Table Talk: Gravity

This review contains some mild spoilers for Gravity.

Anders: You’ll remember that I counted Alfonso Cuarón’s previous film, Children of Men, among my ten favourite films of the past decade (2000-2009), so when I heard that he was making a film about astronauts I was initially quite excited. However, as more and more of Gravity was revealed, my anticipation definitely cooled. Perhaps it was the music in the trailer, the casting of Sandra Bullock, or the breathless hyperbole of newly minted cinephiles eagerly touting the film’s long takes, but I went into the film with my expectations thoroughly brought down to earth, so to speak.

Anton: Yeah, I thought the trailers were pretty lame. The film looked like a gimmick.

Anders: But having seen the film now, I actually like it a great deal. Once I began to sort my own reaction from the critical noise, which the Internet seems to intensify day by day, I’m quite drawn to some of the questions that Gravity raises: the themes of alienation, rebirth, and the evolutionary drive for survival; also the old question of “What is cinema?” Lots of people are calling Gravity a landmark for digital cinema, in the fact that somewhere around 80% of the imagery is computer generated, and the “long takes” are in fact composited together from multiple takes. Does this diminish Gravity's accomplishment? As I mentioned to you earlier, Gravity may not be a truly “great” film, but I think it is an important one.

Anton: I have mixed feelings about the movie. The special effects are genuinely stunning. I actually mean it when I say that I’ve never experienced a film quite like it. But the story left me cold. I didn’t care about the two characters, so my only fear was imagining how much I’d hate to be in their horrible situation, stranded out there in space, trying to survive. Earlier today, I was trying to articulate to you my experience of the film—a strange mix of intense involvement (I felt like I was in the movie) combined with noticeable detachment (I was not interested in watching the film as a story about people unfolding onscreen). It felt like an amusement park ride to me. I mean, after the film, I actually felt like I got off an amusement park ride; before bed, I felt the subtle sensation of drifting in space, sort of like the whirling after a night on roller coasters and spinning rides.

Anders: I don’t know that I find the theme park ride analogy particularly compelling. I see where you and others who use it are coming from: it’s an attempt to try to explain the visceral experience that Gravity presents to its viewers. But I’m not sure that it entirely accounts for the way that the film is operating. To use the terminology popularized by film scholar Tom Gunning, it seems people are trying to account for the fact that Gravity seems like a series of “attractions,” set pieces that disrupt any narrative. The early twentieth-century cinema that Gunning wrote about didn’t necessarily have narratives to disrupt, putting emphasis on the act of looking—

Anton: The whole film is a set piece!

Anders: Perhaps. But I think that the attraction model suggests a passive viewing experience that I’m not sure Gravity delivers. What’s super interesting to me is the way you describe the divorce between your attachment to the characters and your involvement, as a character.

Anton: I didn’t feel like a spectator. I felt like a participant. If a movie like Vertigo is all about watching and the pleasures of watching, then this movie is all about feeling what you are watching. You look around, you take in with your eyes the spectacle of orbiting the Earth because you are there, not because it is being offered to you as something interesting to look at. Does that make any sense? That’s not to say the film isn’t beautiful to look at at times.

Anders:  But I think we need to delve into that a bit more. I think that the early reviews out of Toronto at TIFF were on to something when they described aspects of Gravity as coming across as video game-like, but I want to avoid the pejorative connotations that I think some of those reviews carried. Or maybe it's more like the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. You don’t necessarily need to feel attached to the characters when you feel like you could float off into space. And I think the interesting part is in how it achieves that. It taps into something primal about human nature, even if the narrative isn’t superb.

Anton: Yes, this film is the closest to virtual reality that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been more “into” films before, just as I can become enwrapped in a novel, but Gravity does most of the work for me.

Anders: In a recent piece for The Dissolve, Scott Tobias talked about the fact that while CGI allows filmmakers to put nearly anything up, people never mistake the fact that CGI lacks weight. We expect anything, and so we expect perfection. He uses an analogy between Apollo Creed punching Rocky contrasted against Neo fighting Agent Smith, emphasizing that the one has a weight that allows us to imagine the force and in the other we merely admire the form. It has me wondering what will happen when we can digitally replicate the effect of Rocky punching? It is inevitable that we will be able to. Once the digital becomes indistinguishable from the actual event, what is the effect? Virtual reality becomes more conceivable.

