Skip to main content

I hate space.

Gravity
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The reason for the resurgence in the previously waning popularity of 3D, on the back of Gravity, is plain for all to see. Providing viewers are wearing the goggles, of course. It’s an expertly made, immersive experience that makes use of the added dimension in a manner not seen since Avatar. And there’s the added bonus that this is a far superior movie. Yet surprise was still registered when there was no accompanying attendance bump for Thor: The Dark World, a post-converted 3D-er. The message is clear; if you make it special, they will come. But that brings with it a caveat. Great as Gravity is, it’s still very much an exercise in technique and technology. You’ll be hard pressed to uncover the depths attributed to director (and co-writer) Alfonso Cuarón’s best work.


There’s still every reason to celebrate his achievement, however. The edge-of-the seat-set pieces he creates are first-rate, and the fluidity of his direction ensures that, even when you are conscious of what he is doing with the camera, you are not pulled out of the experience. From the opening shot, as a speck becomes a space shuttle and then, eventually, our protagonist Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) comes into view and then into close-up, there’s an unhindered attempt to create something that is both incredible to behold and has dramatic value. That shot informs the entire picture; this is a vast, unfathomably vast, environment. To be alone in it takes agoraphobia to new levels (agoraphobia and claustrophobia are fundamental, the latter identified with Stone both confined and protected within a space suit). At other times the camera seamlessly transitions from third person observation to first person point-of-view, and it never feels like a gimmick.


The unfortunate truth, however, is that it somewhat is. In Children of Men, Cuarón experimented with a virtuoso one-shot set piece leading into a bombing incident; it was much vaunted at the time, but it only ever felt like icing on a particularly nutritious cinematic cake. Here, the director attempts to consistently adopt the meticulous attention to visual construction that was Hitchcock’s byword. But Gravity is shorn of the Master of Suspense’s dark psychology and morbid wit. This is a disaster movie, plain and simple, and it never stands (floats) still long enough to allow the weight, awe and terror of Stone’s experience to sink in. For all the splendour of the vistas Cuarón conjures, the picture’s approach to character is inveterately Hollywood. Perhaps this shallowness is a consequence of collaborating on the script with son Jonás, a whippersnapperish 32 year-old. There’s nothing in the hackneyed psychology of Stone or George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski (the name makes me think of Monsters, Inc.) that would look out of place in, say, The Poseidon Adventure. The only such feature Gravity lacks is Ernest Borgnine.


Stone is a serious-minded, meticulous scientist who really doesn’t like being in space (you know, in the way Roy Scheider doesn’t like going near the water). Kowalski’s a charismatic space jockey (not of the Alien kind) whose easy confidence and bravado conceals nothing less than a thoroughly decent chap; that all-American hero poster boy type that doesn’t really exist. You couldn’t wish for a better guy to take care of you out in the inky blackness. And, because he’s embodied by George Clooney, you make excuses for his corny stories and cod-psychology. He’s so damn charming.


If ever there was a picture relying completely on star power to sustain its characters, it’s this one. Clooney just brushes down his classic Clooney performance. Sandy Buttocks has a role less tailored to her essential warmth, which is why she’s perfect casting. She may have been way down the list of picks for the female lead, but her likability shines through the clumsy dialogue and histrionics; you care what happens to her (I doubt that first choice Angelina Jolie would have been so engaging). Bullock’s career resurgence, teetering towards her sixth decade, has been highly impressive. The only concession to her age is that she stops short of the full Barbarella zero gravity striptease (I can’t believe that wasn’t in Cuarón’s mind, though). Amusing also that the plot manufactures a reason for the female lead to undergo a costume change midway through the proceedings, to a more slimline Russian number (and I know the suits for exteriors were CGI, but it’s the thought that counts).


