When I was 12, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. That lasted about six months (until I realized how many years of advanced mathematics I would have to endure for that career).
Let me tell you, if my dreams of outer space had somehow lived on through my high school and college years, they would have died a fiery death last weekend when I saw Gravity. I had been excited to see this film ever since I saw the trailer while waiting to see The Wolverine. The thrill of outer space combined with the terror of being lost in it hooked me, and with the ever-wonderful Sandra Bullock starring, I was too intrigued not to see it.
The short version: It was not what I expected. In a bad, baaad way.
The long version: Keep reading…
[P.S. If it’s not clear already, I will be including spoilers below. However, there’s not much to spoil and I don’t think the movie is really worth seeing, so actually, forget I said anything.]
The Ugly (Because let’s not beat around the bush, now.)
- The characters: Well, actually, it was pretty much just Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). George Clooney was in there (as Matt Kowalksi) for a couple blinks, but it’s essentially just Sandra Bullock and her heavy breathing. Part of the problem was the lack of characters – because the movie is essentially a one-woman show, there was no real relational development or depth between the characters (unless you count Stone’s relationship with/view of herself…but this is an informal movie review, not a professional psychiatric analysis). Clooney’s character does sacrifice his life to save Bullock’s character, but that reveals more about his character than it does anything about the relationship between them. From that point on, any depth or development to be had must come from Bullock’s character…except there is precious little development to be seen. When a story involves two or more characters, the relationship between them provides a breeding ground for growth, conflict, and other story dynamics. With only one character in a story, the conflict and growth must take place within one person. Bullock has one cathartic moment in which she accepts her daughter’s death (an event that has haunted her from years prior) and finds the resolve and determination to make her way back to earth, but there is little context or explanation to support it. Without much rising action to speak of, it can hardly be called a climactic point of the film, even though it is the most (only) real development of her character in the whole film. The other frustration with Bullock’s character is her overwhelming ineptitude. She is maddeningly incompetent, and flounders about for much of the film; at one point early in the film, Clooney is forced to physically tether her to himself (Why don’t you have a go at that bit, feminists!). Her incompetency is such that it detracts from the believability of the film, especially when coupled with a screenplay that is overly dramatic (everything that could possibly go wrong does, at the absolute worst moment possible, due to just the right arrangement of circumstances…usually somehow involving Bullock’s stupid mistakes). In addition to being completely inept, her character is so hollow and undeveloped that it was incredibly hard to connect with her or feel much empathy. If I want a boring story about a flat and repellent character, I can look through celebrities’ twitter feeds.
- The noise: Lord have mercy, the noise! As beautiful as the film was in terms of visuals, it was equally terrible in terms of sound. There was just so much mother-lovin’ noise. Between Bullock’s constant panicked exclamations and heavy breathing and the incessant radio static, it was unbearable. I understand that this was probably an attempt at realism, but it was overdone and the overstimulation detracted greatly from the film and the experience. I felt like a cross between the kid in August Rush and Bob (Billy Murray’s character) in What About Bob? And trust me, when Asperger’s meets OCD meets zero gravity, it ain’t pretty.
- The plot: Where was it? Did the producers forget about it while they were busy getting the cinematography just right? I get that some films – say, Avatar, for example – have a greater focus on the visual and/or technical aspects of the picture. That’s great; everybody loves looking at pretty things on a big screen. But it always, always comes back to the story. A movie is a vehicle by which a story tells itself. Like a truck won’t go anywhere if there’s no one to drive it, a picture won’t work if the story isn’t there…and that’s what seemed to be the biggest issue for Gravity. The movie essentially consisted of Sandra Bullock floating from one spacecraft to another and then flailing about once she was on board until the next burning ball of space debris hit the aforementioned spacecraft, necessitating another sojourn (complete with the requisite panic attack) to the next available spacecraft, until she finds one that can carry her back to earth. One of the things I learned when I took an acting class my last semester of college (Sidenote: Everyone should take an acting class in college. It was by far one of the most challenging, thought-provoking, and fun classes I’ve ever taken.) was that the characters’ objectives are the driving forces behind all action and the story as a whole. If the objective is unclear, the action and the story will suffer, as was the case in Gravity. Given the circumstances, Stone’s overall objective was simple: Survive. More specifically, get back to earth. Problem was, the objective was more implied through circumstances than communicated through action – Bullock was halfhearted at best in her commitment to the objective, and “apathetic” would be a more accurate description. Without a character that is actually committed to an objective, the story flatlined and the film quickly dissolved into an aimless cacophony of stunning visuals and relentless auditory turbulence.
The Bad (When I was disappointed but not yet weeping in the fetal position on the theatre floor.)
- George Clooney DIES 10 minutes in. If you’re going to bill him as a star, homeboy needs more than 600 seconds of total screen time (especially if that screen time is spent with all but his face covered in astronaut-gear).
- It was boring. There, I said it.
- Some of the (intentionally) shaky camerawork was nauseating. Not “Such a bourgeois technique, pity the director allowed it” kind of nauseating, more like “Get me a popcorn bucket because my lunch is about to make an encore.”
- It was too stressful. How something can be boring and stressful at the same time is still unclear, but it happened, I experienced it, and you just have to trust me on this one. I understand that it was supposed to be experiential, but the combination of noise, continually and over-dramatically raised stakes, and Bullock’s character’s utter lack of competency made me truly want to run out of the theatre. I cannot remember any other movie making me feel that way, and I’m someone who tends to dislike movies anyway.
The Good (Those splendid fleeting moments of enjoyment.)
- Cinematography was really, really beautiful. Visually, the film was stunning.
- The film was clearly intended to be experiential and invoke a visceral reaction, which it most certainly did.
- Sandra Bullock’s hair. She worked the heck out of her pixie cut, and that deserves mentioning.
- George Clooney was the one shining beacon of hope in this film. Not because of the whole “Sexiest man Alive” thing (homeboy looks kind of like Curious George, if you ask me), but his character was a blessed relief given the rest of the film. That is, until he dies.
At least the previews were good.
I think The Monuments Men (starring Clooney and Matt Damon) looks promising, because really, anything with Matt Damon is promising. He’s like that handsome uncle that you had crush on when you were 14 (which was weird but you can live with yourself because you were only 14 and you’re only related by marriage, after all) – charming, comforting, and fascinating all at once.*
Grudge Match looks like it might be worth seeing, too, if only because Robert Di Nero is hilarious and reminds me of the father of one of my best friends. Plus, Sylvester Stallone on the big screen is just….well, I reckon it’ll be a bit like watching a penguin try to fly.
Clearly I missed my calling as a professional film critic, but at least I may have saved you from spending $11 on a movie you’d regret. If you want a more professional opinion, this fellow did a pretty good job explaining everything.
*I realize that is a pretty terrible analogy, and I need to add a disclaimer that I am not speaking from experience. I’m southern, but I ain’t that Southern. (Besides, when I was 14, I still had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. Yes, the animated Disney film. I was a late bloomer.)