Monday, October 21, 2013

Gravity

It was an encouraging notion: what appeared to be an heir to the great science fiction artifices in cinema history was also a smash hit with mainstream audiences. Were folks finally able to sit back and pause for a change? Rather than hold their bowels as they waited for the next cataclysm to unfold? Was Sandra Bullock stretching a bit beyond the crowd pleasers that have made her one of the most bankable stars ever?

My instincts said otherwise.  When I first watched the trailer for GRAVITY this summer, I nearly fell out of my chair with laughter.  Bullock and George Clooney desperately floating about in deep space, gasping like rookies in an acting class. I thought for sure that Bullock was headed for a Razzie nomination. I stopped laughing when I saw that Alphonso Cuarón  was the director.  Then I just felt deflated.

But maybe I was wrong.  When the film opened a few weeks back, it became an immediate sensation. The majority of critics - many of whom I greatly respect - were filled with declaratives, stating a new classic was on display. I wasn't convinced or otherwise persuaded to see the film until I read an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal last week. I decided to take the plunge, to blow $30 on the IMAX and 3-D showing 'cause a movie like this demands it. It was the first film I've seen in the theater since LIFE OF PI late last spring, at the tail end of its run before it went on video and On Demand. I did not see a single summer release, the first time since I was about 6. You know, 'cause most of them featured non-stop mayhem and I'm flat out bored with that.

So that feeling of deflation continued as I watched GRAVITY, one of the most hyped films in recent memory. I should have known. I should have known. My hopes that a neo: 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS was about to unfold were very quickly dashed as the actors exchanged cheesy banter that included references to the "Macarena" and Facebook. But yeah, it looked amazing. Sandra and George rotating in our faces. I don't think anyone will argue that the film hasn't raised the bar for effects and overall technique. Longtime Cuarón cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's work is crisp.  I did indeed find myself wondering how they did certain shots.

Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a NASA scientist on her first Space Shuttle mission. She's admittedly more comfortable in windowless laboratories, doing low profile work. Clooney is Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut on his final spacewalk (and determined to break a previous such record). We barely get to know them when Houston warns of a storm of debris headed their way, the result of a destroyed Russian satellite. After the storm all but decimates the station, Stone and Kowalski are detached and float through space, armed with backpack thrusters but groping their way back.  When they finally succeed, they discover the vessel is unusable and the crew is dead.  Equipment in the nearby International Space Station is similarly (mostly) impaired.

I won't say more. But instead of the expected slow meditation on life and death in this most foreign of places, we're treated to a series of crises, not just metaphysical. The kind of action audiences crave, have been weaned on. Have seen a thousand times before. Where is HAL when you need him?

So disappointing. I happen to love close call adventures as much as the next guy in short pants, but GRAVITY had the potential to be so much more. How is it that the director of Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and CHILDREN OF MEN  (and even the darkest of the Harry Potter movies, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN) spit out such a patently Hollywood movie? All the more surprising was the banal dialogue, scripted by the director and his son Jonas. Bullock's character also relays a story of her deceased child that was supposed to add dramatic weight to the scenario but to me just felt cherry picked. It was no more effective than Phoebe Cates' grim Santa Claus memory in GREMLINS. It pains me to say that the drama here is about 5th grade level.

Don't ask about the film's scientific accuracy, though most of the time in works of fiction one must try to ignore such shortcomings. But is it that difficult to have consultants and advisers on hand to tweak the scenario in a logical direction? I remember watching in disbelief an episode of House that featured cochlear implants. It was embarrassing at how off the science was.

Once Stone flies solo (the remaining hour of this 90 minute film), she whimpers, swears, tells beeping control panels to shut up and even at one point utters, "I hate space."  Towards the end, she has a hallucination that underlines the films themes a bit too neatly and obviously, though it is an enjoyable scene. But it illuminates what is wrong with GRAVITY, a film that never trusts its audience to make their own connections, to ponder Stone's dilemma in any really meaningful way. Theological elements therein are largely dependent on the viewer, though there are a few shots of dashboard crucifixes and Buddhas.  Despite long, unbroken (albeit computer generated) shots, the film seems more concerned with the next big action sequence. And Stephen Price's near unbearable score only adds to the frustration.

I do have to say that I liked the very last scene.  It allows some degree of ambiguity that hints at what GRAVITY could have been for its entire hour and a half. I read that Warner Brothers wanted to add something to those shots to reassure the audience. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

I know I will be in the minority with my thoughts on GRAVITY. And honestly, I did enjoy it. Bullock has several good moments; both she and Clooney utilize their familiar screen personas to mostly good effect. The film is good popcorn that can be enjoyed and experienced without guilt. But I wanted more than just a theme park ride. The thinness of the screenplay was disheartening. Was I expecting Malick-type poetry? Maybe.  I am due for another screening of TREE OF LIFE............

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