Sci-Fi Movie Review: Gravity

[Gravity. Released October 4, 2013. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Writers Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron and George Clooney. DVD/Blu-Ray not yet released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

As the final credits rolled on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a woman in the row in front of me stood up and swaying slightly, grabbed the back of the seat in front of her. She turned to her companion and said, “That was terrifying.” Indeed. Not since the consciousness altering space scenes in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey have we felt the reality of space so intensely. The technical achievements of this movie are of epic proportions and they serve the purposes of storytelling, which is to say the special effects don’t run away with the movie. That alone is a heckuva an achievement. The editing, directing and acting (what there is of it) are first rate. I’m not surprised that Gravity has become a hit. It will almost certainly be nominated for a set of Academy Awards, including the “Best Picture” category.

That makes my realization all the more unfortunate: I’ve seen too many space movies to enjoy this one like most people.

Gravity has a very simple story. A small team of three astronauts is performing a spacewalk repair on the Hubble Space Telescope. Just as they’re about to finish up, a cloud of debris from a satellite the Russians were trying to destroy streaks through and kills one of the astronauts while devastating the Hubble and their shuttle. From then on, it is a race to survive – before the oxygen runs out, before the debris comes around again in 90 minutes, before all propellant is used. There are only two live characters remaining, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Ryan is a medical specialist, a novice, and sort of a fish out of water (way, way out of water). She’s nervous, uncertain and prone to mood swings. Kowalski is an old pro, a veteran astronaut who lives mostly in the moment and deals with everything, including disaster, with as much style and sangfroid as possible. They make a good pair, for as long as it lasts.

Now if you’ve seen as many sci-fi movies as I have, you just know that what happens next is a long sequence of “things going wrong.” Gravity is a melodrama at heart, including moments of histrionics and events that push the envelope of credulity. But oh what a stunning envelope! Most of us have seen films and pictures of the Earth from space; but not like this. This is in 3-D, and if ever there was a film that uses that medium to best effect, it’s Gravity. It will be the gold standard for a long time to come. It uses true dimensionality to show us the visual perspective of the astronauts (mainly Ryan), to bombard us with floating (or whizzing) detail that makes us flinch, to overwhelming us with scenes of transcendent depth and beauty. This is one film, arguably, that is not worth seeing in anything but its native 3-D.

Still, while I was sitting there, in one particularly long scene, I realized that I would probably be bored if it weren’t for the incredible 3-D effects. This is not good, thinking like this in a movie intended to put you into its narrative sweep and keep you there. I think…I hope that most people will stay in the narrative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only time this happened to me.

I’ll give you another example. It’s very unusual for a movie with only two characters, especially simpatico actors such as Bullock and Clooney, to kill off one of them around halfway through the movie. Yet that’s what apparently happens. I say apparently because the Ryan character is obviously committed to rescuing Kowalski, and while the evidence is overwhelming that he’s dead, we don’t know that for sure. The director leaves a thought in our heads that maybe, just maybe something will happen that makes it possible for a rescue. We want a rescue.

Sure enough, just as Ryan is about to commit suicide, there’s a knocking on the Soyuz hatch, and wouldn’t you know it, Kowalski is there! Imagine our surprise…and Ryan’s. He looks real. He acts real. He talks to her, but say’s how he made it was, “…a great story.” Once again, the old vet Kowalski comes through and he brings Ryan’s psyche back to life – literally. She finally realizes that she wants to live – and POOF! – Kowalski is gone. It was all a dream, or daydream, or vision, or something. Only there was no cinematic clue, other than the sheer unlikelihood of it. No fog, fades, refracted lighting or any other sign that this Kowalski thing wasn’t real. In other words, it’s manipulation, Cuaron is messing with our heads – a trick. I don’t like these kinds of tricks, because they remind me there’s a writing team and a director at work – it breaks the storyline, what people call the suspension of disbelief.

More than that, this kind of manipulation signals that the director and screenwriters (there is overlap in this because Cuaron is one of the screenwriters) don’t really trust their basically realistic story. They believe it needs to be amped with visuals as much as possible and occasionally by adding some melodramatic elements – like a visitation by a dead colleague. Avatar, another stunning visual experience in 3-D, also suffers from some of the same insecurity. This falls under the critical admonition that if a sense of ‘realism’ is what’s wanted, then trust the basic mode of presentation and let the story tell itself.

The pushed, melodramatic moments are interruptions (for me) and keep Gravity from being the life-experience, seat gripping, mind-blowing movie that it is for many people. My loss, I think. Whether I’ll still have this reaction on later viewings, I don’t know.

For now, I recognize Gravity is a very good movie, which I enjoyed a great deal. It’s the best “hard science” (realistic) science fiction movie in a long while. I hope it starts a trend – although like 2001, Gravity will be a hard act to follow. I hope that Sandra Bullock gets deserved praise for building a complete character in the midst of Pauline’s Perils. I hope that Cuaron is recognized for one of the most skilled and promising directors. Most of all I hope that people will flock to theaters to see a fine space movie in the best 3-D environment, and hopefully have the ability to enjoy every minute of it.

Science Spoilers

NASA should love this movie, even if the technical details are bothersome. Any movie as good as Gravity that brings droves of people to theaters to gawk at the awesomeness of space – a space agency should be at least supportive. On the other hand, it is a space disaster movie and NASA is sensitive about that.

From the narrative point of view, Gravity intends to be ‘realistic’ and achieves it to stunning effect, despite the fact that it is 100% computer graphics and mock-up sets. I would say there are no real ‘science spoilers’ in the movie. There’s nothing that isn’t already a known part of the space experience, or that needs impossible science to motivate the story (i.e. no warp drive, instant cosmic communication, or transporters). This could be a story that actually happens.

Well, not quite. In order to survive, the Ryan character needs to move from the destroyed shuttle, to the International Space Station (also about to be destroyed), into a Russian Soyuz space transport, and then on to the Chinese space station and into a Chinese return capsule for the trip back to the surface of the Earth. This is supposed to be accomplished by a rookie astronaut, trained in medicine, who barely knows her own shuttle, much less the Russian Soyuz or especially the Chinese equipment. And, of course, most everything is going to malfunction one way or another as she moves along. There are also little problems like the timing and angle of re-entry orbit when there is no guidance from Earth. If you think about it, which you shouldn’t during the movie, it’s not a probable sequence.

Then there are story “liberties” such as referring to the Hubble Space Telescope as if it were somehow near the International Space Station. It’s not. In fact, it’s 120 miles further out in space (Very High Orbit) than the ISS. Nor is it likely that the ISS and whatever the Chinese put up for a space station will be in line of sight from each other (much less in similar orbits).

There are many other anomalies and inaccuracies in Gravity’s depiction of space. Several astronauts and Neil deGrasse Tyson (the public face of science) have taken time to point out the scientific flaws. I won’t repeat their effort, since for the most part, in this movie it really doesn’t matter. There is so little ‘cooking the science’ that it’s really almost sour grapes to point out the science spoilers. The problems I have are mostly with the storyline, not the science.

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