Gravity (2013)

Film is a visual medium. This a basic fact of the art form that we sometimes forget. Sight was all film was in the beginning: A moving image that had to convey its meaning with the aid of no other sensory input. Story, dialogue, sound, and music came later, added features to enhance the experience rather than inherent qualities. But these features have been around so long that we’ve become used to them. So much so, in fact, that their sudden absence can confuse or annoy us. I myself have been guilty in the past of demanding things of film in the name of “tradition”. So guilty, in fact, that I have put off this now very late review for months while I pondered the very question of the definition of “film”.

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The reason for this unexpected soul searching is that upon the release of Gravity, I found myself on a very different side of the conversation than I normally am. I’m a story guy, always have been. It’s what I studied in school, and even in a visually-oriented film, it’s still what I devote most of my attention to. I like stories, regardless of medium. I like taking them apart to see how and why they work, what’s important and what’s not. It never occurred to me that in my obsessing with mastering the concept of storytelling, I might actually be limiting myself to one aspect of what films are all about. I always thought of film as a form of storytelling by definition. Now I think that may be too close-minded an approach.

Gravity (2013)

Since its release, Gravity has rapidly become one of the most polarizing movies of the year. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either one of the most absorbing experiences in the history of cinema, or an overhyped, glorified special effects reel. To its supporters, it’s a brilliant combination of a minimalist narrative with breathtaking visuals and groundbreaking cinematography, resulting in a thriller that’s as terrifying as the best horror films, yet as uplifting as the most heartwarming dramas. To its detractors, it’s a fancy digital light show with an overreliance on long takes that give an “artsy” feel to what’s otherwise a cliché-ridden waste of time.

In light of all this, it’s hard for me not to recall the release of Avatar four years ago (damn, has it been that long already?), when the debate was essentially the same: visual experience vs. weak story. I haven’t changed my mind about Avatar; Story aside, it was unengaging, with bland visual design and no real life to it. Access to the latest digital toys alone does not a great film make. That said, finding myself taking the “it’s a great visual experience, the story is secondary to that” stance this time around vaguely disturbs me.

That’s not to say Gravity doesn’t have a story, or even that its story is bad. It’s well-told and perfectly functional. Dr. Ryan Stone (played in an uncommonly effective dramatic turn by Sandra Bullock) is the rookie member of a crew of astronauts (including George Clooney) in orbit above Earth performing maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope. Without much warning, a cloud of high speed satellite debris strikes their shuttle. Left without a ride home, adrift in space, and rapidly running out of oxygen, the inexperienced Stone must figure out a way back to Earth in one piece, assuming she can even muster the will to go on living.

Gravity (2013)

Stone’s struggle for survival by overcoming not only physical odds but her own self-loathing apathy brought on by past tragedy is the backbone of Gravity, providing the structure and context needed to pull us into the visual marvels we were sold on. The film has what a good story needs to function: a fleshed-out character with a solid arc to complete. It even throws in some less-than-subtle symbolism towards the end. It’s predictable, and arguably a touch trite at times, but at a basic nuts and bolts level, it works beautifully. It’s got the human touch that an audience needs to connect with the film and enjoy the ride.

Gravity (2013)

Gravity is no hoity-toity, highfalutin arthouse film. It’s a popcorn flick if ever there was one. It’s simply so refreshingly free of the market-tested, design-by-committee excess that’s come to define the medium that we barely recognize it as such. So it hardly seems like something so revolutionary as to challenge my entire supposition as to the nature of film. And yet it came along at just the right time and place in my life as to do just that. I don’t quite know where that leaves me. I only know that Gravity did what any worthwhile film does: left me a slightly different person than it found me.

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  • Muthsarah

    “Since its release, Gravity has rapidly become one of the most
    polarizing movies of the year.”

    Buh?? I thought everyone loved it. As well they should have.

