With a grand total of seven Oscars this year, Gravity has been labeled the best of the best by those in the know. Believe me, when I first saw it on the big screen in 3D, I was captivated; held at the edge of my seat by a raw anticipation and chest hammering fear for Dr. Ryan Stone. The further I got from the movie theater’s glow though, the more issues I began to see with the film. There seems to be a push-pull of good and bad with Gravity that, for me at least, unbalances the film overall when I look back at the experience. Here are what I think are the central problems…
Problem #1: Gravity is a cinematic experience. At first glance that sounds like a mighty fine compliment, and if you’re sitting in a plush theater seat then it is absolutely a good thing. Here it means that the film just does not translate as well to a smaller screen. Once upon a time, movies were formulated to be seen on large screens only and then the television and home viewer markets emerged at pivotal moments in the 50’s and 80’s respectively that changed movie-watching forever. Movies now have to think about making profits on the big screen and many kinds of small screens. That glorious immense feeling of space that Gravity does so well lacks its overwhelming quality on any other screen but a theater. Unless you’re one of the lucky few that have a full size movie screen in your home, this one just won’t feel the same.
Problem # 2 Ah, ah, AHHHHHH. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that roughly 80% of the dialogue in this movie is Sandra Bullock screaming. And who can blame her? She’s drifting in space! While Sandy B (as I affectionately call her) is a phenomenal actress and makes the meager dialogue in Gravity feel like it holds emotional weight, if you think about the dialogue it is bland and sophomoric. It’s a credit to Sandra Bullock that she made such empty dialogue feel full, which leads me to…
Problem # 3 Poor story points. The father-son Cuaron duo wrote a story that is bare bones, leaving the technology to fill in the gap. I’m not really sure what Dr. Stone’s job is on Earth or why she ended up in space. There are throwaway answers to these questions given by the film but deeper answers might have connected me more to Stone’s character. She’s a little too aloof and off-putting when we first meet her and it takes a good long while for that distance to close. Then there is the random inclusion of Stone’s dead four year old daughter as a central story point, which is an obvious emotional ploy. How do we make a panicky, inept astronaut likable? We’ll give her a dead loved one. Oh, even better that loved one is a young child who died traumatically. Let me be clear: movies are made to manipulate our emotions, but when the moves are too blatant they don’t work. As a viewer it felt like a smack in the face. Not OK.
Problem #4 It’ll look old in ten years or less. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when one places technology in one’s film, the piece is already dated. Unfortunately, this is a constant problem for movies. There are already scenes in Gravity that look too computerized and are painfully unreal. Much has been said about what Cuaron and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have accomplished with this film, and I’m not denying that they did wonders with CGI but I don’t think this film will age well. This may be a thought for a different post but I think the Academy needs to have an award for successful use of CGI, because I’m not 100% willing to call what Cuaron and Lubezki did cinematography. Think about Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993): the tech was wondrous for its time but now looks a tad dated. Jurassic Park used CGI but did not overly depend upon it; there is still storytelling that does not need the dinos in every scene, which is why it’s still a classic. Gravity’s lack of narrative flair only emphasizes the technology, which will make the aging process more apparent.
Problem #5 Heavy thematic material makes the audience out to be stupid. Holy cow, can we hammer the theme of rebirth home any harder? Stone’s fetal position in the space station with an umbilical-like tether floating around her. Stone’s scream of “I want to live!” And then her crawling out of the water and relearning how to walk in the end. If I’m sitting in a theater thinking about how obvious the theme is, that is not good storytelling. Let me reach for it, for goodness sake! Themes are amazing elements in stories both on the screen and on the page, and part of the fun of themes is sussing them out. Subtlety is key. Treat your audience like they’re intelligent and they’ll treat your film the same way.
All of these issues lead me to the conclusion that Gravity is only watchable once. That is not to say that Alfonso Cuaron has not achieved something special and of the moment, merely that I do not think Gravity will stand the test of time. Perhaps I will be wrong, but we’ll have to have that conversation in another ten years or so.