Friday, July 25, 2014

Summer of Films: Gravity (2013)

Gravity was an instant critical hit. In fact, critics fellated it so fast that I suspect, many critics fellated it sight unseen. Having now seen the film, I can say that it is exactly what I expected: a dull film that got praised because the critics love the leftist director. Yawn.

Plot

Gravity was sold as many things. It was sold as top notch science fiction, though it has nothing to say. It was sold as visually stunning, i.e. the very purpose CGI was created, as if that alone can anchor a film. It was sold as a vehicle for George Clooney, who isn’t in this all that much. Finally, it was sold as an event. And like all events, it pulled in people who praised it to high Heaven, but who won’t remember it after the next event.
What it really is, is a disaster film. Gravity is the story of Sandra Bullock’s attempt to save her rectum after the space shuttle that took her into space gets turned into a million shards of shrapnel by a wave of shrapnel that originated when the Klingon moon Praxis exploded... er, when the Russians blew up a satellite, which caused a cascade of other satellites to explode, which caused a wall of shrapnel to race around the planet destroying everything in its path.

Bullock must now go from point A to point B to point C, while solving crises A, B and C, all the while trying not to go all weepy. If she succeeds, then she will have found a way to return to the Earth safely. If she fails... well, no sequel for her.

Nothing else happens.
This Film Sucks
That last line is kind of a give away, don’t you think? This film suffers from the problem that its screenplay is inherently boring... dullsville with a side of inertia. Yes, the scenes where the shuttle, the space station, and the Russian space station get torn to shreds are nicely done with some wonderful CGI near misses – sadly, they are also so complex that you can’t really feel any tension, all you can do is wait to see what happens because you have no way to track what poses a threat and what doesn’t. But beyond that, nothing happens in this script. Indeed, the entire script turns on whether or not Bullock can reach certain handles and think about certain solutions to various problems.
This is a problem. Here’s why...

What draws people to disaster films? For one thing, seeing the destruction allows people to experience things they fear (e.g. a building fire, a meteor strike, a nuclear war, a sinking ship) and wonder how they would handle them. But what really keeps people interested in these films is not the few moments of the disaster, it is the characters you follow who try to escape their fates. Now, I know that sadist Roland Emmerich thinks we see disaster movies so we can see millions of CGI people get killed, but he’s wrong. We see these films for the survivors, not the victims.

And in that regard, we need to like the survivors. Yes, they need to sell us on the reality of the danger and, yes, they need to sell us on the reality of their escape, but their greatest duty in the film is to win us over so that we actively pull for them to survive.

In Gravity, that duty falls entirely on the shoulders of Sandra Bullock. Unfortunately, she’s not up to the task. She’s monotone and depressed throughout and impossible to relate to. Moreover, they cut her off from everyone almost immediately. We lose touch with the Earth the moment the disaster strikes. The rest of the crew is killed at the same time. Clooney lasts longer, but not much – not that it mattered because she and Clooney had zero chemistry. So what you are left with is a woman with little charisma who has no one to talk to, no foil to work against, no one she needs to talk up or fight, and no one who can try to bring her out of her shell for us. You might as well have replaced her with a chimpanzee.
This really is bad filmmaking. When you look at all the great disaster films that the public has embraced, you see interpersonal drama. You see the hero who is constantly called upon to be selfless even as their instincts scream for selfishness. You have villains or people who want to lead the survivors wrong. You have survivors who are truly helpless and need to be saved. You have others who will rise well above what everyone thought they were capable of being. You have sacrifice, courage, love and loss.

You have none of that here.

All you have here is Bullock running a gerbil maze in space hoping to find the door to safety. There’s nothing heroic or inspirational. There’s nothing to fear either, as her death never resonates with us as any kind of a loss. Even worse, the destruction of the various space vehicles is so thorough and so instant that her survival feels like it was purely a fluke. Since she’s living on borrowed time, it doesn’t bother us as much if she finally succumbs to reality and dies.
This movie would have been greatly helped if Bullock had needed to save someone other than herself. It would have helped too if she could have stayed in touch with someone on the ground with whom she could express her inner thoughts. It would have been even better if she had run into something unexpected along the way. But none of that happens, and the end result is a deadly dull film.