    “Depending on who you talk to, it’s either
    one of the most absorbing experiences in the history of cinema, or an
    overhyped, glorified special effects reel.”

    The latest Hobbit film is a special effects reel. Pacific Rim was a special effects reel. To me, that term applies to movies where whole scenes exist just for flash, just for spectacle, as if the story exists for them instead of them existing to support the story. Gravity’s special effects, as impressive as they are, are at no point the…point of the movie, but they are absolutely integral nonetheless. You can’t remove the “effects reel” scenes from this movie and still have a movie; how else would the characters be placed in such danger to begin with, and how would they take each individual step back home? The effects are a HUGE part of the movie, but they don’t ever take over the movie. I mean, even when the debris showers hit, even when Dr. Stone is floating around in abyss of space. The simplicity of the premise (as opposed to an intricate story), I think, helps this out a lot: there’s clearly no other way to tell it without using these “effects reels” to take the characters from one point to another, thus none of them feel gratuitous. Again, it’s a simple plot: people suddenly stranded in the “wilderness” (and what a wilderness!), having only a slim chance of getting home, but having no choice but to roll the dice anyway, because the alternative is death. Which is one of the most relatable things a story could possibly be about: the primal urge to live.

    Such a short review, Josh. Are you trying to avoid spoilers? I don’t personally view this as a self-changing movie (it’s not even my favorite movie of the year). But it’s a damn good one. I think it accomplishes every little thing it sets out to be, it’s beautiful, it’s gripping, it has no wasted moments. The only reason I didn’t love it more is…prolly something to do with how scary it is the more I think about it. It’s a terrifying film in a way. From beginning to end. Which is another thing I have to credit it for, even if it’s not an example of why it is I go to movies.

    • CBob

      The problem as I understand it (haven’t seen the film myself), is that it apparently takes massive liberties with pretty much everything relating to it’s setting (realistic modern space program, and space in general). To someone who has no interest or familiarity with space or the space program, it’s a great coaster ride, but to anyone who does, it’s just a shallow chain of obvious writers conveniences.

      That’s not an issue when it’s something that’s not meant to be realistic, like Star Wars, say. But when the movie actually makes a point of tarting itself up as being realistic or hard S-F, it creates a conflict of expectations that cock-blocks suspension of disbelief and comes off as either hypocritical or just half-arsed on the part of the filmmakers.

      That sort of thing is pretty much what made me hate “Sunshine”: That movie wanted to talk the talk, but couldn’t be arsed to actually walk the walk, to a degree that seemed almost like an active attempt to troll hard S-F fans. It’s insultingly phony, like a mall ninja, or a guy who wears hiking shoes to make himself look “rugged” but hates the outdoors. If what I’ve read about “Gravity” is even half true, it probably won’t work for me.

      • Muthsarah

        Always seems to be such a sticky issue, just to how much realism you’re gonna hold a work a fiction. Personally, I don’t care when Star Trek has sound in space, or how the ship shakes around when in motion, but the people aren’t thrown around at ten times the speed or light and go splat against the walls. Or even that they can go ten times the speed of light and not age. But when someone in The Simpsons does something that I can’t imagine a person being physically able to do, it’s just too Looney Tunes to be relateable. Except when it isn’t.

        I think I understand what you’re saying about sci-fi-ish movies like Gravity, but I don’t think a movie that wants to be sedate and “realistic” (as opposed to being all about flashy action, or crab monsters) should necessarily be held to full realism either. There’s gotta be some middle ground between Apollo 13 and Flash Gordon. Gravity was certainly trying to be a relateable film, with the audience given a lot of up-close face time with the cast, nobody doing anything that seems completely implausible, and never once seeming to cut away, as if it’s dragging the audience along on a real-time adventure. But it doesn’t seem fair that doing so makes it vulnerable to charges of bad science when films that aim to be more pulpy, but with a serious veneer, get a pass. Gravity isn’t even about science; they don’t use technical jargon to plot them from one setting to another, it’s clear that the focus is on the journey, just moving one step closer to Earth at a time, not on what whiz-bang gadgets they used to get there. The technical details seemed to have been mostly glossed over, even if the film makes it very clear how important it is that the characters get this stuff right. They seem to know what they’re doing, but they’re still praying it works.

