Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Meh"? I Don't Think So.

A Few Thoughts About The Film "Gravity", or, Putting Vitamins in Your Chocolate Shake

The film "Gravity" is produced, directed and co-written (with his son, Jonás) by Alfonso Cuarón, and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  The other star is the amazingly realistic and sumptuously beautiful photography that Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has brought to the screen.

When I saw the film "Gravity" on opening weekend, it blew my mind.  I found it to be one of the most visually stunning, brilliantly directed and best acted, original films I had seen in a long time.

But in the coming weeks, others have disagreed.  Indeed, some of my friends (much to my astonishment) have summarized the film as "Meh…", which almost made the top of my head explode - not with anger, but with true confusion.

Let's take a look at some of things I think people are missing here:

  • The Acting

Some people have said they simply didn't like the film all that much because of Sandra Bullock.  Frankly, I think she is brilliant.  She didn't win an Academy Award® for nothing.  And keep in mind that the other star of the film, in fact, the only other human being that makes an appearance on screen at all is George Clooney (another Oscar® winner), and his role literally disappears less than halfway through the film! 

A big name like him, taking a small role in a big film (a production budget of $100 million alone).  Would Bruce Willis do something so humble? Do I even need to ask this question?

The entire rest of the film is shouldered by Bullock, alone, by herself. Have any of the "Meh" people (as I will call them) even considered this Herculean task by Bullock? How many actresses, in such a physically and psychologically demanding role, would be willing to take on this kind of role - at 49 years old especially. 

Try to picture some of her contemporaries of the same-age range in this role: Cameron Diaz, Sharon Stone, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Aniston, Gweneth Paltrow, Jennifer Garner, Gina Gershon.  I love all of these actresses in the screen roles they have portrayed, but are they capable of the physicality and yet, the emotional sensitivity and intimacy displayed by Bullock? I doubt it. (Okay, maybe Gina Gershon, but I've always had a crush on her). 

  •  The Technical Aspects

Acting aside, there are technical aspects to consider about this film: Shots, sequences and themes in this film that have *never* been accomplished in film history.  

Specifically, think of the shot where Cuarón zooms in to her helmet, then *inside* her helmet, then does a 180° pan around, inside the helmet, to find the camera looking from *her* P.O.V., all in one shot. How did he do this?! I have never seen this before.

This is just one of at least a half a dozen techniques that were new and innovative and brilliant. I have not seen seamless green-screen before. Even "Avatar" looked fake to me. Not this film.

And consider the length of each shot in each scene.  When was the last time you saw a film with so few cuts?

"Gravity" has one of the longest, unbroken, continuous shots in film history - over 13 minutes long. The film's cinematographer has said it took TWO YEARS of planning to visualize and choreograph the opening shot.  

The actors had to go continuously for almost a quarter of an hour, making their dialogue seem natural and non-rigid, without blowing a single word or line.

Alfonso Cuarón has said that one of the reasons he did such long takes is that they are much more like the experience of human beings; that with each cut in the film, we are removed a little bit more from the reality of our own experience.

Speaking of reality: Several people have brought it upon themselves (most notably Neil deGrasse Tyson) to criticize the lack of 'reality' in the film.  Others have said that the International Space Station is on the other side of the earth from the Hubble Telescope, that no two devices would be in such close proximity to each other in space, that the Chinese have not even developed their own space station yet.

These people miss the damn point of the film! It's not a documentary, it is fiction. It is a scientifically-based film, a film that displays the reality of physics; it is not reality.

It is meant to tell a story about us, about humanity, through the lens of our currently technology and our current situation in outer space.

Orson Welles once said that he was told that his film "Touch of Evil" was very unreal, yet real.  Welles responded by saying "What I was trying to do, was to make something that was unreal but TRUE. And I think that's the definition of the highest kind of theatricality, the best kind.  That's the kind of theatricality that can exist in films, too."

This is *exactly* Cuarón is shooting for, and succeeds beyond all expectations.  

His film is not meant to be completely, 100% scientifically accurate, it is meant to be *true* - true to the human experience, true to honest storytelling and film making, true to the human heart.  Outer space is simply the background, the art decoration, that the story takes place in.

When Neil de Grasse Tyson can write and direct a film so brilliantly executed, he can start criticizing the scientific inaccuracies.  Until then, he needs to stick to non-fiction and let the artists do their job.

  • A Personal and Spiritual Journey

The main theme of this film is not about the action/adventure, (which by the way, is superb), but about a spiritual and personal journey - the space stuff is background scenery to set up the journey. 

I won't say 'see it again', but there's a lot subtlety and detail that can be EASILY overlooked in this film.

For instance, think about when she washes up on shore. She has been in space; but then, right where the land meets the sea, right when she stands on terra firma for the first time since the movie started, you hear her say "Thank You". 

She wasn't exactly real grateful at the beginning of the film, and especially not when describing what happened to her daughter. There's no one there to save her. So, who was she thanking? She has been completely lifeless and spiritless until this very moment. What's to be gained from this?

A spiritual experience? Hell yes; but more than that, it makes a statement about how, once man (or woman) removes himself from the earth, from the sea, from the things that give us life, and goes into space, using technology, he (or she) removes himself (herself) from life itself.