So why did critics praise it? Likely because the visuals were impressive, though they grow old fast. It probably didn’t hurt that director Alfonso Cuaron is a leftist turd who always gets praise from critics, but rare connects with the public. Clooney too seems to be drawing more and more critical praise as the public slowly turns their back on him. Finally, I think the biggest reason is simply groupthink. Every couple years, a film comes along that all the critics praise because they know they need to maintain their herd credibility. This was one of those.

In the end, I can’t recommend this film. The visuals are no better than something about space from the Discovery Channel. The plot and characters are nonexistent. The film is an emotionless experience. I’d pass on this one.

34 comments:

Kit said...

I'm sorry but I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Did you see it in theaters or on home video?

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, You and I can't be friends anymore!! Just kidding.

I saw it at home, but the visuals weren't the problem. They were nice, but there's no plot to match them.

Kit said...

I think seeing it in the theaters brings a different experience. For me it was like a thrill ride. A gorgeously shot thrill ride... IN SPACE!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Space...the final puntier.

Thanks for the review, Andrew.
Just to clarify, are you saying Bullock didn't act well or that she couldn't overcome the bad writing, or both?

I only ask because I usually like her acting, although when I saw The Heat she didn't do so hot, but neither did anyone else, including the director and writers.
Big disappointment.

Tennessee Jed said...

this was also billed as 3D. I saw it in my own theater in 2D. I disliked it almost as much as you. Mainly, it was pretty boring. But, the one element that worked for me was the notion of how lonely a death in space would be, and that SB's character was like a lot of people coming to grips with their own death. It couldn't carry a whole film by a long shot. It was, of course, so over-hyped, it was pretty much destined to be a disappointment.

Mike said...

I gave it a "6" on IMDb b/c of the special effects, but my rating was otherwise a little generous. I'm glad I didn't spend the money seeing it in the theater, even though I'm sure the effects would have been more impressive on the big screen.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I can see the appeal as an event, but I just found it to be very, very dull as a film. It should have been a twenty-minute ride at Disney.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, Both actually. The writing is very, very weak. There isn't a memorable line. In fact, I can't even remember anything she talked about except "must get from A to B!" And beyond the writing, Bullock just adds nothing. She has no charisma, nothing to make you interested in her. At no point did I feel like she was in real danger or really going through this. She was basically monotone throughout.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Boring is basically the key word when describing this film. They really should have had a secondary plot that took up the first half of the film. That would have helped the audience get to know and like Bullock and it would have given us a stake in the disaster part. Instead, they basically start with the disaster and then hope that we come to like Bullock as she mumbles her way through the debris.

That's interesting that you got the idea of the loneliness of a death in space. I felt like that is what they were trying to project, but I never felt it.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, The effects were very good. I can't fault the film for the effects, except that they overdid the wave of debris which made stripped some of the drama because Bullock's survival was pure chance. The problem, for me, was the total lack of a story and lack of quality of writing to keep you riveted without a plot.

KRS said...

It is the old story of always reaching for the blockbuster and dumping hundreds of millions just to impress teenagers. The whole schtick is falling apart because few in Hollywood can actually write any more, so no one sees a movie more than once, or waits for Netflix or Redbox. We wind up with "A" movie effects married to "C" or "D" scripts and it's an abusive relationship.

I think that is exactly what created the window of opportunity for the rise of faith based movies. The writers have their eyes on an objective other than profit and they need a powerful story to achieve the objective. So, in this genre, the average level of writing seems far superior, the characters are relatable, the stories could come out of our own neighborhood and yet they have a gentle mystical quality to them that stays with you. The customers like to repeat view, so their DVDs get bought.

I've commented on this before and I'm not predicting a wave or change in the market, but it is interesting that the quality of films in this genre and their profitability are taking off just as everything else in Hollywood seems to be on the verge of imploding.

