Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My review of GRAVITY

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 audience. 

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.


  1. I'll be skipping this if Gravity "doesn't work" in 2D. The glasses give me a headache, which is only compounded even further by the Dog awful contemporary fads of Shaky-Cam, Wall of Sound, and Editing for Epileptics.

    Only a couple days back, I watched Moneyball with a friend, and enjoyed it very much as a direct result of the complete absence of the above-mentioned fads. It was the epitome of Old School filmmaking and a joy to watch. And I don't even like baseball.

  2. Hi! Shameless plug: My husband does 3D camera work and he's one of the only trained people in Houston, much less Texas. We took the plunge when incentives programs took productions to N. Mexico, Louisiana and Georgia---and we didn't want to move from Houston where our family and friends are.

    Please, Kanuck, go check out the 3D version of "Gravity". It's good 3D---the problem we have and many 3D production people have---is that there's a LOT of BAD 3D out there---3D that makes people sick, so nauseated, that they'll never go back. Which makes the 3D production community sick, because we know that sets us back.

    The 3D discussion boards lit up with "Gravity" and everyone is discussing how to keep up the quality and establish 3D as a viable story-telling medium. Before that, the main contender was "Madagascar 3"--no live action movies.

    It's impossible to describe---and I'm sorry some critics have a checklist of plot, story arcs, character, whatever---I have not been able to shake how I felt like I was up in space with Sandra Bullock---and then it has stayed with me as I think how it feels day-to-day to be in our own universe, how we are all trying to survive and how really we're all alone as much as we might be surrounded by technology or even other people. Not trying to get all Buddhist illusionist philosophical---but there's so many layers to this movie besides a survival drama.

    Thank Bitter for giving me a platform to tout good 3D. And I posted your review on my FB page, so that our other production friends can take it and share it as well.

    1. This is a tough area for me because both good and bad 3D give me headaches. I can still *enjoy* the films, but I'm not really inclined to drop the extra cash to eventually have to deal with the pain later. Now, if I had time to see movies multiple times, I'd probably give Gravity another chance in 3D.

  3. Good 3D shouldn't give anyone headaches....it's kind of the definition of good 3D. There are 2 problems right now talked about in the 3D community:
    -DPs who think that 3D cameras aren't that different than regular cameras and they don't bother with training, composition or how to shoot with editing in mind (no fast cuts, long continuous shots or the audience throws up---the beginning shot in "Gravity" is 18 minutes long
    -3D done in post-production---the movie was shot by a regular DP and then translated in post---it's oil and water and tends to give people headaches or nausea

    Once everyone gets on board and realizes the potential of 3D for story-telling as well as the technical aspects---3D will take off. Meanwhile, anyone want a 2-hour lecture on the science of 3D? Welcome to dinnertime at our house, where my husband will still be talking, long after the kitchen has been cleaned up! He loves it.....and we're his audience....

  4. Look, five years ago I already made a shortfilm with a similar inciting incident: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xlcH7vRxWc

    It was inspired by one of Ray Bradbury's short stories and is a 3D-animation done in Cinema 4D (albeit not a 3D-movie :D).

    GRAVITY was an awesome movie and I'm proud to recognize a lot of similarities in my production that came out of necessity.

  5. 3D? Meh. Just another reason not to waste my money on features. Cable network programming FTW!

  6. Funnily enough, despite Wizard of Oz being one of her favourite movies, my Mom had only ever seen it on her home's b&w television and so was utterly surprised to discover many years later the big colour transition.

    Anyway, as someone who tends to find 3D in movies distracting, I completely agree that in Gravity it helped the immersion. Adding depth to the depths of space. Not to mention the phenomenal pacing in the script that knew exactly how long action sequences should be and how much pause to give in-between them.

  7. So many effects-heavy films promise to show you something you've never seen before. Gravity delivers.
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  8. With Hollywood recycling and "rebooting" the same stories and sights more than ever, Gravity stands out as a spectacle not to be missed.
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