Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gravitas. Not quite.

I went to see Gravity today and, for once, didn't feel ripped off by doing the whole 3-D, IMAX, extravapalooza. Multiple sources had insisted on this approach for the full effect and I'm glad to say that they were right. The immersion created by the enhanced formats made what is already a solid film more of a visual experience, which I believe was the intention of director, Alfonso Cuaròn; best known as the creator of the brilliant Children of Men. The basic premise of the film is that an accident has taken place in orbit around the Earth and George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are the unfortunate recipients of the results which makes both staying alive and figuring out how to get back down from 230 miles above the surface quite the pair of challenges.

Good things first: the visuals are amazing, which you kind of hope for in a film like this. The vistas of the planet and the stars and horizon shots can leave you sitting there in awe no matter what else is happening. It's the kind of thing you'd normally expect to see in a more typical IMAX film, generally on the order of National Geographic programming. I could have spent a lot more time just watching the lights of Cairo and the Nile Valley go past the camera and there are moments where that kind of thing happens. I think Cuaròn did an excellent job in transitioning between moments of intensive action and dead, ominous silence, which is the normal condition of outer space. Since this is intended to be a contemporary film, there are no science fiction elements added and the activity of humans in space is reminiscent of one of my favorite Ridley Scott films, Alien. This is work. It's scientific and industrial and often the most important piece of equipment is a power ratchet.

The pace is tense. Even during the "quiet" moments, the awareness that the characters are in the most lethal environment known to humanity is everpresent. Scientific principles of the film's title are at the forefront of what occurs and it's obvious that great care was taken to convey that detail. This is a film about what could actually happen and no amount of reconfiguring the main deflector dish will fix it. Both Clooney and Bullock help this sense of pace by generally reacting in a genuine fashion to their extraordinary circumstances. Clooney's role is the old-hand space veteran and you never doubt that. Bullock is the rookie brought up to make specific alterations to the Hubble Space Telescope and she tends to panic over the environment far more than the veteran, as you'd expect.

OTOH, I don't think Cuaròn was able to get all that you might expect out of these two excellent actors because of one main problem: the story is pretty thin. There's an accident in space and these two have to figure out how to get out of it. That's it. Most people tend to believe that novels make films. In other words, you have a story that has x amount of depth to it and the film will absorb all of that depth, turning half the 60K words into visuals and the other half into dialogue and action. Of course, film history is filled with examples of how a 2-hour film can't possibly convey the complexity of the novel that it's based upon. The issue with Gravity is that its central premise wouldn't even be that compelling of a short story because there simply isn't enough depth to it. It's a very linear equation and there aren't too many ways to explore the personal dynamics of the characters involved because the movie isn't about them so much as it is about the event. If you're OK with that, then it's all good. But I'm normally swayed by story, not how much eye candy you can show me, and Gravity largely doesn't have it.

What it does have at certain points seems either contrived or tacked on. Bullock's character's personal history becomes a primary motivator at a certain point and that was interesting as she struggles with issues that have nothing to do with her current circumstances. But when she comes through that, her newly-resolute attitude and decision to make everything work struck me as very, very Hollywood and not really convincing. Of course, the very limited amount of dialogue in the script outside of official announcements or panicked gasps certainly doesn't help with this and I think Cuaròn was aware of these collective weaknesses and wisely kept the film to a fairly brisk 91 minutes. You can barely get children's movies that are that short these days.

For those of you among the science-inclined, you should have no trouble with suspension of disbelief for the vast majority of the film... except for one key moment which is unfortunately huge in the story and the two characters' presence in it (when momentum is arrested, it stays that way unless other forces are active...) Even my relatively shallow knowledge of astrophysics could pick that out, but sometimes you need to make a story work and Cuaròn did very little papering over such that most viewers should be fine with events as they happen.

So, is it a classic of Oscarian proportions? Eh. No. It was good and, as noted, it's an accomplishment for me to say that I didn't mind throwing down the extra cash to see it in as visually-enhanced a manner as possible. But I also wouldn't say it was "Absolutely cannot miss!" in stature. I saw it mostly because I'm a fan of the director and Clooney and the rave reviews were enough to push me into the theater and, certainly, it will be far more impressive on a 3-story screen than it will even on your 60" plasma, but it ain't like escaping an event horizon.