        • CBob

          Well, the problem is things like this:
          “nobody doing anything that seems completely implausible”
          “the film makes it very clear how important it is that the characters get this stuff right”

          Both of these are problems due to being (there’s no good way to put this) untrue. From what I understand, much of what they do is not only implausible, but Looney Tunes grade (it makes the importance of the characters getting stuff right look completely arbitrary, and thus as tensionless as technobabble), and Sandra Bullock’s character is someone who would never ever have even begun to pass any the psych qualifications for becoming an astronaut. The latter is especially bad because it makes even the character dynamic stuff that’s supposed to be the human core of any good story into a pile of contrivance. It doesn’t matter how believable she might be written for such a person if every time she opens here mouth she reminds you that her very presence is a major immersion breaking contrivance (“Sunshine” had the same problem… with its entire cast).

          “I don’t think a movie that wants to be sedate and “realistic” (as
          opposed to being all about flashy action, or crab monsters) should
          necessarily be held to full realism either.”

          This is absolutely true, however audience members who aren’t aware of what realistic would actually look like tend to set that balance point right at the goalpost instead of anywhere on the field. Anything they don’t understand is equally good as long as it seems exciting. And that’s fine on its own: everyone has their own areas of expertise/interest, and noone can be expected to be familiar with them all, much less equally so. And it’s totally fine when the stuff in question is only a side detail.

          However It does reflect poorly on the filmmakers when the thing they’re crapping out on is the foundation of the setting, genre, theme, action, etc. And on the audiences end, the ugly truth is people actually do “learn” bad science from this sort of thing. People will protest all day that they don’t and that they know the difference between fiction and reality, but this is scientifically false. And it becomes recursive after a while (see “reality is unrealistic” on TV Tropes).

          Not so bad when fiction is more exciting than the reality, but surprisingly often this is not actually the case. There are actually more examples of stuff where the realistic way would be MORE visually spectacular or exiting, but again, an audience who doesn’t know what the real thing would look like won’t know that, and will assume it would be less simply because they remember high-school science class being boring. Similarly ignorant filmmakers make the same assumptions, and so the dynamic between becomes a downward spiral of failure and close mindedness.

          That’s kind of what adds insult to injury to the affair for a space geek: you aren’t just getting smacked out of your immersion at every turn, you’re also seeing how the film could be even more of a white knuckle roller coaster if the filmmakers pulled their heads out of their bums. When audiences who don’t know realistic from not defend bad realism in such cases by saying “realistic would be boring”, they’re actually shooting themselves in the foot. And when the filmmakers justify themselves by implying they see the balance at the goalposts, they make themselves look like asses who want to cultivate an appearance of intelligence while disdaining any effort to actually be intelligent (lookin’ at you, JJ Abrahms).

          Basically from what I’ve heard the film isn’t a compromise somewhere between Apollo 13 and Flash Gordon. It’s complete Flash Gordon dancing around in a suit made of Apollo 13’s skin. The “realism” is 100% in the superficial art style (“hey, those look just like real space suits, this must be realistic!”).

          • Muthsarah

            I guess I’m probably on the other end of the mirror from where I usually am with movies. Typically, I’m among the first to complain whenever it feels a movie gets too dramatic-for-drama’s sake, or when there are significant changes to the source material to make it more accessible. I’m not a tech geek of any stripe, space especially, so while contrivances such as that one thing with Clooney, or Dr. Stone’s emotional over-vulnerability seem like obvious bone-tossing to a pathos-craving audience, the stuff that isn’t put front-and-center (whatever physics is going on) would go over my head. Probably how I would enjoy movies more if I haven’t already seen so many good ones (making comparisons inevitable) or enjoy adaptations more if I never read the book.