Think about the opening credits: "In space, life cannot exist". Are they talking about life *forms* or more than that? I think Cuarón and Bullock are saying much more than what seems to be on the surface, that which is on the screen, and instead of making it an art film where they talk you to death, they put it in the form of a space adventure - it's like putting vitamins in your chocolate shake. 

Other things to consider:

  • Belief vs. Non-Belief, and Human Connectivity

 When Bullock is in the other countries' ships, each one has a symbol of a religion.  Think about this: Here is someone that is obviously an atheist, a scientist, who cares not for anything in life now that her daughter has been taken away from her.

By her own admission, since the passing of her child, she does nothing but drive around in her car - always moving, always in the vacuum of her own personal space, and has now moved into being in the actual physical vacuum of space - a physical metaphor for her own emotional nightmare.

(Bullock has said in interviews that the character is "robotic" at the beginning of the film.  Pay close attention to her speech patterns at the beginning - her tone, the lifelessness and the despair.  Think about how long it is into the film before she finally lets her emotions out - when, in desperation, she discovers there is no fuel in the escape pod. She yells flat-out "You've gotta be kidding me!!!" (I keep wondering if people think "Sandy" is not a good actress because she was in "'That Bus Movie' with Keanu Reeves or because she's been in such shlock as "Miss Congeniality".  Who among us has not worked a job with less than stellar credits for the sake of paying the bills?).

So the question that arises is, does technology that is so advanced enough as to allow us to go to space also allow us to live in a vacuum of our own isolation, easily and without question?  To the point that not only is isolation from other human beings not just acceptable, but the norm?

IPhones, ipads, internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Vine.  How many popular instruments of technology are there keeping us completely isolated from our fellow human beings? (I have listed only a drop in the bucket) - in much the same way that Bullock and Clooney are eventually separated, and their last connection to each other is finally severed.

I see this film more as allusion and an analysis of the current state of the human condition, and our relationship with technology, than that of a simple space adventure.

As far as the allegory part:  So Bullock sees a figure of Christ in the Soviet spaceship, which winds up not working for her (the Soyuz spaceship is literally "out of gas").

To me, the message here is that these things that people have firm, firm beliefs in, have let her down and the do not work, and the only thing keeping her alive is her own knowledge, training and intelligence. 

The religion aboard this ship, much like the ship itself, has taken her on a journey, but has failed her, much as religion has failed many people in the world.

She finally loses her will to live; all this time it has been survival mode that has kept her going.  She turns off the oxygen so that she can drift into unconsciousness and die, rather than the painful death of suffocating. 

Nothing from the outside world of technology (which got her into this predicament in the first place) can help her now.

It is at this moment that Clooney arrives, not as savior, but as human being, and tells her in a dream how to fix her problem - a gentle suggestion, based on his own experience.  It is a human connection, that comes only when the intellectual brain is finally shut off, that arrives via the sub consciousness, that allows her to find an answer and solve her dilemma. 

A human connection - the connection that makes you want to go on, to continue when there is no hope, when you don't want to live any more.  That simple yet unexplainable connection that keeps you going just one more day, when you feel you can't go another hour.

When she boards the Chinese ship, there is a figurine of the Buddha.  The idea here is that no matter what culture you're in, there will always be something that people believe in, no matter if it's Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Yahweh or something else - but the one thing that connects the believers in religion and non-believers of religion both - that is, all of us, is the inter-connectivity of human beings that these religions can bring about.

With that being said, she returns to Earth, where technology again fails, as the spaceship begins to burn into pieces.  The landing module survives, only to start sinking as soon as she hits the water. 

Her spacesuit begins to (literally) weigh her down, creating the severe possibility that after all this, technology (the space suit) will still bring her down and kill her.

But she does not give up, she busts out of that, too.  It is no coincidence in the film that she arrives without a whole group of people and things awaiting her arrival, like the Army, the Navy or the Coast Guard for example. 

Instead, she swims up to the shore by herself, completely naked and shed of any technology (except her under clothes). 

(Indeed, had this not been a Hollywood movie, I think the character would have washed up completely naked,  but I think some critics would call it exploitative (much in the way the Carol Marcus character (Alice Eve) in the latest Star Trek movie strips to her underwear for absolutely NO good reason, other than to simply see her body.  Indeed, Sandra Bullock seems open-minded enough to perform such an ending). 

  •  In Conclusion

This is a brilliant film with deep, deep layers and intricate texture.  I think most people who saw didn't realize there was much more to be taken from the movie than what you see on the screen. 

There are many, many more thoughts I had on this film, but there's only so much time in a day.  One eventually has to clean the kitchen and take out the garbage and quit talking about films all the time.

Finally, I'll say this: Anyone willing to take a second look at the film through the filter of personal journey will receive a much deeper, richer experience than the first go-around.

At least, that's what I thought.


  1. i get what you're saying and don't disagree....but on face value, it was just ok for me. it wasn't in the realm of Spaceballs sucky, that's for sure!

  2. I will get back to the theater and see it in 3D for a second time...looking for the things you have pointed out here. Thank you so much, Ed!

  3. I did go see it for a second time after talking to Ed. And, I got a lot more out of it. It's fun to spend a little time and effort to go deeper, too.
    I think one problem the film might have is that the subtlety of elements that you have pointed out are easy to miss in what feels like a big adventure drama. The second time it was easier to concentrate more on the personal than on the extreme conditions and events.