I don't know how you begin to write a film like GRAVITY, much less direct it. Alfonso Cuaron's film is a marvel of directing, visual effects and acting. I saw it last week in IMAX 3D and it might very well have been the first time that I didn't feel like the victim of some sort of ticket up-selling scheme. As a rule, I don't enjoy 3D and I rarely feel it adds anything of value to a film. Too often, 3D releases are post-converted cash-grab, with the extra depth being little more than an afterthought on a film that may not have even been conceived with it in mind.
The film stars Sandra Bullock as a first-time astronaut who is one of two survivors of a shuttle mission that fails when debris from a Russian satellite assaults their vessel. George Clooney stars as the other astronaut, the easygoing old flirt who nonetheless becomes the cool head in a crisis once things go bad. With communication with the ground knocked out and the shuttle no longer livable, Clooney and Bullock set out for the International Space Station, intent on using the escape pods there to return to the surface. But there's a ticking clock - in 90 minutes, the ISS will also be pelted by debris.
Thus begins a tale of survival, and even now, after two weekends of release and spoiler warnings, I'm disinclined to discuss too much of the plot. Suffice to say that one of the great joys of Cuaron screenplay (co-written with his son Jonas) is how the story is always in motion, allowing the script to move from one crisis to the next with shocking speed. Before the film is over, Bullock's character will have dealt with drifting out of control in space, desperately trying to grab onto a space station, failing escape pods, fire within an oxygen heavy atmosphere and several dangerous spacewalks. There are moments where Bullock's character is barely able to draw
breath - a feat likely being duplicated simultaneously by many in the
And this is where the IMAX 3D truly enhances the story. It draws us emotionally into the plight that Bullock's character faces. It's not just about providing stunning visuals and eye candy. There is actual emotional purpose in the sequences. We're made to experience what the astronauts do, making this fantastic scenario somehow feel more real and tangible. It's an assault on all the senses, aided tremendously by Cuaron's use of longer takes.
After I saw Avatar, I remarked that James Cameron did a solid job of using 3D to add depth to the scenes, but that in 10 years, when the mo-cap and 3D technology was commonplace, there'd be little left to make Avatar remarkable. It has decent performances and a familiar concept all wrapped up in a script that's okay. There are plenty of little things I liked about the movie, but it's not a film I've been compelled to revisit beyond that first viewing.
Avatar uses its 3D to add some depth to a world that's utterly fantastic, but it's not done in a way that makes me feel for that world. Brilliant visual effects alone can't make an audience feel. It's why when I watch Revenge of the Sith, I don't really get emotionally involved in the technically complex space battle that opens the film, but I'm very riveted by the final lightsaber duel between Anakin and Kenobi. The latter is the emotional payoff for three films - Obi-Wan is confronted with his greatest failure and must avenge his fallen comrades while simultaneously killing the protege he failed to properly mentor. The former is just a bunch of CGI pixels. For me, at least, most of Avatar falls into this category.
GRAVITY, however, achieves that emotional connection with its protagonist and proceeds to use that to wallop the audience throughout the rest of the film.
Is GRAVITY in 2D still GRAVITY? It might be possible to make the case that the answer is "no." Cuaron is savvy in how the 3D draws our attention. I read an article last week that confirmed it was no accident that in one scene, a floating Marvin the Martian doll is set forth very close in the audience's field of vision so that they would focus on that first. This way, when a floating body enters the frame, it blindsides the audience just as it would startle Bullock. The intent of the 3D is to make viewing the film a completely immersive experience. On a massive IMAX screen with 3D vision, our perspective is often the same as Bullock's.
Those who derided the film for its lack of character arcs are looking for the wrong things in this movie. The focus of this movie is on a survival story in a setting that's about as inhospitable as it gets. Not every story is going to be 50% character and 50% plot. Which is not to say that there isn't character work in this film. Bullock's character definitely has an arc. True, the nature of the story necessitates that her backstory be revealed in an expository conversation, but I don't find the motivation for that conversation to be unreasonable.
GRAVITY is such a triumph in so many ways that to browbeat it for not having a conventionally-revealed character arc is to sound like a rigid intellectual preaching the "virtues" of a "well-made play." Avatar's thin characters drag it down because the story itself is so conventional - but especially because it's hard to maintain emotional investment in the film. When a film truly achieves the kind of emotional investment that GRAVITY demands, it doesn't matter if it misses a few items on the mythical "screenwriting checklist."
That's not to admit that the script is weak - because it isn't. Every aspiring screenwriter could learn from the tight pace, the rising tension and the straightforward way that one crisis begets another. And within all of that, it still manages a rather decent character arc for Sandra Bullock's character, if one is attentive enough to notice it.
See GRAVITY in theatres, because I can almost guarantee that the film everyone's raving about will not be the same experience you get on blu-ray in the comfort of your own home. I fear that venture will be akin to watching The Wizard of Oz on an all-black-and-white television.