Thursday, October 10, 2013


Alternate Title:  A Bad Place for a Bad Day

One sentence synopsis:     Two astronauts caught in the middle of an escalating orbital cataclysm must attempt to survive and somehow return to the Earth.

Things Havoc liked:  I was very uninterested in Gravity when I first saw the trailers. Impressive though the visuals of the film appeared to be, there are few things that drive me out of a theatre faster than what I call "deathwatch thrillers", movies in which the main characters are quite obviously doomed, without hope of escape by any means, and our task is to watch them panic, suffer, and die. Many dead teenager movies fall into this category, but the ur-example is probably Open Water, a movie I described once as being one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. Any film that seems to promise a repetition of that is liable to go unwatched by me, but ultimately, with nothing much else to see and extremely favorable reports from many people I knew, I decided to give it a shot.

And goddamn, am I glad I did.

It is the near future, and the five-man crew of the Orion-class shuttle Explorer, are attempting to make repairs on the Hubble telescope during spacewalk, two of whom, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Cloony) are the sole survivors when a counter-orbit debris field from a Russian anti-satellite missile test gone awry smashes into the orbiter, the telescope, and largely everything else nearby. Trapped in nothing but their spacesuits, they now have to find a way to escape orbit and return to Earth alive. This is the entire plot of Gravity, and yet unlike the deathwatch movies I spoke of earlier, this one is an incredibly tense thriller, thanks to brilliant actors and smart decisions on the part of the writer, director, and producer, Alfonso Cuaron. Clooney and Bullock here play standard Clooney and Bullock roles, him the smooth, veteran mission commander whose confidence and wisdom are paramount, and her the frazzled, nervous technician who just wants to get the mission over with. Shallow though these things may sound in text, Bullock and Clooney do fantastic jobs, never letting the characters turn into one-note cutouts, getting much across with simple intonation and half-finished reference, no mean feat for a film wherein the character's faces are all but invisible for large sections of the film, and many scenes consist entirely of them, alone, or together, sitting in a capsule somewhere for long, multi-minute shots.

Speaking of which, Cuaron's last film, Children of Men, showed his penchant for such things, and here he lets himself go wild. The entire introductory sequence is a single ten-minute unbroken shot, done with computer effects of course, but that hardly matters. Unlike Lucas' prequels, this film uses long takes for stylistic purposes instead of showing off, letting us concentrate on the gorgeous visuals attendant to simply being in space. Almost everything in the film is not merely photo-realistic but physically-realistic. Fire and water behave as they actually do in zero gravity, as do thrusters, momentum, and high speed collisions. One thing I'd never really realized is just how violent the process of getting around things in orbit can be, as people bounce into and off of space stations, satellites, and odd protrusions of every sort. Granted, the circumstances are somewhat trying, but when momentum can only be generated by pushing off of or pulling onto something, one gets whip-lashed about almost constantly. This, and a hundred other little details about how one actually gets by in space are fully realized, giving the movie an excellent pedigree, and grounding us in the absolute remoteness of space, with all its attendant dangers and inability of rescue.

But cementing everything together for Gravity is the music, an eclectic collection of electro-orchestral pieces from all around the world. With a film this light on dialogue (many sequences take place in complete silence), the music must fill the space to keep our interest, something made all the more important as (true to life) the sound effects in space are portrayed realistically, meaning there are none when the source of the effect isn't happening in an enclosed atmosphere or through direct physical contact with a character's spacesuit. The music itself, light on percussion and heavy on synthesizers and strings, is a strange beast, but powerful in its own right, reminiscent of Blade Runner as much as anything. I can't speak for everyone on a subject this personal, but it certainly fit the bill for me.

Things Havoc disliked: By and large, the movie is about one single disaster which rapidly begets new ones as though by alchemy, but on the occasions where this fidelity is lost in favor of entirely unrelated disasters that also happen to afflict our heroes at the same time, the movie begins to stretch credulity. By the end of the film, as things went wrong which had nothing to do with the initial debris storm, one begins to stop suspecting bad luck and start suspecting a sadistic writer. I grant that this is a survival movie, and that fresh dangers are required to keep us in suspense, but some of these catastrophes (I won't spoil which) begin to get a bit ridiculous, taken in summation.

There's also a few elements that just don't make sense. Early on in the film, one of the characters is stranded with nothing but their spacesuit, a hundred kilometers from help, with almost no oxygen left in their tanks. A fine conceit for suspense, certainly, but not five minutes ago, this person was working on the Hubble, in an operation that was expected to take another hour. Were they intending on running the air in their suit down to the last possible second just for fun? I don't know NASA's policies, but I would expect there's a bit of a margin of safety built into spacewalk air calculations. Similarly, a sequence wherein one astronaut is dangling from wires attached to a space station while another astronaut dangles from a rope attached to the first, straining against the forces pulling them away, seems to forget that in space, momentum, once checked, is not recovered without another external force acting upon it, and that there is no such force when one is floating weightless in orbit. Given the decisions that some of the characters must make based on these sorts of situations, this would seem to be something of a major oversight.

Final thoughts:   But then, how much does that really matter, so long as the movie is both entertaining and reasonably accurate? After all, a normal person, even an astronaut, in a situation like that would probably die instantly, or at best linger on for a few hours, thus turning the film into exactly the sort of Open Water-esque exercise in futility that I wanted to avoid in the first place. Ultimately, Gravity is a spellbinding film, tense and majestic and incredibly well-crafted, one that simply gives us a pair of excellent actors and a situation for them to be in. And if this year has shown me nothing else, it has revealed just how difficult pulling off something that simple can actually be.

Ten months into this dismal year of film, and we may finally have turned the corner into a stretch of good movies. And if not, well, at least we have this one.

Final Score:  8/10

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