Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gravity - In Which I Try Not to Sound Like Cliched Hype and Take Great Joy in Seeing a Movie Start Arguments

Ooooh man...this is a piece I've been wrestling over how to do since seeing it on Friday.

When I first saw the trailers for Gravity, I was a bit mixed on how to feel. On the one hand, the premise could be good, and Alfonso Cuarón has certainly impressed me as a director before. On the other hand, the trailer felt rather lacking, leaving me to wonder how they were going to get a feature length movie out of the premise.

Then I got to seeing it  Friday. Since then, I have spent the past several days trying to work out how to properly weigh my opinion here. Not because it's bad, but because with the hype train that's been building around this movie, I want to be able to give it a fair opinion without giving in to the hype myself.

...as you may have guessed with a lead-in like that, yeah, I liked the movie.

Before I go on, I should clarify for those still on the fence with the film - the trailers did a TERRIBLE job selling this movie. Like I said above, even I was very lukewarm on them, and from the sound of things, so were a lot of people. In fact, I'm putting this film on my growing list of evidence that the modern film industry has lost the ability to sell a movie that doesn't have previously built-in brand on it. Yes, that's a bit cynical, but you get the idea- The ads don't do this one justice.

The premise-which the ads ultimately omit in favor of just running shots of the film- is pretty straightforward. Right at the start we're told one of the first rules that will anchor this movie: 'life in space is impossible.' From there, we're thrown right into the story: it's a routine mission performing maintenance on the Hubble Telescope. We get a few moments of conversation to loosely establish our two leads: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney.) I stress 'a few moments' here, as things go to Hell pretty fast in this film - a damaged satellite kicks off a wave of debris that, in space, gets deadly fast. As the debris reaches the crew, their shuttle is wrecked and all but two of the crew are killed. That's really all this film needs for its buildup. From there, our attention is solely on Stone and Kowalski as they try to survive long enough to find a way back to Earth.

Both appropriate for the trailer, and an analogy for what it did for this film marketing-wise.

It's actually a bit amusing when you realize that the film itself has a very straightforward story and marketing still managed to misrepresent it. Perhaps they felt just the opening was strong enough to sell the movie - though reception from people should have told them otherwise when the initial teasers got met with mixed responses. Granted, this isn't to say the story is an award-winning piece of prose on its own, but for what the movie's trying to do, it wasn't really supposed to be anyway. It's a fairly barebones survival story, and Cuarón, with his brother and co-writer Jonás, maintain a good degree of tension with it.

Further maintaining the idea of space being unlivable, the film has next to no slumps where the audience can relax itself. Even when it seems there is a moment to relax, a new problem arises and the stakes have been raised again. The result is a brisk 90 minutes of film.

For their part, the two leads certainly don't hurt matters. Clooney is actually the support rather than the lead in this role. Kowalski, in and of himself, is not a real stretch for the actor. He's a standard, likable, reliable mentor figure. Nevertheless, he still carries the role well, especially for having to spend all of his time in a space suit. By comparison, Bullock carries the lead role here surprisingly well. I will admit to being somewhat skeptical when I saw her listed in the cast on the first press for the movie, but I wil also admit that I was wrong in this case. Despite any misgivings, she actually sold this part for me. For a lean, short film, her arc is actually one of the stronger elements of the script - going from at first being the scared survivor who has to lean on others for support to slowly regaining her own will to live and determination to make it back. Her character arc is actually the real core of the story here rather than the external plot.

OK, I'll admit...the screencaps aren't exactly high-grade riffing material on this one.

That said, the biggest strength of this movie is probably the one that text will have the hardest time selling - the direction.

Now, before I elaborate on that, this is the point where I'll acknowledge, yes, there's been a fair amount of debate over the scientific accuracy in this film. I find myself torn on the matter - No it's not the most accurate, though I'm willing to let that slide as dramatic conceit (and let's face it, if lapses in realism were enough to shoot down a work of fiction, we wouldn't have a whole lot left to go on.) Yes, maybe people have hyped up the realism in this - Relatively speaking, it does still show a lot more attention to detail regarding space than a LOT of films have in years (so I'll give them points for being closer to the center of the target than most, even if it's still not a bullseye.) On the other hand of all of this, it IS kind of nice to actually see this much passion in the debate, if only cause it shows there's still an interest in the sciences out there. In this case, it's a bit of a mountain out of a molehill, but an assuring one to see happen.

Anyway, back to the direction. One of the biggest hooks of this movie, and I suspect this was what the ads were trying to emphasize but somewhat missed the mark on: visually, the movie is downright engrossing. Even with the inaccuracies, it's hard not to get drawn in to how immersively Cuarón has depicted space here. The vast, soundless sequences that really help you appreciate just how small any lone human is out there, and how easy it could be to be lost or die out there, are as impressive as they are disturbing to take in. Like 2001, a comparison that has be floated around, it's a movie that really seems to have a grasp on what space is like on our level-even if it does fudge some of the elements in the interests of drama. To that end, this is one of those rare movies where I'd say that, visually, it's worth going all in and trying for IMAX 3D if you can manage it.

Cliche as the line is, and loath as I am to use it, this film really is an experience. I can keep going in text, but it's still not going to do this one justice. You really just have to see it for yourself.

Hopefully that didn't feel too much like so much hype. I tried to keep it reeled in, but again, even I'll admit, it really is that good a movie.

In the meantime, more Halloween to come this Friday!

Till then!

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