NOTE: rather than writing a conventional analysis of Gravity, I’ve decided to apply the Hackwatch treatment to Matt Zoller Seitz’ review on RogerEbert.com. After the great man passed away, I was distressed to find out that whoever is running the site now had decided to hire Seitz and appoint him as chief film critic, despite having the infinitely better and Ebert-picked Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on the roster. I’ve kept a wary eye on Seitz ever since he wrote a Salon article in which, inadvertently, he made it plain how his then 7 year old son had a better grasp on McBain jokes than him. Well, das time for und adjourned, vritten meeting has finally arrivd!
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” about astronauts coping with disaster, is a huge and technically dazzling film. Watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s spacefarers go about their business, you may feel—for the first time since “The Right Stuff,” perhaps—that a Hollywood blockbuster grasps the essence of a job that many can’t imagine without feeling dizzy. The film’s panoramas of astronauts tumbling against starfields and floating through space station interiors are at once informative and lovely.
They are, yes, and the film is indeed “technically dazzling”. Too bad that thing about understanding the astronaut business is horseshit. Maybe you were feeling too dizzy already, desperate to believe that this was the real deal.
But the most surprising and impressive thing about “Gravity” isn’t its scale, its suspense, or its sense of wonder; it’s that, in its heart, it is not primarily a film about astronauts, or space, or even a specific catastrophe.
What’s it about, then?
At times it plays like a high-tech version of shipwreck or wilderness survival story that happens to take place among the stars, and that would fit nicely on a double-bill alongside “Deliverance,” “127 Hours,” “Cast Away,” “Rescue Dawn” or the upcoming “All Is Lost.”
Oh, I see. You are obliquely praising the film by suggesting that it may be as good as an established classic like Deliverance. Then, hoping to attract less knowledgeable viewers, you dump it with those other, more recent movies, effectively taking a shit on Deliverance. Marvelous. And conceding that Gravity isn’t completely a survival story, you still haven’t said what the thing is really about. Vietnam flashbacks? Butt-raping space rednecks?
For all its stunning exteriors, it’s really concerned with emotional interiors, and it goes about exploring them with simplicity and directness, letting the actors’s faces and voices carry the burden of meaning. It’s about what happens to the psyche as well as the body in the aftermath of catastrophe.
What a paradox! Should I gather from this that Cuarón spent all those years after the overrated Children of men polishing the script and rehearsing with the cast? Funny, because the articles I’ve read on the production of the film are centered on the development of the CGI and building rigs and stuff. It might be the case that the “burden of meaning”, conceding there’s such a thing, was intended to be carried by the exteriors. It might also be that you’re full of shit.
Not content to observe the agonizing physical details of the astronauts’ struggles, “Gravity” goes deep into the feelings of one character, Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, a first-time space traveller who boards a shuttle alongside Clooney’s Matt Kowalski to repair the Hubble telescope.
The very Hubble telescope! Lazy use of space-related buzzwords aside, several national stereotypes get paraded to stroke the average viewer’s ignorance and biases. If you’ve just discovered that most Russians don’t drive like the rest of us, then you’ll find it insightful that it’s the careless destruction of one of their old satellites that creates the cloud of high-speed debris that afflicts our protagonists, or that the one remaining Soyuz module has no fuel to abandon the International Space Station. Seriously, every time something bad happens in the film, it’s the fault of a Russian. Oh, and they keep vodka on their spaceships, could you believe it? How did this country of savages manage to build a single functioning rocket, let alone getting the first man in space or putting the Mir into orbit? As the little ghost emoticon says, it’s a mystery.
Contrast that with the (fictional) Chinese space station, which is positioned as the last hope for the American astronauts, and despite massive damages remains fully operational in every sector that matters. Why? Because China is still cool and China is the future… by virtue of having hundreds of millions of potential viewers. In their infinite wisdom, Cuarón and the Hollywood suits like to fancy that none of them is going to buy a blurry bootleg rip of this movie. Not even one presumably featuring cover art of Bullock and Clooney happily embracing over an explosion (huh?).
When debris destroys the telescope and their ride home, Ryan finds herself marooned in orbit alongside Kowalski, taking an unasked-for crash course in disaster management,
Because it is too much to expect an astronaut to have some minimal training on how to behave during an emergency, and it seems that NASA has no way to screen out those applicants patently unable to keep their shit together. Ryan isn’t supposed to have the expertise of a pilot, all right, but on the evidence here I wouldn’t trust her to replace a printer cartridge, let alone successfully operate a space capsule by looking at the pictures in the manual (spoiler?).
learning all she can from her more experienced partner,
Kowalski reassures and lectures Ryan with the patronizing patience one would use with a slow four-year old kid, and even comes back from a sure death (more on that later) to give her a happy idea. Oh, sure, it was an hallucination, but after all the contrived bullshit that had transpired up to that point, it was very easy to accept his survival. I mean, the fact that Cuarón stooped so low as to pass off a dream as reality before pulling the rug may give you a glimpse of his priorities. It’s also telling that for the last few months I’ve been watching an unhealthy amount of exploitation flicks teeming with rape, pimping and domestic abuse, yet somehow I’m more offended by the heroine in this one saving the day by having an hallucination in which a man tells her what to do. It seems, though, that feminists only complain when said man is not George Clooney. Or James Deen.
struggling to control the anxious heartbeat that flutters on the soundtrack along with her shallow breathing and the sporadic hiss of backpack thruster jets.
