I don’t do a lot of movie reviews here, partially because I don’t see too many movies at the moment and partly because there’s lots of other people who do movie reviews better than I do. That said, Gravity was an amazing movie, and I loved it, and there’s no purpose of even keeping this blog if I don’t talk about the things that move me.
The curse of much of our modern media is the illusion of substance. I don’t know exactly why that is, and I’m not really much for psychoanalysis. Perhaps it’s fear of being thought uncool by actually committing to an emotional response. But instead of doing the hard work of building character and having arcs, we get pre-formed characters that we’re told have emotional relationships with each other and we’re supposed to care about these relationships . . . just because. In many cases movies will take the emotional responses that the viewer has from previous seminal works and repurpose it rather than try to actually be great, all the while having a self-referential smirk.
Add to that the curse of the overcomplicated, omniscient villain and effects that allow everyone to punch people forty feet through walls, plots that confuse complexity and length with depth, and the ubiquitous shaky cam. There are some recent blockbusters that I’ve enjoyed, but there aren’t that many classics among them.
Enter Alfonso Cuarón to gently shoulder everyone aside and show how it’s done. That a movie like this could be made right now is amazing to me, since it does almost everything right. It’s a major studio effect-driven film, but channels the effects in service of its story, and in 90 minutes leaves you feeling a new thing. It’s not perfect, especially being a little thematically heavy-handed, but it’s certainly an amazing experience.
The movie begins in orbit, with scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) spacewalking near the Hubble Space Telescope, installing some doohickey that she helped develop onto it. If they ever explained exactly what it did, I didn’t notice. But mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) seems impressed that NASA funded it, since it’s apparently a prototype. It’s so cool, in fact, that it was worth training Bullock as an astronaut so she could put the thing in personally.
Clooney is screwing around in an experimental jetpack, clearly having a ball. But waiting for Bullock to do whatever it is she’s doing isn’t really that exciting, so he’s telling interminable war stories and joking around with Houston (the ground controller is played by the voice of Ed Harris, a nice casting gag). This opening shot lasts for over ten minutes without a cut, and is frankly perfect. They don’t tell you that Bullock is a genius, they just have the engineering department apologize to her for not listening to her about a possible failure mode for the device. They don’t tell you Clooney is a badass, they just show it. And in an offhand manner, Houston reports that NORAD informed them that the Russians have fired a missile at a satellite of theirs to demobilize it, but that shouldn’t be a problem, before going back to listening to Clooney’s story about some girl he was with at Mardi Gras one time.
Then in about five minutes, Houston interrupts them and tells them to forget about what they’re doing and come back right now.
Gravity doesn’t really have a villain as such, although the Russian attempt to bring down their satellite ends up causing an ablation cascade. We never see those guys and they clearly didn’t mean to do what they did, but their debris jacks up the shuttle and kills all the shuttle crew besides Clooney and Bullock, as well as knocking out their communications with the ground.
The rest of the movie is spent in orbit, as these characters are trying to figure out how to get back and not die. That’s it. No cuts to the frantic ground operators, no frenzied communications, just an orbiting cloud of space crap and Newton’s laws of motion (occasionally manipulated for dramatic effect).
I wouldn’t consider myself a Sandra Bullock fan, having been subjected to a few of her romantic comedy films in the past, but she nails it here. There’s a part where she’s sitting in a burning Chinese knockoff of a Russian escape pod, looking at the characters one the panel that she can’t read, and every single molecule of her being expresses “I am truly questioning the life decisions that have led me to this situation”. She also manages to really sell her emotional dialogue, which is impressive since in many instances she’s having to talk to herself, since there’s no one around, since, you know, space. If I did have a complaint about the movie it would be the dialogue, since in a movie that’s otherwise very subtle it acts like a jackhammer to the back of the head in terms of getting the point across. But that’s not her fault.
And it does tend to get a bit Hollywood-y at times; it’s pretty clear that this wouldn’t be a survivable situation, but they soldier on regardless. And there’s a portion of the movie where it basically kicks into high gear and Bullock starts to have everything go right for her for a change. So that’s not perfect. Nonetheless, this is one of the best-looking movies that I’ve ever seen, and although occasionally a little maudlin it at least means those feelings. Do yourself a favor and see this one on the big screen.