            For me, “realism” need not rely so much on whether or not something is being depicted accurately, but more on how immersive a movie is, how real it seems. While action movies, comedies, or melodramas are usually too goofy or over-the-top to be immersive, dramas, especially on the stage, or especially especially movies with long takes, minimal sound, less dialogue, and, of course, first-person camera views, can sometimes make me forget I’m watching a production, and make it feel more like I’m actually witnessing what’s happening as if I was there. Which happened quite a bit in Gravity. There was one point where I started holding my breath without even realizing I was doing it, because that’s what I would have had to do were I actually in the movie at that time.

            So I can’t speak for what it must be like to get annoyed at these kinds of inaccuracies, even though, with any movie where I can claim some sort of extra background knowledge, I would probably be feeling the same way you are. Just different kinds of expert perspectives. I still think Gravity was a fun, tight, immersive movie. Not quite at the level of Apollo 13 (which is one of my favorite movies), but an excellent movie nonetheless.

            I typically HATE feeling like filmmakers are condescending to me when they sacrifice realism or fidelity to make their films shallower and blander, and to better attract people who wouldn’t otherwise know or care anything about it, and who, even if they like it, will probably forget about it. I like to think that movies should try to be PERFECT for as many people as it is possible to be perfect for, and not just try to be “good enough” for just enough people to maximize the return-on-investment. But maybe they were doing that here, and I didn’t notice. Didn’t feel like it. I like the other side of the mirror better, really.

          • Severian

            “It’s complete Flash Gordon dancing around in a suit made of Apollo 13’s skin.”

            It tells Houston it has a problem or else it gets the hose again…

        • Appolo 13 also comited some scientific gaffes too, though not as many as one would normally see. Funny enough, the effort to be the most accurate possible was thanks to star Tom Hanks, who’s a space nut. The original script which Ronnie Howard acepted and was ready to shot was extremely scientifically inacurate, even he admits as much.

          The film that still sets the standards for scientific accuracy is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddyssey, even 47 years after it was released.

      • The liberties are not caused by ignorance from the filmmakers but they were deliberatly made for the sake of the audiences. Cuaron said that the inicial script was extremely accurate to all orbinal mechanics physics and explained every little actions of the characters, but they then realised that half the script was devoted to explain the physics and the characters spoke of nothing else but exposition of the science of the film.

        Watch any interview with Cuaron and he openly states where the movie is not correct to known physics and you wil notice he does known and did research the real life physics of orbiting in space. He’s not like Michael Bay who handwaves the soddy science, he knows the sience, he research it, andf all the liberties the movie takes is not out of ignorance or sloppiness but deliberate for the sake of narrative.

        • Nessus

          This doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to explain any of that stuff at all, you just have to shoot it in a way that looks interesting. The fact that he thought he’d have to “tell” the realistic options instead of showing them when he had no such problem with his made up stuff tells me that no matter how well it might have been explained to him, he never internalized or maybe even understood it enough to be able to visualize it in his head.

          For me It’s easy to picture how the realistic stuff could have been shot as a thrill ride, so saying he did it to make things more exciting comes off more as an unwitting admission of ignorance than anything else.

          Plus there is what think of as “The Ruby Rhod Effect”: the deliberateness of a bad thing does not redeem the badness in question.

          • You are failing to cnsider one thing: to tell a completly realistic scenario as shown in the film you would need to fill the movie with exposition over exposition over exposition, and all to do with energetics and orbital mechanics.

            The thing is, the scenario the movie shows is THE IDEAL SCENARIO that sahould exist now that the USA relies on the russians to go to space. Any spacecraft launched from a given latitude affects their orbital height, and to change from one to the other uses all or more energy then what today’s spacecrafts can carry.