And along with a shrill score that rises to eleven every time heavy stuff happens. Some musical background is to be expected and even appreciated, but does it have to be this knee-jerk crap? Buzz “If that’s your real name” Aldrin could shed light on this matter, but I don’t think that space debris emits the menacing sounds of a string orchestra in the absence of a conducting medium. And that is before the score turned, huh, what’s the word, “epic” in the end. Because everything has to be epic nowadays, lest the audience gets uppity having paid for less. Having paid at all, period. Quoth Cuarón:
“I thought about keeping everything in absolute silence. And then I realized I was just going to annoy the audience. I knew we needed music to convey a certain energy, and while I’m sure there would be five people that would love nothingness, I want the film to be enjoyed by the entire audience.”
I’m a fucking social disgrace, yet I’ve already talked with more than “five people”, you condescending cunt, who found the score annoying. Last year I attended a sold-out screening of 2001: A space odyssey on 70 mm, and you couldn’t hear the shiest cough during the silent stretches, despite the presence of dozens of hipsters who used the box office queue to loudly share their stunning philosophical insights. But it’s all right, Alfonso: I’m sure 2001 flopped on its release, the 300+ people at that screening were all joyless weirdos, and you know better than Stanley Kubrick, cabrón. Are you really the same guy that gave us Y tú mamá también? Really? You?
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalski tells mission control (voiced, in one of Cuarón’s only film-buffish in-jokes, by Ed Harris, a veteran of both”The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13”). We hear Kowalski speak this line for the first of many times during the majestic opening shot.
Many, many times, so that we know shit will eventually hit the fan in this one, as if we weren’t aware from the ads. The line is supposed to be a foreshadowing, but given Kowalski’s unending stream of attention whore bullshit it’s hard not to think that he spouted it a hundred times on each previous, uneventful mission. Kowalski is one of those wacky pilots whose way of relieving stress is to tell and retell several chosen anecdotes that include him in some way, and the folks of mission control have come to know them by heart. They pretend to be comically annoyed, just as the movie pretends his hideous banter is funny or that it is the kind of small talk that could be uttered by an actual human being at work. Have you ever met some guy that started to tell a joke, stopped in the middle, and after waiting for the punchline you realized there was none? That’s Kowalski. Now imagine having to endure his company for more than three minutes, and imagine he’s supposed to pass for a wise professional with a corny sense of humor rather than a self-absorbed bore with some mental disorder. You know there’s serious script trouble when not even an actor as likable as Clooney is able to salvage his lines. In a way, that might be the single most impressive accomplishment of Gravity.
We see space, and Earth—and beyond it, a tiny speck that slowly draws close, revealing the mission, the vehicles, the characters.
In the hands of lesser storytellers, this shot and other, equally striking ones might play like showboating. (The filmmaker and his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, shot numerous films with spectacular long takes, including “Children of Men.”)
They play like showboating. No matter how pleasing to the eye, long takes and pirouetting turns don’t constitute an artistic achievement by themselves if you use them just because computers and $$$ allow you to. Especially if every graceful note you’re hitting with the camera is undone by the abysmal dialog, and your ultimate goal is to provide cheap thrills and phony drama. And that’s without mentioning some of the annoying 3D effects, like throwing objects to the center of the screen so that the viewer has to keep blinking for a full minute. Real arty. To be fair, and leaving the stupid shit aside, some of the long shots served a purpose and the film was well worth watching on account of the jaw-dropping vistas, but I’ll take the sight of a horny Maribel Verdú any day of the week. And you know you will, too.
Luckily, Cuarón, who cowrote the script with his eldest son Jonás,
It must be real hard to not find some portentous meaning in the fact that you’re working shoulder to shoulder with your grown seed, and thus resist the urge of going out of your way to make a big deal of how the human spirit triumphs over adversity and some undefined deity has benevolent designs for us. Cuarón padre should go back to penning scripts with people that won’t get uneasy hearing yo mama jokes from him.
roots every moment in a tactile present. The fragility of the body has rarely been highlighted so consistently throughout the entire running time of a feature.