When the picture eases on the throttle for long enough to focus on the characters, or rather Stone’s character (Paul Sharma’s Dasari is the only person we meet besides Stone and Kowalski, a voice applied to a CGI spacesuit who ends up with a whacking great hole in his face; such is the fate of those on the wrong end of ethnically diverse space missions), it grinds metal. Kowalski’s coaxing of background information from Stone, inevitably referencing a traumatic experience, is unnecessarily heavy-handed. Isn’t what she’s going through now tumultuous enough? Also lacking finesse are the repeated references to how quiet and beautiful it is up there; shut up and let us see/hear for ourselves. When Stone is left on her own she quickly descends into despair, until deciding that – just as Matt sagely advises during a fake-out dream sequence – she has something to live for. Do we really need that tired old cliché? It’s no more digestible for being hammered into a spectacularly well-made movie.


And this is a shame, because those moments where it all quietens down  offer a glimpse of the picture I frankly expected. Perhaps it was the difficult incubation period of Cuarón’s project, but I assumed Gravity was  intended not merely as technical challenge but also a conceptually difficult one. A human adrift alone in the awesome/fearsome majesty and silence of space, facing the end, and undergoing an unsurprisingly acute existential crisis. I don’t know how I expected Cuarón to pull that off, but that seemed to be the challenge. As it is, any expectation of imminent destruction is leadenly verbalised and Stone spends relatively little time alone or not in action. I wondered what Terence Malick’s Gravity would have been like; probably something closer to Tarkovsky’s Solaris (rather than Clooney’s concise remake). Cuaron trying for something of that meditative quality amid the thrills would have been nice, but he settles for the broadest of strokes (notably both Malick and Cuaron use the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki). Kubrick’s (much truncated in comparison) spacewalk in 2001 (as Bowman attempts to retrieve Poole and then get back aboard the Discovery One) achieves a much more lingering effect.


The consequence of there being nothing “deep” to talk about is that awesome adjectives for the scenery and suspense run out. There’s nothing much to the characters, so the conversation has quickly turned to the science; its accuracy and/or inexactitude. I don’t much care about how far away the International Space Station is from the Chinese space station, but even to my decidedly untrained eyes the escalation and mayhem quickly stray from science fact into the realm of the credulity-stretching. We’re not talking Michael Bay Armageddon levels, but that’s hardly the most helpful point of comparison. How many successive attacks of space debris can one unlucky astro-girl encounter? Stone is having a seriously bad day.


It was a neat touch to appropriate the Kessler Effect (the chain reaction idea in respect of the colliding satellites), but it has the side effect of diverting attention towards what kind of fucked up shit would be going down back on Earth when the majority of the communications net drops out (we never find out). Additionally, the catch-up waves of disaster it fosters translates into a slightly too convenient dramatic device. Don’t get me wrong; the carnage on inflicted on the ISS is a gripping encore of the opening. But, at that point, the manipulative structure starts to become foregrounded, which is never a good thing. So, by the time we arrive at Stone flailing about in space using a fire extinguisher to guide herself to the Chinese station, I was “Sure, that would work. After all, every other unlikely ruse has paid off”. Next thing they’ll be telling us they can send a man to the Moon. The fact that Cuarón couldn’t resist having yet another mishap befall Stone when she has finally splashed down to Earth, submerged beneath the seas, says it all. I was half expecting her to be circled by marauding sharks. Or a cliffhanger ending; Stone sets foot on dry land, only for dinosaurs to rear up in the distance.


That may be why I didn’t respond in disbelief to the movie’s one really goofy scene; the one where Clooney appears at the Sandy’s Soyuz door just as she’s given up on everything. He lets himself in and she miraculously survives the resultant depressurisation and spacey vacuum. Such improbability would have been fine by me, in a Dark Star kind of way. Of course Clooney could have survived. Maybe he could find a bit of flotsam and surf his way back to Earth on it (while I knew his was a supporting role, I was unsure if he snuffed it or merely absented himself for much of the proceedings).


The sombre core of Gravity will no doubt guarantee a whole raft of spoofs and skits over the months to come; it takes itself so very seriously but manages to mistake sensationalism for (ahem) gravitas at crucial moments. Nevertheless, Cuarón’s willingness to experiment has more than paid off with audiences and critics. If I have reservations over aspects of the picture, I still absolutely want to see more of this kind of event movie; one that approaches its subject matter from an invigoratingly different angle or perspective. Even when Cuarón & Son coast on standard-issue plot devices and tropes, they manage to deliver a film many times superior to standard multiplex fare.


****  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…