            The thing is, even if the movie had taken into account the differences of orbital distances in altitude, it would still have problems to do with realism. By putting all the space stations at the same orbit, it not only shows an ideal scenario that all the space agencies wich it was happening, but it prevented the film from being overwhlemed with exposition on orbinal mechanics and energetics wich would cause more problems then resolve them, narratively and otherwise.

            With so many other bad movies made by Michael Bay and JJ Abrams out there, it’s peculiar that suddently people gained magical high standards and decide to attack a movie like Gravity which goes beyond the call of duty in today’s blockbuster filmmaking into trying to depict a very believable scenario. It’s really peculiar.

          • Nessus

            That’s because it doesn’t depict one, much less go “above and beyond the call of duty”. It dresses up its BS in superficial “believable” asthetics like real space suit and space station designs. Underneath that visual wallpaper it’s as nonsense as the Bay/Abrams stuff. Calling it more “believable” than aBay/Abrams film is like saying your car is more powerful because you slapped a “Turbo” badge on the back. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of going above and beyond.

            And regarding this:
            “You are failing to cnsider one thing: to tell a completly realistic
            scenario as shown in the film you would need to fill the movie with
            exposition over exposition over exposition, and all to do with
            energetics and orbital mechanics”

            I didn’t fail to consider that. It simply doesn’t matter if the people who don’t already know that stuff don’t get it explained to them in the movie. If you don’t have to technobabble the BS, you don’t have to technobabble the realism. As long as you can make it LOOK exciting it’s a “same difference” sort of thing.

            Again: this all comes down to whether or not you can imagine how to write/shoot something more realistic in a purely visual, visceral in-the-moment way. In a way that would be a thrill ride whether the audience knows the under-the-hood stuff or not. Cuaron couldn’t. You apparently can’t. But I, and others with similar complaints can, and that’s why it just looks like a dishonest cop-out to us. You and Cuaron both are laboring under a false dichotomy: that stuff can be visceral or realistic, but not both. You’re making a leap from “I can’t picture this myself” to “therefore it cannot be pictured”.

            Which to be fair is really just a “shit happens” sort of thing. I mean, if this stuff really isn’t Cuaron’s area, then the only thing he could possibly be blamed for is choosing to making a movie about space at all, and IMO that wouldn’t be fair. I don’t hate Cuaron or think he’s an idiot or any of that other troll stuff. I’m just disappointed by the general fact that circumstances added up to this result.

    • T. Morrissey

      I hate it.

      I was mostly enjoying it until (HOLY SHIT SPOILER ALERT) Sandra Bullock is ready to give up and die, but is saved by George Clooney’s ghost. She had an educational hallucination. What an unnecessary deus ex machina. After that, I couldn’t take the movie seriously. It became a bunch of pretty pictures with an enormously stupid story, which makes it no better than Avatar.

      • It was not a ghost! She dreamed of him, it was her subconscious making an effort for her to still clinque to life and not give up.
        A ghost?? Really??

  • maarvarq

    Gravity is a nail-biting rollercoaster ride, but after I came down from the adrenaline high, I thought “Is that it?” It’s brilliantly done, but really quite shallow. What happened to her after the end of the move? What happened to everyone else?

    • That’s not the point of the story, is it?

      • maarvarq

        It could have been, and I would have liked it to have been. I’m still hanging out for the science fiction film equivalent of Lord of the Rings, but this wasn’t it. Science fiction is the genre best suited to deliver stories of magnificent scope. Gravity, in this respect, was tiny.

        • JD

          If they ever make Ringworld into a movie that might be the Sci fi equivalent to LOTR.

          • maarvarq

            Could be. I don’t know how the filmmakers could establish the backstory of Known Space in a reasonable time, and have the horrible feeling they’d wind up making their own, or in other words I still don’t trust Hollywood :-(

          • JD

            Yea i would not trust them either they would make a halo movie before known space anyway

          • Nessus

            I’ve had the dread thought for a while now that if anyone actually did make a Ringworld movie today (IMO better suited to a TV series), the internet would absolutely shit itself with idiots claiming it was ripping off HALO.

