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.


****  

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism