Thursday, February 6, 2014

Movie – Gravity (2013)

Gravity was the first of this year’s Oscar nominees to make a splash at the box office and it ended up tying with American Hustle for the most Oscar nominations – ten.  Four of American Hustle’s nominations were in acting categories.  Gravity wouldn’t have ever been able to match that because the entire movie really only consists of two performers – Sandra Bullock as Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Mission Commander Matt Kowalski.  There are a few other people seen or heard briefly, but their presence in the film is minor.  There is a vocal cameo by Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control, which is fitting given his Apollo 13 role.  Bullock received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  Some people, including myself, felt that Clooney might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but he did not.  Despite the small cast Gravity really delivers in regards to characterization and a compelling, edge of your seat story.

Gravity opens with Stone and Kowalski in space with the Space Shuttle.  Stone is attached to the Shuttle’s arm, trying to replace a computer board in a satellite.  Kowalski is on a space walk in the untethered thruster unit that has been used many times on Shuttle missions.  They get a notice from Mission Control that the Russians have destroyed a satellite and that debris is spreading from it.  At first Mission Control thinks the debris will be no problem, but it soon becomes apparent that it will.  The Shuttle is destroyed and Dr. Stone is flung off into space, still attached to the arm.  Kowalski manages to talk her into calming down enough to give him a frame of reference so he can come find her.  The two decide to try to make their way to the International Space Station via the thrusters in Kowalski’s unit.  Dr. Stone is running dangerously low on oxygen, though, and that debris field – now much larger from the Shuttle’s destruction – is orbiting the Earth and will be back on top of them in 90 minutes.  To make the situation even worse, without the Shuttle they cannot communicate with Mission Control because the radios in their suits do not have enough power.  They are as on their own as any two human beings can possibly be.

One thing that irks me a little bit in regards to Gravity’s reception is the sheer number of people that keep referring to it as “sci-fi”.  Just because it takes place in space does not mean it’s science fiction.  It takes place in present day, and shows technology at its current levels.  There are no ray guns, aliens, time travel, future Earth, or any other SF elements.  There is no difference between this film and any other adventure drama except for its setting.  Some people argue that a space station is more complete than it is in the present day therefore it must be the future, yet they ignore the fact that the Shuttle missions were halted in the past.  Gravity is simply a piece of fiction that combines multiple near-Earth orbit space habitats.

All of the incredible space imagery in the film is completely cgi.  In some scenes the only thing not digital is the face of the actor that we see behind his/her facemask.  You may wonder how Gravity got a Best Cinematography nomination when most of the movie was not even filmed “in camera”.  There’s a precedent for it, though. Avatar, which was about 60% an animated film not only received the same nomination, it actually won.

Co-writer and Director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) tried to get this film made some years back, but the technology just wasn’t there.  After Avatar came out he tried again and got a studio to greenlight it.  He has received a Best Director Oscar nomination, but not one for writing.  Frankly, this really surprises me.  The story in this film is certainly worthy and to make room for it I would drop Dallas Buyers Club from the Best Original Screenplay category.  While it was a good movie, that film’s writing was actually the biggest negative for me, whereas Gravity has a well-written story.

Bullock more than earned her Best Actress nomination.  I think this is a much better performance than the one she gave that won her the Oscar.  She plays a person on her first space mission.  Her character never really intended to be an astronaut.  She developed a piece of technology and she was the best possible person to make sure it was installed and running properly.  She went through enough of the astronaut training to be cleared for the mission, but she’s obviously very inexperienced.  Clooney’s character, on the other hand, is the voice of experience.  He’s been on many missions and was planning to retire after this one.  Yes, change the setting and their professions and you’ve got a cop drama with a grizzled veteran taking a rookie under his wing while all of a sudden the city erupts into violence.

The only negative I have to say about this film is a minor one, but it prevented the movie from getting a five star rating from me.  Cuaron has come out and admitted that there were times in the film where he decided to not be accurate in respect to how things would happen in space.  He did this to try to pump up the emotion in scenes.  For me, this actually lessened those scenes some and kept them from having a full impact on me because I was distracted by the mistakes.  I won’t spoil what happens, but the biggest emotional scene in the film was mostly ruined for me when they did something that was just completely stupid.  Yes, I’ve got more than a passing interest in space travel so I’m a lot more likely to pick up on mistakes like that than the average movie goer.  When I’ve asked a few other people who have watched the scene in question none of them ever realized the screw up.  Unless you’ve got a similar knowledge of space you probably won’t notice the mistakes, either, and therefore you will not have the problem with them that I did.

And just to be clear, this film does a very good job at getting almost everything right.  It’s actually one of the best I’ve ever seen for 95% of the film.  In a way, it may actually be this adherence to accuracy in how things would react in space that made it much more noticeable the few times they intentionally did not stay accurate.  The 2009 film Moon is quite good and it didn’t even try to replicate the effects of the Moon’s 1/6th  gravity in most of the film and that did not hurt it.  Of course, when you name your movie “Gravity” you probably do need to make sure you handle the effects of the lack of gravity as accurately as you can.

Gravity is a gripping drama that is filled with stunning images of space.  It features a good performance from George Clooney and an Oscar-nominated performance from Sandra Bullock.  It will certainly keep you entertained.  I can’t really think of someone who wouldn’t like this movie, except for those folks who don’t like tension and suspense.  For everyone else, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


  1. I'm with you on this. I enjoyed the hell out of Gravity and for a lot of the reasons you say.

    Like you, I'm a little surprised at the lack of a nomination for screenplay. I was pretty sure it was a lock because the writing is so strong. The dialogue is excellent, but it's the actual story that is worth watching here.

    I get the annoyance at the inaccuracies, but I decided that I didn't really care. I was there for the visuals and the story, and both of those are about as good as it gets.

    1. It wasn't the inaccuracies in and of themselves that bothered me; it was the timing of a couple of them during the most emotional scenes in the film. I was bothered because I knew I wasn't getting the emotional impact from those scenes that was intended.

      Picture the Rick and Ilsa scene at the airport in Casablanca. Now imagine just as it got to the biggest moment a chicken runs into the scene from out of nowhere, pecks at some things, then leaves the scene. It would have been distracting enough that it would have lessened the emotional impact of the scene.