the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gravity (2013)

The Eagle Almost Landed

I want a world without gravity
It could be just what I need
I'd watch the stars move close
I'd watch the earth recede

- Jim Carroll, Wicked Gravity

The feature film “Gravity” has been called the juggernaut of the Fall season with a gross of over $300 million dollars and a three week hold as the number one box office draw. Not bad for a story set essentially in real time and fixed exclusively on one female character. In addition there is little dialogue. What hooks the audience is the terrifying portrait of the limitless expanse of space. More specifically the juxtaposition of the abyss against the fragile man-made outposts and even more delicate men and women who choose to be the inhabitants.  This film is a tour de force of cinematography, set-design and special effects.  This is a story made for the 3D format as objects literally leap from the screen. Unfortunately the first rate design is laid over a simulacrum of a script.

All those who grew up with Star Trek, which had its TV premiere during the Apollo era, have the opening words burned into their minds: “Space, (pause) the final frontier”.  Capt. Kirk chose the word ‘frontier’ with great purpose. This is an extremely DANGEROUS place. In fact it is the opposite of place; it is the embodiment of nothingness. A small malfunction or misstep and the pioneer drifts into the dark oblivion. Astronauts are brave; not cavalier. This is where the fine work of the filmmakers, Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron, encounters the first patch of turbulence. George Clooney, the only other major character in the film, outside of Sandra Bullock, is inappropriately glib from the opening moments. He seems to be channeling exuberance of Buzz Lightyear rather than taciturn cool of  John Glenn. Courage has been defined as grace under pressure. Clooney is impervious to pressure which results in a complete lack of grace. He is moronic, not heroic.  His demeanor is that of a super-hero crossed with a joke-telling uncle at a family wedding.  Perhaps the Cuaron brothers were trying for the astronaut paradigm which combines the best of science, soldier and pilot. Clooney failed to launch. Bullock is all nerves - which works... to a point. Her reactions to the unfolding series of catastrophes are richly human. Unfortunately being paired with a cartoon spaceman leaves her alone metaphorically as well as physically. The dazzling special affects can obscure her isolation for awhile. In the end, however, she is adrift in a tiring script... but one must not underestimate the power of spectacle. This film is worth the price of admission, despite the shortcomings in storytelling.

Perhaps the most compelling component of the work is the effortless expansive drift of universe pitted against the ant-like flicker of mankind’s great technological prowess.  The Cuarons are familiar with all the classic film depictions of outer space and they choose wisely in incorporating the best ideas from past masters. Their clever integration of the latest computer graphics wizardry gives new dimensions to classic interpretations of the place beyond the clouds. The rapid sound design explosions juxtaposed with daring silences add to the intense immersion into the terror of being on the cusp of a bottomless pit of darkness. This audible dissonance, as well as the horror/beauty of claustrophobic abandoned space stations,  is taken from Danny Boyle’s underrated “Sunshine”.  Bullock’s rejuvenating fetal recline after managing to seal the hatch in the temporary refuge is a homage to the closing of Kubrick’s “2001”.  There is even a reference to  Looney Tunes as a “Marvin the Martian” chachka floats out of a compartment filled with battered corpses of fellow crew members.  It all works to show a director in control of his medium and supporting the storyline. Unfortunately the dialogue and plot twists burn up in the atmosphere of unnecessary exposition and kitsch motivation.

 The writer/director team know what they are doing. The brilliant shifting POV during the initial debris storm cinematically captures the entire drama of being a spider dangling between the comfort of earth and the darkness beyond. The choreography of the crashing solar panels and awkward zero gravity dance all help build a struggle of survival against the universe (literally). It is difficult to jibe this technical perfection with the unfortunate Clooney performance and the insipid banter. There is a strange nervousness tick in mainstream American feature films where the characters vomit deep seated personal details at crucial moments. Script doctors and studio executives believe this gives the audience a firmer perspective on the motivation of the characters. Unfortunately it has the effect of sucking away all the mystery and romance. It is anti-dramatic in that it replaces onscreen chemistry and action with limp narration and hollow reasoning. Bullock’s character’s tragic loss of a child is incidental to the scene in which Clooney tugs her across the universe to safety.  In fact her revelation strangely places all the terror in a box of appropriately simulated grief.  The images and actions are enough and completely speak to the emotional trauma and desolation.  All that was needed was a vocal metaphor to compliment the visual feast - the sound of stressed breathing. It worked in “2001” and no doubt Cuaron knows it would have been a fit in this sequence. There is, however, the reality of the marketplace. Film is a collaborative work which relies on the input from those who are footing the bill; regardless of their ability to shape the work artistically.

Sandra Bullock is an interesting choice as the person to carry the film. No doubt the suits were referencing her role in the thriller franchise: “Speed” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control”. Bullock has maintained her sex appeal and has a seasoned resume demonstrating a range beyond reactive repertoire of traditional actions films. It was a good performance encased in a pedestrian dialogue.  Obviously the suits can point to box office and exclaim: Mission Accomplished. It begs the question, however, of how much Bullock would have soared had she been given the script that matched the Cuaron’s brilliant visual accomplishments.  What if her character had been granted enough strength to forgo the absurd ‘dream sequence’? How would the re-entry have played without the necessity to narrative her fears and feelings.  Bullocks physicality and visual expressions were undercut by needless prattle. Note: her character was the most memorable while she was actively battling the endless barrage of obstacles. This was not accompanied by detailed descriptive narrative but simple directions, commands, grunts and endless rushes of breath.  She might have repeated the same desperate distress call, “Houston in the blind”, for the last half of the film and it would have had more power than the gooey anecdotes and verbal reaffirmations of her state of mind.

There is a wonderful video of the international space station narrated by Commander Sunita Williams which gives a view of the mundane aspects of space life (e.g. brushing teeth, showering, room layout...). ( The video is at: No doubt the cinematographer and set designers spent countless hours re-creating this strange zero gravity home base. The overall effect was completely convincing to this reviewer - a certified non-space expert. The real scientists were less impressed. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a leading American astrophysicist, issued a number of twitter posts challenging the science, although he said he enjoyed the film. Mr. Cuaron responded in the Hollywood Reporter revealing he was aware of the real world shortcomings but felt he had artistic license.  ( This is a small exchange but speaks volumes about American’s audiences quest for ‘authenticity’.   In order to ‘really’ validate a film’s worthiness the filmmakers must pay homage to the god of science. Forcing fiction to submit to factual reality obscures the real truth behind the story.  This is a tale about a frail human technician dangling over the vast unknown. Space journeys are terrifying because they challenge the modern American shibboleth: we live in a material world that can be controlled by our will .  A mainstream commercial feature must bring us to the edge and carefully snatch of away from the horror of nothingness. Ironically Dr. Tyson’s commentary, although negative, adds to the sense that this work is somehow rooted in science rather than science fiction. The director’s response speaks to the technical prowess balanced with ‘real’ science. Perhaps the lesson of this film might be that we need to untether from the notion that our comfortable factual hard-nosed ‘reality’ is rooted in explainable logic. Here is a fact that seems to be lost in all our technical prowess: our current scientists have absolutely no idea what makes up the composition 95% of the universe.  Metaphorically speaking we live in an extension of the ‘dark ages’. What does this have to do with ‘Gravity’? If we accept the idea that we ‘don’t know’ we will feel less inclined to hamstring our art with pat explanations.  We really are dangling over a dark unknown. This can be applied to our characters’ motivations and actions. In this respect truth can set us free... and produce better films.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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