even then, most of their scenes don’t involve the actors physically interacting with one another. Sandra Bullock basically acted in an isolation tank for nine to ten hours a day — to deliver the kind of performance she did under those conditions is a serious credit to her talent and dedication as an actor.
3. George Clooney is also, per usual, very enjoyable in this movie.
The role itself probably isn’t a big stretch for him, but he provides some sorely needed humor in what is otherwise a very intense film, and he’s a great counterbalance to Sandra Bullock’s lead. Ryan Stone is kind of cut off and going through the motions of living, while Matt’s more of a social guy who’s very much alive. I like watching Clooney and Bullock together — they have good chemistry, even though they’re rarely face-to-face.
4. Also, I am not even joking about how intense this movie is. The first five minutes are kind of nice and casual, and everything after that is just boom boom boom. I was hugely involved in the characters’ survival. Every time Ryan Stone failed to grab hold of something, I just wanted to reach out and grab it for her. Since I obviously couldn’t do that, I ended up twisting the hell out of my box of Milk Duds instead. It’s great stuff — you want to feel invested when you go to the movies, to be on the edge of your seat, and baby, I was with this one.
5. The only part of the film I’m not 100% sure on — and indeed the one part of the movie that seems to be getting the most criticism all around — is Ryan’s background story. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler — Cuarón and Bullock talk about it in almost every interview I’ve seen for Gravity thus far — but I’ll wait to go into details regardless. What I’ll say is this: the story kind of works for me, but it also feels a bit shoehorned into the script. Thematically, I get why it’s important, but it might have worked better if we only got hints about what had happened to Ryan, instead of being told outright.
That being said, this was not a big problem for me. While there was definitely a Moral of the Story moment that I felt was slightly unnecessary, the movie itself never felt cheesy or overly sentimental, and I appreciated that.
6. The special effects and the cinematography of this movie are stunning.
(I really wanted to post a picture of Sandra Bullock sleeping in the fetal position in zero gravity, but alas, it was not meant to be. You get this perty pic of the Earth instead.)
I’m afraid I don’t really have the proper vocabulary to describe the technical aspects of this film, but I can at least say that, even with my untrained eye, I can tell so much work must have gone into Gravity to make it look as sharp and flawless and lovely as it does. The ridiculously long takes are particularly impressive. This movie gives you a glimpse at something the majority of us will never experience with our own eyes: the awe and the horror of drifting through space. It is not an insignificant accomplishment.
7. Finally, there is an excellent use of sound and the absence of sound in this movie. The score is appropriately intense, and the few songs that pop up — for instance, Hank Williams Jr.’s “Angels Are Hard to Find” — are used to immense effect.
Gravity displays a mastery of craft in so many aspects of filmmaking. If you’d like to read more about it, continue below . . .
I don’t feel any particular need to go over this film scene by scene, but there are a few things we should talk about. First, it’s of absolutely no surprise that George Clooney’s character doesn’t make it — both because it’s Kowalski’s last mission and because all the promo materials make it clear Gravity isn’t his story — but it’s still a very sad scene, and I let myself hope for longer than I should have that our rookie astronaut would somehow be able to miraculously save him.
The sacrifice play is, of course, done a lot in Hollywood, and sometimes it works well, and sometimes it’s incredibly schmaltzy. Here, it works really well. Actually, I think Clooney has a fantastic character exit: after detaching the tether and giving a few last-minute instructions, Kowalski says, “You should see the sun shining on the Ganges. It’s amazing.” And then he turns on his beloved country music and drifts out of radio contact.
That moment was just . . . I don’t know. It was powerful, somehow. I’ll be mildly criticizing a few things about the script in the next paragraph, but not the opening dialogue and not that line. I think that’s one of my favorite last lines for a character I’ve ever heard. (So suck it, Rosebud.)
Now, about those criticisms — turns out Ryan used to have a daughter until the little girl slipped at school playing tag, hit her head, and died. Since then, Ryan’s just been working and driving and breathing — that’s pretty much her whole life. Which makes Gravity not just a “make it out alive” story but a “there’s more to life than just surviving” story. Honestly, I kind of enjoy simple “make it out alive” stories, but I’ve seen enough interviews with Alfonso Cuarón to know the whole rebirth idea was really important to him, and I don’t have so much of a problem with the general message. You know, the whole “get busy living or get busy dying” thing. It’s not a terrible theme.
The problem is that the backstory needs to feel organic, even when it’s not, and I don’t think Gravity entirely succeeds at that. Clearly, it doesn’t even come close to ruining the movie for me — I have seen way more ham-fisted bullshit than this — but if this backstory had felt less artificial, I would have been far more impressed with the actual script. And I had a couple of ideas for what might have made it better.
One: Ryan doesn’t outright tell Kowalski (and us) about losing her kid. Not because I want it to be some big mystery or twist — Christ no. I just think if maybe we realized what she’d lost in a more subtle way, like she said a few things that implied she once had a child . . . you know, maybe we’d feel more engaged in her story because we’d be actively putting the pieces together, not just being fed exposition outright.
(Although I do have a concern with my own idea: I actually really like knowing that the kid died just playing something as simple as tag. You know, it’s one of those things you think nothing of . . . and then suddenly your child is dead. Accidents happen just that fast — just as fast, in fact, as they happen in space. Our astronauts aren’t in danger from a bomb or an alien or someone suffering space madness, after all. It’s just debris that collides with the Explorer, and it happens in a matter of seconds. I’d like to keep that parallel around somehow, how fast things can change and how horrible things happen for no reason at all.)
Two: The part where Ryan decides she’s really going to fight to survive . . . again, it’s not a bad concept. I just think she talks about it a touch more than we need her to. It was probably the line, “But one thing I know for sure: it’s going to be a helluva ride,” where I was finally like, You guys, I GET it. It doesn’t matter if she lives or dies — it matters that she WANTS to live, that she’s willing to fight for it. I got it. I’m good.
Of course, it does matter if she lives or dies, at least to me — I don’t think this story would be nearly as successful if I watched her die after ninety minutes of watching her try to make it out. Thankfully, though, Ryan manages to get back to Earth and not drown. Of course, God knows where she is at the moment, but you know . . . it’s not space. She has two feet planted on solid ground — I have confidence she’ll make it.
A couple of script issues aside — it’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking with amazing special effects and a great lead performance.
We’ve already covered the thematic moral, haven’t we? Let’s talk about the pragmatic moral:
Seriously. Don’t go into fucking space.