I’d say it’s only highlighted whenever Bullock bumps against things, which is quite frequently even for a woman, but far from being constantly focused on (the smallness of the astronauts against the vast surroundings was a more prominent, albeit too obvious, theme). Aside from every war film ever made, the final word on the subject has to be the end of Marked for death, but don’t expect a hack like Seitz to recognize the superior work.
Every time the astronauts move, or don’t move, you worry that they’re going to end up like their colleagues: bodies frozen hard as bricks, faces caved in like pumpkins.
How is that different from an slasher movie?
Ryan is our stand-in. The movie makes this notion plain by shifting between points-of-view.
Thank you for clarifying. I’d never thought identifying a movie’s protagonist would be difficult, even in those films that don’t employ points-of-view.
A lot of the time we’re in what you might call third person limited, watching Ryan and Kowalski move through their treacherous environment and taking note of objects drifting with them, some menacing, others oddly poignant: a chess piece, a ballpoint pen, a Marvin the Martian doll, a puff of electrical flame, a lone teardrop.
“Oddly poignant”? Dude, you’re referring to crude close-ups on things like the family photo of the dead Indian astronaut (that he very conveniently carried attached outside of his space suit) or a big fat teardrop floating in zero-g. I wonder if it’s really possible to highlight a tear without imposing any easy “burden of meaning”: Cuarón might as well have cut to a title reading ‘BULLOCK SAD’ or ‘BULLOCK HAS FEELS’, but then we wouldn’t need reviewers like Seitz decoding such complex themes for our enlightenment.
And then, gradually, subtly, “Gravity” will move into first person, drifting towards Ryan and then seeming to pass through her helmet, edging closer to her face, then finally pivoting so that we’re gazing out through her visor, hearing her voice and breath echo inside her suit as she looks for a space station, for Kowalski; for someone, something, anything to grab onto.
Some have already complained that “Gravity” is too melodramatic, too simplistic, too mystical, too something;
Most of all, too irritating. Had it been just about a group of professionals dealing with the accident in a believable manner, it would have been exciting enough. It would have been great. Instead, Cuarón wanted to have the cake and eat it, too, and had to fuck it up in all the aforementioned ways: by hyping every situation until the audience either surrenders their brains or yawns with boredom, and by adding some tacky symbolism and pathos to give the impression that the movie is something more than an overlong, overmoronic roller coaster ride. Does a shot of a gold Buddha hint at how, like, we all belong to different cultures but our core beliefs are, like, very similar? Wow, that’s, like, deep.
that once we figure out that it’s about the psychology of Ryan, we may write it off as less imaginative than we hoped. I don’t believe such shortcomings—if indeed they are shortcomings—can dent this film’s awesomeness.
Want one of those big shortcomings? Ryan and Kowalski have reached the ISS, and Ryan’s leg has become entangled with the prematurely opened parachute of its escape pod. Some mysterious “momentum”, probably the fault of a Russian wizard, keeps pulling Kowalski away, so Kowalski asks Ryan to detach him from the rope that binds them together and save herself. As Ryan dramatically decides that she won’t sacrifice the life of her friend (who, I hasten to add, is not a talking pie), Kowalski overrides her female free will and detaches himself, floating to the infinity of the universe with precious little oxygen remaining in his suit while Ryan cries because, I guess, life is unfair or something.
What Mr. We’ve-got-a-badass-over-here Guy points out is correct, of course, as there is no force or momentum pulling Kowalski away, and even if there was, Kowalski could just have pulled back on the rope and joined Ryan with little effort. But even if you know nothing about physics (nothing at all) and accept the premise, you’d be suspicious at how quickly Kowalski reaches his conclusion and how quickly the scene is resolved. What rankles are not so much the scientific liberties Cuarón takes (and there are quite a few more howlers), it is the fact that, rather than killing off Kowalski in a more plausible way, he prefers to literally pull a fast one on the audience to trump up some ridiculous emotional dilemma. When a half hour later “Kowalski” returned after presumably having traveled hundreds of miles with no fuel in his thruster, the only thing that surprised me was that he didn’t try to explain Ryan how to load the Soyuz module rockets with the stashed vodka.
If “Gravity” were half as good as I think it is, I’d still consider it one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life, thanks to the precision and beauty of its filmmaking.
Overbearing music, clumsy emotional manipulation, dismal attempts at injecting humor, whirling the camera around pointlessly… that’s precision, man. I’ve read enough of Seitz’ reviews to believe that he would consider this “one of the great moviegoing experiences” of his life, but I’m more inclined to suspect that, since becoming chief reviewer at RogerEbert.com, he’s been waiting along for a surefire hit pseudoprofound enough to wax poetic and deliver a review for the ages, hoping to embiggen his persona by embiggening the movie. Just what we needed: another fucking pope of pop.
