Gravity (2013, directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
There's spectacle, and then there's SPECTACLE. The former happens all the time at your local megasuperduperplex. The latter is something we might see once in a while, if we're lucky. Alfonso Cuaron's latest reaches greedily for the second category, and seems determined to re-define what we think is possible to re-create in a film experience. And damn my eyes if he doesn't get there.
For the 14 or so of you out there who aren't aware of this movie's pending consumption of all the oxygen in the room, here's a plot synopsis: An inexperienced astronaut on her first mission (Sandra Bullock) and a space-walking vet on his last (George Clooney) fight to survive and get back to Earth when pieces of a Russian satellite trash their space shuttle.
That's it. That's the whole plot.
To say that's unexpectedly lightweight from the guy who brought us Children of Men is something of an understatement. Thematically, Gravity is about as grounded as one of its astronauts flitting about in zero-g. But this isn't speculative fiction, this is a pure Hollywood ticket magnet, and from that perspective Gravity is a massive triumph. The only thing I can really think to compare it to is Jurassic Park. Cuaron has created an incredibly detailed, entirely believable, utterly synthetic environment that appears indistinguishable from the real thing (or at least, for people who have never been in space, what you'd expect the real thing to look like), especially if you see it in IMAX 3D. The visual effects, from the opening tracking shot on, are simply gob-smacking. I really can't say enough great things about the look and the design and the sheer grandeur of Gravity. If you pick against it in your Oscar pools in any effects category next February, you're just plain dumb. It's revolutionary.
But as a film, it's completely empty. It's an effects reel. Sure, the acting from both Bullock and Clooney is solid, but the script doesn't do the the visuals any favors when it comes to suspension of disbelief. Bullock's character apparently went up into space after only six months of training, without figuring out how to land the damn capsule in the simulator without crashing, and panics easily in a crisis. The right stuff wouldn't appear to be something Cuaron's NASA makes a priority in its astronauts, or at least its female ones (I'll leave the full excoriation of the film's sexual politics to the Anita Sarkeesians of the world). Even the character moments feel clumsy. It's hard to imagine the two leads wouldn't have shared personal details sometime in those months of training prior to launch, so their bonding moments come across as shoehorned exposition.
I don't want to make it seem like Gravity isn't worth seeing. It is, as soon as possible, and on the biggest screen you can find. But it's quite literally a 'check your brain at the door' blockbuster, the kind of style-over-substance event tentpole thing that Hollywood has grown so tragically good at producing. I'd almost call it the anti-2001. Visually it's going to be a reference point for every movie set in outer space that comes out for the next 10-20 years, but its cultural impact will be just about nada. Nobody's going to debate the meaning of its ending. There are no mysteries to be solved in Gravity.
There's only a dazzling technical display, and then silence.
Follow me, and give me audience friends. Cassius, go you onto Twitter. @AntonSirius