There was a line in one of the movies, Heaven Is For Real (2014), that I really enjoyed. A sister punches a kid for mocking her brother's near death experience. And the dad finds out. The boy asks if she's going to get a spanking and the dad says, "Heck no. I'm going to teach her how to hit without hurting her knuckles."

djskit said...

As I read the review, I kept thinking of "Castaway" more than other disaster movies. There is a movie that has one person alone and solving problems to survive and it worked very well for all the reasons this one didn't. The only dramatic tension with another character is with a volley ball and it worked. I think Zemeckis was just showing off at that point.

ScottDS said...

You may have been a little hard on this one. :-) I think the film works better as a singular immersive experience on a big screen. I admit it lost something in the translation by the time I watched it on my 32" TV at home.

Now I'm not disagreeing with you. On a technical level, it was absolutely brilliant. Clooney is basically playing himself (and despite his non-blockbuster status, this movie probably bought him another 5 years).

Bullock was fine, but when I'm president, my first order of business will be to ban the line "You need to let go" from movies. It's probably the most cliched "meaningful" line out there. It's obvious to anyone watching that it's never in reference to something physical that the character has to let go of!

The script isn't anything special, but again, it works on more of a visceral level. It's nothing I need to see again, but I'm glad I saw it.

As far as politics, if that were true, critics would love a lot more movies than they do! (I was gonna use Woody Allen as an example - on one hand, critics love him, but on the other hand, they're the first to pounce when he makes something that's less than Annie Hall perfection.)

Kenn Christenson said...

I'll just throw out one other criticism: This film is in a long line of many whose final message is to discourage space exploration. Think about it; when was the last time you saw a film where any sort of space exploration wasn't met with disaster or a scary alien?

tryanmax said...

Sounds like a real downer.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

Without spoiling anything, it really isn't a downer at all. Some tough moments, but it's not exactly a Lars von Trier movie either! :-)

ScottDS said...

Kenn -

I respectfully disagree. Space is simply the setting. (Gravity could've been a story set on the high seas.) Any movie that involves a dangerous space voyage is bound to be fraught with peril of some kind.

Rustbelt said...

All right, I haven't this one, (though i did catch the RLM review). Rather than dwell on the fact that Shuttle Explorer was never spaceworthy (it's only a model), that Manned Maneuvering Units have been retired since 1984, or that the Hubble has had its last refit and will eventually burn up when its orbit decays....there's something else I want to gripe about.

What is it with this idea that shuttle pilots (or mission specialists, for that matter), are always lacking in confidence and need to prove themselves? Hillary Swank's character in "The Core" goes through the same thing. Doesn't it ever occur to Hollywood writers that astronauts are some of the most highly-trained people on Earth, and not at their first day on the job at Taco Bell? We're talking about some of the most highly-trained professionals in the history of the human race. They're evaluated as much psychologically as much as they're tested for brains and physical stamina. If someone appears to be terminally lacking in confidence, they're not going into space! It's too risky! Yeah, I know, it's all about setting up conflict in the story. But, let me say this: anyone chosen to pilot the shuttle or suit up for an EVA isn't likely to be lacking in confidence and would, in all likelihood, have already proven themselves to the necessary people in charge.

Had to rant. I really, really, really hate this space cliche.

P.S. Shuttles didn't have captains! In a tradition going all the way back to Gemini, U.S. spacecraft have commanders. (The Mercury 7 were called pilots.) They can't even get the easy things right! (imitates Charlie Brown) Aaaarrrrggghhh!!!!

Jason said...

As to why the critics enjoyed it, the movie has a lot of metaphorical imagery that critics like to seize on and claim, “Oh, this is what the movie is trying to say!” Primarily, it’s the idea that Bullock’s character is trapped in a womb of her own depression because of the death of her daughter – the DVD covers usually show her spinning around like a baby in a uterus or her flailing in space with her cord cut, which is supposed to symbolize an umbilical cord being cut. I’ve heard some people claim Bullock emerging from the ocean is a metaphor for her character’s birth. It’s just symbolic stuff like that, that critics like to chew on.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this so I can't comment on it. But as I was reading your review I couldn't help but think that Die Hard had all the elements this lacked. A prior sublot to bond us with the hero,someone for the hero to talk through his problem with, other people who need to be saved,thus giving the hero a need to survive beyond themselves,etc. Just a thought.
GypsyTyger

ScottDS said...