But even if we grant that the movie doesn’t have the philosophical ambition of “2001”, the space adventure to which it’s most often compared,
Key word, “even”. Seitz is charitable enough to allow the possibility of Gravity‘s awesomeness not going that far.
fairness demands we recognize that it’s trying for something else. “Gravity” is reminiscent of “2001” mainly because it feels like a feature-length expansion of the sequence in which astronaut Dave Bowman gets locked out of the Jupiter spacecraft without his helmet. Beyond that, it’s its own thing, and its storytelling is as simple as its visuals are complex. A surprising number of scenes are theatrically spare: just people talking to each other, telling stories, painting mental pictures for us.
Kowalski concluding “half of North America just lost their Facebook” to evaluate satellite damages worth thousands of millions of dollars paints some “mental picture”, all right. Ryan having two lines or so about how her daughter died in a freak accident is a lazy way of explaining her character’s defeatism. Ryan telling herself what she’s doing, aloud, while she’s trying to make sense of non-American technology ostensibly not based on Microsoft Windows takes expository dialogue to new levels of insulting. Also, for a movie about astronauts stranded in space, in which most scenes feature one or two actors against the backdrop of the Earth and the universe, can it really be “surprising” that they are “theatrically spare”?
For long stretches, Cuarón trusts Bullock to give us a one-woman show, and she delivers. Her work here constitutes one of the greatest physical performances I’ve seen, and the filmmakers frame her in ways that make each moment resonate.
Also in angles that highlight how Sandra Bullock’s left thigh is way thicker than her right one. After becoming too bored with Ryan having a narrow escape after a narrow escape after a narrow escape and so on, it became my only interest for the short while in which she wasn’t attired in some oversized space suit. No deviance or maybe just one pervert, but I wasn’t the only one at my screening to notice. The sight was not arousing, and I don’t want to take cheap shots at Bullock because she actually did a good job with the “character” she was handed, but I’d really, really like to think that Cuarón designed the whole project around Bullock’s slight deformity, so that chosen people would notice when they became too bored with the surface themes he added as distraction. And yet, as fascinating as that subtext sounds, I won’t bet on a future Room 237 for this one.
The way she twists and turns and swims through zero gravity (or its studio simulation) is a master class in how to suggest interior states through gestures.
Touché. Again, what Seitz deems suggestive is more akin to hitting the head of the viewer with a two-by-four. For example, after reaching the ISS, Ryan relaxes by letting herself drift in a fetal position, and almost on cue (that is, on cue), some New Age crap intrudes on the soundtrack. It’s almost as if Cuarón was hoping to bait some credulous critic into thinking the scene was transcendent or spiritual or…
An image of Ryan curled up womblike in zero gravity packs a primordial wallop: it’s a dream image dredged from the Jungian muck.
Some of the shots of Bullock’s face through her helmet visor evoke Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” the film that perfected the emotionally expressive closeup. “Gravity” evokes that silent classic and others—including Maya Deren’s experimental short “Meshes of the Afternoon,” whose most analyzed sequence, a series of shots boiling evolution down to four gestures, might have influenced the unabashedly metaphorical closing scene of Cuarón’s film.
Wasn’t the image of Homer Simpson kissing the pile of trash in the Thelma & Louise episode a more likely influence? After striping it of all humor, I mean. It would be too painful to elaborate on how many levels it is pretentious, demeaning and just plain wrong to name-drop Dreyer and Deren on a review of Gravity, except to point out that in Joan of Arc Dreyer was more interested in fast cutting between static shots than in long moving takes, and the Deren short Seitz is referring to is At land. I know because I’ve actually seen The passion of Joan of Arc and Meshes of the afternoon, but it’s OK for professional reviewers to talk out of their asses in order to sound erudite. What the hell, I should try. Hire me, Chaz!
If anyone asks me what “Gravity” is about, I’ll tell them it’s a tense adventure about a space mission gone wrong, but once they’ve seen and absorbed the movie, they’ll know the truth.
The root word of “Gravity” is “grave.”
That’s an adjective meaning weighty or glum or substantial,
Is this gesture substantial enough for you?
but it’s also a noun: the location where we’ll all end up in time. The film is about that moment when you suffered misfortune that seemed unendurable and believed all hope was lost and that you might as well curl up and die, and then you didn’t. Why did you decide to keep going? It’s is a mystery as great as any in physics or astronomy, and one we’ve all grappled with, and transcended.
All of us, except, you know, the very people that just curled up and died. And what about those that couldn’t wait and killed themselves? Or those that never confronted such a moment of despair and misery? Is breaking up with your girlfriend or losing twenty bucks on the Raiders on the same level as being about to die in space? Can old people live forever if they never give up? Did an actual editor read that fucking last paragraph? Maybe Seitz should start by grappling with humbler mysteries, like the meaning of “ice to see you”.