5 Thinks I Hated About Gravity

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(spoilers)

1. Inexplicable character transformations:

Sandra Bullock decides to commit suicide, and then doesn’t (or maybe still does), for no apparent reason. The only material difference is a hallucinatory visit from the ever dashing George Clooney. Channeling his best Jacob Marley, Clooney’s character inspires Bullock’s character to live, or at least try to survive.

The rest of the movie is an exercise in demonstrating the illegitimacy of her original decision to die. Robbing her of agency, Alfonso Cuarón reverses the heroine’s motivations without providing any explanation for why, or laying the groundwork for it earlier in the story.

2. Less than the sum of its parts:

For all its audio-visual spectacularity, Gravity is untethered, and not in some cool, meta, content-through-form kind of way. Meaning and purpose in Cuarón’s disaster-porn space thriller are subservient to the riveting sense-perception experience the movie has to offer.

What does the heart pounding anxiety of watching Bullock narrowly escape depressurized destruction and high velocity collisions, time after time, have to do with the meditative silences, sweeping camera pans, and nihilistic drifting which the movie revels in the rest of the time? Gravity is part inspirational parable, part roller coaster ride, and part experiential, cinematic short. It is not a successful amalgamation of all three.

3. In outer space but not of it:

You may or may not be aware of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s observations about the movie on Twitter. He actually liked Gravity quite a lot. People who took his comments the wrong way though chided him and others for seeking scientific accuracy in what was principally a piece of art seeking to elicit emotional responses.

This leads me to ask though, as I did in my review, what’s gained from setting the movie in space only to then resist the ground rules that exist there (and which the movie half-heartedly tries to establish itself)?

When pivotal scenes, like Clooney’s departure, and important plot devices, like space-suit thrusting, rely on artistic deviation and subterfuge, the illusion starts to break down, or at least it did for me. Whether it’s realistic characters, realistic motivations, or realistic outcomes, some level of accuracy is necessary. The logistics of astronaut life and space station maintenance are no different.

4. The script:

Gravity was written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonas. While the sequence of events that occurs in the movie isn’t a problem, the things said throughout them are. Even bracketing for the moment the central story’s overall triteness, there are few lines exchanged between Bullock and Clooney that resonate.

The movie’s dialogue achieves little beyond dutifully filling the audience in on the (loaded) rules upon which Cuarón’s space thriller is predicated, explaining to us at times what we’re seeing on screen, and always leaving it clear what Bullock’s next objective is in operation Gravity. Its only real priority besides these three things is telling us what Bullock’s mental and emotional states are, rather than just letting us watch them. The movie would have done well to rely more heavily on Bullock’s powerful physical performance, and less so on Cuarón’s stilted script.

5. The choice:

One of the cardinal rules in movie criticism is to analyze and review the movie you saw–not the one you wanted to see. This is sound advice as far as it goes, but there are occasions where it’s not always clear what a particular movie thinks it is or wants to be. In these instances it can be difficult, but sometimes worthwhile, to consider what a movie wasn’t in addition to what it was.

Bullock has two spacial possibilities in Gravity: float closer to earth or drift farther away. This dichotomy weakly mirrors the emotional and thematic ones Cuarón tries to build around her character, and we see in Clooney’s perilous outcome, the alternative to Bullock’s loud, treacherous, but ultimately safe return to the planet’s surface.

Taking this binary even further though, Gravity itself could have gone one of two ways while still retaining its fundamental conceit of “quasi-realistic experience of something goes wrong in space.” The second half of the movie is a prolonged chase scene, but it could have been a prolonged goodbye if it chose to chart Bullock and Clooney’s final moments as they slowly drift tortuously apart, both from one another and from earth.

However, that was not the route Cuarón chose, as is his prerogative as an artist. But those his was a more entertaining, griping, and commercially viable choice, I can’t help but feel that the other may have been a much more bold and interesting if less bombastically thrilling one.

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6 thoughts on “5 Thinks I Hated About Gravity

  1. Disclaimer — I liked the film. Also, I write for space agencies. I don’t really want to defend the movie — like it or not, that’s not really important. But I had some responses to your comments and little bit of free time. (NASA isn’t real demanding of my time these days!)

    1. I think that what really happened in the “Jacob Marley” sequence was that Jacob/George (fueled by Bullock’s subconscious) reminded her about the steering jets. She had decided to die (I presumed), because all of her options had vanished and she didn’t want to wait around for it. Oxygen deprivation gave her a vision, and the vision supplied a way out.