Gypsy -

You make a good point. I understand why they had Bullock's character's kid be dead, but one wonders how the movie would've been if they kept the kid alive, giving her something to shoot for.

AndrewPrice said...

Folks, I'll respond as soon as possible. I been without internet for a couple days and I'm hoping that changes today.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Excellent observation. Die Hard has all the elements this film missed which would have helped us relate to the story better.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I get the sense this was a political thing for the critics. I think they wanted to see him have a hit after each of his prior films got critical praise, but failed with audiences. Of course, who knows with Hollywood?

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I don't get it either. You are absolutely right. NASA makes sure that these people have very strong, confident personalities before they even let them into the program, and they test them rigorously throughout. None of these people with issues would ever make it into space in the current world.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Worse, it's a duller. It's really hard to care.

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, I agree. Hollywood seems to love making space seem scary, dangerous and pointless. There is no sense of exploration or discovery about space in Hollywood anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't think I was particularly hard on this one. This may have worked as an event, but it's not a good film and I don't see it having any legs into the future.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, Nice observation! Castaway managed to handle these same problems much better.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, This certainly opened the door for television to start stealing the best and brightest talent. You can tell real stories on television in ways that you never could with films and the difference between what you see now on channels like HBO/FX/AMC versus the blockbusters is stunning.

Jason said...

CuarĂ³n did have one hit, he directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, although I suppose Harry Potter doesn't necessarily win you auteur cred.

John Jameson said...

I'm with Scott on this one, Andrew, although I do of course agree with your analysis of the plot as a rather standard disaster movie without the foreplay. :)

The movie is certainly flawed, but the politics of the director, how the movie was sold, and the motives of the critics are all irrelevant as to whether the film is worth seeing.

What makes the film unusual is the environment in which it is set: a semi-realistic portrayal of space, in the form of low-earth orbit. As many have pointed out, it isn't entirely realistic (the distances and relative velocities are too small for example) but it is still a very different world from our everyday experience, and also from the world of most movies set in space, which make barely any attempt at realism. The only science fiction movie that compares is 2001, with which Gravity has quite a bit in common.

This makes the film work at least as an experience, or visual spectacle - and it is also quite short, which is a rare thing these days.

Whether the movie engages on any other level depends crucially on Sandra Bullock, and whether one empathises with her character and her isolation. This is quite a subjective thing. Evidently, it didn't work for you, and so you found the movie dull. It did work for me, and so I found it more interesting.

As an aside, note that Sandra Bullock's character is a mission specialist, on her first mission, not an astronaut. Nevertheless, she does prove to be well trained and remarkably resourceful when she sets her mind to it.

In my view the film also has a rather positive message about space exploration, namely that it is scary and dangerous, but we have to look outward and explore or we will suffocate. Clearly, Sandra Bullock's character, who is afraid to reconnect with humanity after losing her child, is a metaphor for this. There's plenty of cinematography and symbolism illustrating these themes - more than enough "critic bait" to explain the positive reviews, without invoking group-think.

For me the most annoying thing was how unrealistically close the space stations were to each other. Plus blaming Russia (before Ukraine made this passe) for the mess, when they have never shot down a satellite, and were very critical when the US did. China would have been a more realistic choice.

Kit said...

I second Jameson.

I enjoyed the movie's portrayal of a woman learning to live again. That's what I saw the movie as about. A woman who lost everything learning to live again.

I liked it.

PikeBishop said...

I loved the part where Sandra Bullock slipped out of her space suit and was wearing nothing but shorts and a tee shirt. What a great body for a woman on the back 9 side of 40!

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