Any good political pollster can tell you that the answer is influenced by the way the question is framed. Film critics usually think the question they are answering is, “Was it any good?” The question I get asked the most, however, is, “Did you like it?”
In between those discourses is an essay on the function(s) of criticism and the differences between formal criticism and reader-response criticism. I’ll save that essay for another day, although my feelings about it are well known to those who follow me. I bring it up to start this review because often the difference is immaterial. I tend to like stuff I thought was good, and I usually tend to think good the stuff that I liked. But there are categories, like guilty pleasures, where I can like it without esteeming it. And there films, like Gravity, where the answer to the first is “yeah,” while the answer to the second is “not really.”
As a technical achievement, I give the film full props. There are individual shots that are stunning, and scenes of visceral intensity to match any thriller white knuckle for white knuckle. I submit to the bravado of the long take. Even in a scene like the first where I felt as though my attention was being drawn to the formal elements (like the long take) in a way that felt too self-conscious–and hence said “gimmick” rather than “innovation”–I still felt awed by the technical achievement. [A good comparison might be to Les Miserables, where something new–the live singing–was done, but the film drew so much attention to the fact that it was done that way that it threatened to overpower other parts of the film.]
But I grow weary of intensity for intensity’s sake. I would much prefer that special effects help create and sustain the illusion of a story that draws me in. Even in, say, Titanic (a film I persist in loving), the special effects are subordinate to the story. The famous point-of-view shot of the ship about to go down is a “something you’ve never seen before” moment, but more than that, it creates and conveys the sheer terror and shock at the situation because it is a point-of-view shot. There were plenty of places in Gravity where I said, “I wonder how they shot that?” or “I wonder how strenuous a shoot it was for Sandra Bullock.” At no point, even in an early point-of-view shot did I say something like, “Poor Dr. Stone, that must be unimaginably terrifying.” For such a tense, dread-filled film, most of the emotional responses were engineered through music, jump-cuts, money shots; very few were arrived at organically. It was a drama with a thriller’s sensibilities.
It also had a thriller’s structure. Comparisons to Apollo 13 would be inevitable even without Ed Harris’s cameo as the mission control voice, but in that film the parameters of the problem, the “rules” of the narrative, were more or less laid out in advance. The tension came from watching smart people negotiate them and figure out solutions. The action was Aristotelian, following logically from previous actions and consequences. In Gravity, we get a series of set pieces, and when it is time to go to the next, a new element is introduced. Oh, by the way, did we mention there is another space station right over there?
Don’t get me wrong. Gravity is a good movie. If I’m frustrated it is because there is a great movie hovering around the edges. The central issue I have is that it is all about plot–the mechanics of the escape–rendering the people in it dull and uninteresting and, hence, the stakes generic. It is possible to make a great film about the mechanics–Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped comes to mind–and part of me wants to believe this is the film Cuarón wanted to make. In such films, the meaning must be found in the action, and the people act as emblems for something universal in the human experience. If Gravity had gone the full early Law & Order route–all people at work only smallest hints of their private lives–I might have bought into the sublime last two minutes of the film as the culmination of a story about the fragility of human life and the evolutionary drive towards life.
Instead we get what feels like a failure of nerve. Perhaps audiences won’t buy into such a general theme, so we have to get a foregrounded pop-psychological back story about Dr. Stone’s dead kid and Matt Kowalsky’s drive to break a world record. These elements–the things that distinguish the characters as individuals–add nothing to the film and, I would argue, take something away from it where it is otherwise at its best. If you are going to have characters who are so flat and one-dimensional, why have characters at all? Coming back to the comparison to Apollo 13, in that film character is developed by actions, but for the most part the people are acting in roles and the emphasis comes in solving the problem not on how and why the problem relates to one’s psychological baggage. Or think about Ridley Scott’s Alien–another thriller in science-fiction attire. How much back story do we get about any of the characters? How much do we need?
I am conscious that on one level I contradict myself. I ding the movie for being too mechanical but turn around and ding it again for including any character development. The point I’m trying to make is not that thrillers are bad or that character development, while generally good, is bad in thrillers. Just know what movie you are making and commit to it. If you want to make a drama, commit to character development. The film needs every second of the long credits to reach 90 minutes, so there was certainly time let us get to know these people as people if that’s what is supposed to be the source of our attachment to them and motivation for caring about their fate. If you prefer to follow a thriller/horror template by getting right to the action, then make the script tight and make the characters act (or not) and escape (or not) based on the choices they make and not just on a series of random “push that button”/”grab that handle” lunges for safety. Sure, there is a certain tension in watching a gymnastics match where failing to grab the uneven bars results not in a .3 deduction but an endless spiral into a certain death, but if that’s what you want…I dunno, go to the circus and watch the trapeze artists perform without a net. Go watch Evil Knievel jump his bike over the piranhas. I would argue that what you would be watching is essentially the same thing here–a series of dangerous stunts disassociated from any larger narrative or meaning.
While I’m on the topic of characters and their superficial development, I will confess that I found the gender stereotyping here to be a little off-putting. (Without getting into specific spoilers, I mean who rescues whom, who responds emotionally versus who responds calmly and rationally, etc.) There’s actually no reason why the gender of either role needs to be determined. It could just as easily have been two women, two men, or had the genders reversed. That the roles and motivation are what they are is another hint to me that all the imagination went into the visualization and not enough was left over for the writing.
Also in terms of spectacle versus visual imagery, I think a distinction should be made between shots that are technically impressive (of which there are many) and shots that are aesthetically beautiful (of which there are less). At one point Matt talks about the beauty of a sunrise or of seeing the sun on the Ganges. This is done as exposition, to explain to us why Matt loves space, and it’s a classic example of telling versus showing. Very rarely do we see the sun on the Ganges and think “Oh, that’s beautiful.” It seems like the only time we get point-of-view shots is when something is spinning out of control and they want to convey the craziness of the action. Shots of beauty are in the background. That’s okay, I don’t mind the camera being pointed at the actor rather than what the actor is looking at. It just gets annoying when the camera is pointed at the actor telling me how beautiful is the thing he or she is looking at.
Yet, I didn’t hate this movie. For what it is, it is well done. I didn’t like it because I didn’t believe it. It didn’t draw me in. I felt, oddly enough, like I was in a simulator, designed to give me the approximation of the experience of being in space as opposed to feeling like I was in space. Maybe that’s just a 1500 word way of saying, “I like narrative.” If you like action movies like Jurassic Park, Aliens, or 2012 that are build around the notion of things gradually spiraling out of control as characters try to use their wits to escape, you’ll probably do just fine. Please don’t let my indifference offend you (that’s why Baskin-Robbins makes 31 flavors), but please don’t let it stop you either.
Ultimately the film will have oodles of people who esteem it, and I am one of them. It will probably have quite a few who love it as well, but I will probably not be one of them.
Gravity played at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters in the United States on October 4.