This is why I think it is important that this film isn’t science fiction. It’s trying to conjure images that do exist. This is just the disaster-movie version of the educational IMAX film Hubble 3D. The technology on display on screen is all things we’ve seen pictures of before: Hubble, the ISS, a space shuttle, a Russian Soyuz capsule. The technological innovation aspect here is actually in the tools being used to make the film. I find it really interesting how we have computer generated effects being put into the service of creating as realistic an experience as possible. And the emphasis is on experience.

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Anton: Seriously, this film has almost nothing in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Okay, they both take place in space. The one is about human evolution, and the other has images that call to mind human evolution. There’s a version of a space baby in each. And, yes, the slow opening shot of Gravity, with the shuttle at an awkward angle approaching the camera replicates a shot from 2001. So there is some common ground, or rather Cuarón added some nods to Kubrick’s masterpiece, but, seriously, their concerns are very different. Think about how consciously slow, cold, and idea-driven 2001 is. Someone please correct me in the comments if you disagree, but I think this is just a matter of a few homages and another technical breakthrough. They’re really not similar movies!

Anders: I agree that the comparisons to 2001 are misguided. I think the better comparison is to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, in that both were concerned with showing aspects of human experience in space. However, Apollo 13 draws on a historical event and its nods to realism are in that vein. Gravity, in contrast is ahistorical, not rooted in actual events, in the way that we experience our own lives as having an uncertain ending.

That’s why I think some of the most interesting moments in Gravity are the ones where the camera takes on the character’s point-of-view, or the striking moment at the end of the long opening take where the camera moves through the visor of Stone’s space helmet. In this case CGI is being used to put the camera, or at least the frame and the viewer’s perspective, in places that it never could go. I think the effect accentuates the identification of the viewers.

Anton: The first shot is my favourite part of the film. I like that you point out the POV shots because Cuarón uses a number of them throughout, to encourage our identification with Bullock, and I think you were right when you told me earlier today that Sandra Bullock was probably chosen for that reason. She’s a very popular and well-liked actress. I’m not buying the hype around her performance though.

Anders: I wouldn’t say I’m hyped about her performance, but as someone who has never been a big fan of Bullock, I was impressed that she did a good job.

Anton: I think she did a good job, and after reading about the gruelling shoot, she has to be commended for putting something human up their on the screen. But a career-defining performance? Come on people. Go watch The Blind Side. In Gravity, we barely see her other than her eyes. I think she did good, but she’s not given much to do, other than panic.

Anders: While, I think there’s more to the performance that just that, I agree that it relies a good deal on her star persona. (I never did see The Blind Side).

Anton: Clooney was pure Clooney.

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Anders: I guess ultimately I was impressed that the film managed to have as much thematic cohesion as it did. I’m not sure that a theme park ride would.

Anton: Be fair Anders, The Haunted Mansion has far more depth than this movie.

Anders: I love The Haunted Mansion! (The ride, not the Eddie Murphy film.)

While the film unfortunately stumbles for me in some of the moments where it strives for that extra moment of importance–saddling Stone with a dead daughter and then bringing in Clooney in a dream sequence to remind Stone of the meaning of life–as a whole it works because through its technical innovations it manages to impart something of how fundamentally unnerving it would be to be separated from Earth, adrift in space. It’s best thematic moments, even in its on-the-nose fetal imagery, works because it touches on the notion of human life as being like a baby, dependent on the Earth as a mother, and the evolutionary struggle to survive against all odds. What’s cool is how the technical aspects enhance those themes, rather than needing a clunky script to underline them. It’s one of the more clear examples of form and content mirroring each other in recent cinema.

Anton: Another example of how Gravity is not 2001. That movie’s space baby is much more difficult to read. True though. So is Cuarón saying this is the next step in cinematic evolution?

Maybe I’m just an old dog who likes his stories. The funny thing is, this is probably the most technically innovative Hollywood picture since Avatar, but Avatar is decidedly old-school in its storytelling. Gravity really is something different.

The last thing I want to say is that if you want to see Gravity, go see it on the big screen, or never see it. Even a nice HD TV will be a waste of your time. Novel films like this just might save the theatre experience.