    2. The alternating between thrilling action and peaceful graphics was a good illustration of pacing to me. Any action film that is worth watching has quite a few moments where the characters, and audience, catch their breath. The beauty of space provided some really nice interludes between the breathless hurtling.

    3. The movie really did mess up its orbital mechanics and the realities of satellite placement, etc, etc. But for the most part audiences don’t really know these things on a gut level. My guess would be that if you took a poll of viewers leaving the theater and asked them what they thought of the cloud of debris hurtling by, or the shot of the Chinese station in the distance, or the fire extinguisher, you wouldn’t get a lot of Kepler coming back at you. Then factor in the aforementioned thrilling action sequences and it was very easy for me to briefly consider the problem and then get lost in the film again. This is very similar to watching gun fights or car chases or even love scenes in movies. They really aren’t much like the real thing, but we tend to let that go for the thrill of the moment. So, to answer your question, what is gained is an exciting string of sequences.

    4. It is a point that this is not a dialog-driven movie, but is that really a flaw? Yes, the dialog performed in the ways that you describe, but I don’t see that problem there. As you said, the dialog supplied rules, explanations, and objectives — all of which are completely necessary, especially in this sort of film. But I’ll disagree that Bullock’s emotional journey was spoken rather than shown. One of the few (I feel) inarguable assets of this film is the lady’s sterling performance, whether speaking or not.

    5. Not to be snarky, but when you’re in orbit, you don’t “float” closer to Earth, or “drift” away. Back to that Keplerian stuff… But I think that you answer your own question in “reviewing the movie you wanted to see.” I can easily envision a film about two people talking as they separate in space (it isn’t a whole film, but there is a lovely, if somewhat plagiarized, conversation between two spacemen floating apart in “Dark Star.”) I can also see that two people floating in the darkness of space, talking as they drift apart, might make a terrific one-act play, but I doubt that it would sell of lot of tickets to a movie crowd. If that was what you wanted to see, you were indeed doomed to failure. I think that what you are talking about would be difficult to pull off. “2001” managed a lot of “silence in space” scenes. “Moon” had some really interesting conversations. But both had their thriller elements. Clooney and Bullock talking about life and the icy beauty of space as they drift apart and their radio signals fade? Actually, that sounds like a great premise for a radio episode. I should note that for a podcast.

    Sorry the film didn’t entertain as you wanted. That’s the chance we take when we buy tickets. I’m pretty critical of its faults myself, and was aware of many of them while watching. FemRex and I, upon leaving the theater, decided it was one of those films that really isn’t about anything other than its own thrills and spills — and that the thrills and spills were terrific and well worth the time.

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      • Yeah, it’s always the snark (even when I label it as non-snark) that gets me into trouble. I just reacted to the words and wasted some space. Given the film’s very loose relationship with actual orbital mechanics, she could have “floated” or “drifted” just about anywhere the director/writer wanted her to.

        With all the physics conundrums being played out, the one that actually bothered me when watching the film and that didn’t disappear quickly was the moment when George was dangling from the tether and Sandra was demanding he not let go. The wide shot did establish that there was some momentum pulling him away from her, but it was a very small bit of movement. Really, it wasn’t going to take much of a tug to pull him back, as established in the film. They could have gotten around that by imparting some spin around Sandra’s tether, with George at the end of a “crack the whip” situation. That one stuck with me. Perhaps because it was more easily relatable to life down here on the surface.

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      • FWIW — it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it, but I remember that my “Accuracy in Outer Space” award went to “2010” when it came out. A good, not particularly great, film (with some terrific performances), but it seemed to me that they got the science of it pretty well. Much better than average on that score.

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  2. No hate for the Sandra-Bullock-as-fetus shot in the airlock? I found it kind of creepy. Aside from the that, I enjoyed the film, although I have issue with describing the ending as a “safe return”. Sure, she has all the oxygen she’ll ever need, but she’s alone in her underwear in a very rugged middle of nowhere.

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  3. When you’ve seen Apollo 13 as many times as I have and read Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon twice, this movie never came close to the storytelling quality of what is now a classic piece of film. Once George Clooney’s character let go of Sandra Bullock’s hand it was all over for me. So many “why” questions never answered. Why make the effort to retrieve bodies never recovered during the course of the movie? Why is it OK for George to choose suicide but not Sandra? Why is the father of her lost baby never acknowledged? Why return to Earth in the first place? Because she just couldn’t wait to create her eHarmony profile? Gimme a break! Just once I want to see a movie that doesn’t celebrate misogyny and passes the Bechdel test. Great review!

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