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”.
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.
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.
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 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.