        • Nothing is more magestic and in epic scope then to see the whole earth from space. the setting of Gravity was everything but tiny. You can’t get more epic then that.

          • maarvarq

            Jupiter? Saturn? Neptune and Triton seen as crescents? The whole Milky Way?

            Besides, let’s not confuse storyline with background. Even though I liked the film, the storyline of Gravity was very simple and I can’t imagine that I’d ever bother watching it again.

          • Simple doesn ‘t mean bad, not does overbusy plotting means good, as the movie wroten by Orci/Kurtzman proves. GRAVITY harks back to those SF movies of the 70s that had relatively simple plots but rich in subtext and emotions. I’d rather have that then busy plotting that replaces storytellign with constant action and bad characterization.

            And the Earth is awesome, regardless of her size compared to the rest of the universe. That was a lesson that Carl Sagan taught very well in his series Cosmos, it doesn’t matter the size of the individual things, everything in the universe is awesome if seen from curious wondrous eyes.

          • maarvarq

            Simple is not necessarily better than complex either, and I would still like an SF movie or three with some substance.

            “those SF movies of the 70s that had relatively simple plots but rich in subtext and emotions” – for example?

          • JD

            Silent Running?

          • maarvarq

            I don’t remember that one all that well, but OK, good example.

          • All of them.

          • maarvarq

            You apparently lived through a different 70s than I did.

          • Definatly, yours must had been a very strange version fulled of what was to come 80s action SF films. You skipped a decade, man!

          • maarvarq

            Given that I didn’t mention the 80s, you’re now apparently arguing my side, or what you see it as, as well, so I’ll leave you to it.

          • Muthsarah

            Gravity was made for theatres. It was as much a theme park ride as a movie.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    Plot contrivance science where basic physics dance to the tune of getting the film to the next contrived scene. This is a deeply dumb film.

  • Thomas Ricard

    I highly recommend more films to expand your definition of cinema. Try surrealist films, such as those of Maya Deren, Luis Buñuel, David Lynch. I haven’t seen any Andrei Tarkovsky films but I hear “Solaris” (an existential science-fiction film) is a masterpiece. Try Ingmar Bergman, particularly “Cries And Whispers”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Persona”. And Lars Von Trier (“Breaking The Waves”, “Melancholia”), John Cassavetes (one of the greatest cinematic artists of all time, director of “A Woman Under The Influence”, “Faces”, “Love Streams”), Michelangelo Antonioni (“Red Desert”, “Blowup”, “La Notte”, “L’Avventura”), Robert Bresson (“Pickpocket”, “L’Argent”, “Une Femme Douce”), Bruno Dumont (“L’Humanité”, “Twentynine Palms”, “Outside Satan”) or Werner Herzog (“Aguirre: The Wrath Of God”, “The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser”, “Woyzeck”)

    • I’m familiar with Tarkovsky, Bergman, Von Trier, Lynch, and Herzog. I’m not totally inexperienced with surrealist films, I’ve just always felt a bit…out of the loop while watching them, I guess.

      • Muthsarah

        Well, according to Dali, “Un Chien Andalou” wasn’t even supposed to make sense. Maybe that’s a prerequisite for surrealist films: to function as a movie, even if the audience has no idea what it’s supposed to be about.

  • “To its detractors, it’s a fancy digital light show with an overreliance on long takes that give an “artsy” feel to what’s otherwise a cliché-ridden waste of time.”

    I don’t want to have anything to do with this kind of people.

  • The absense if the use of sound in the EVA scenes just helped proved that movies don’t need to have sound blast at high volumes on 50 tracks to create intense nerve-wracking tension to the audiences. Silence can do that as well, if not better. Proof that often times, going realistic is far more spectacular and tense then the usual action film cliches of fantasy action scenes and ears-busting noise.