Round and Round and Round She Goes…
by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… to experience a roller-coaster of a movie, a disaster film in space that introduces fascinatingly detailed models of some of the most famous objects in earth orbit, and then gleefully destroys them.
Avoid it… if you are hoping for a spacefaring drama of the same artistic and philosophical caliber as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, for Gravity is content to be simply a well-crafted cinematic thrill ride.
Gravity is a thrill ride. I don’t just mean that it’s exciting, or that it’s an unusually hair-raising experience. I mean that the experience of watching it is in many ways closer to that of riding a roller coaster than it is like watching a typical film.
The plot is simple. A miscalculation during the controlled destruction of a Russian satellite leads to a chain reaction of orbital collisions, resulting in a massive cloud of debris and shrapnel circling the earth at millions of miles per hour. At that speed, even the smallest pieces of debris are deadly, and the cloud makes short work of shuttles, stations, pods and astronauts alike during the course of the film.
Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two of the astronauts caught up in the disaster, though I use the word “stars” only marginally. The real stars of the film are the immaculately reconstructed CGI replicas of famous orbital objects such as the Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station, all of which are eventually encountered with as much spectacular destruction as the filmmakers could manage.
Despite its posturing as a high-concept space drama, Gravity has more in common with the disaster genre, a now almost forgotten category of film that became popular in the 70s and 80s with such blockbusters as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. The size of the cast is smaller here – aside from Bullock and Clooney, only one other character is ever shown on screen. But the method is the same. Here is a film that revels in the destruction it portrays.
Some attempts are made to add some depth to the film. Bullock’s character is recovering from a recent personal tragedy and the film is broken into loose acts that seem based upon the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Time is found between the periodic waves of destruction for a few quiet scenes, most of which are filled with minor dialogue (used to establish the characters as human beings), or by lingering on scenes of either profound beauty or obvious – if not always clear – symbolism. These scenes, though beautiful, are used mostly as lulls in momentum and as opportunities for the audience to catch its breath between the relentlessness of the film’s action.
Gravity is both written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, whose 2006 film Children of Men has a similar roller-coaster type quality. These seemingly thrill-ride-inspired sequences are taken to their absolute extreme in Gravity, with a creative use of point-of-view perspective shots to put the audience literally within the helmets of the space-going protagonists. Good portions of the film feature objects, tethered to other objects, swinging themselves in high-velocity circles around and about each other, usually with the larger objects rapidly disintegrating. These scenes, combined with the point-of-view perspective shots, give segments of gravity the sense of being a non-interactive video game. The effect works better than it sounds – fans of the adventure game genre may even find themselves problem-solving alongside the protagonist, stepping into the protagonists shoes and trying to think their own ways out of each rapidly escalating situation.
I watched Gravity in IMAX 3-D, and found that, at least in the IMAX version of the film, there was no obvious loss of color, brightness, or definition. Furthermore, Gravity is shot with a style of cinematography that seems especially aware of the 3-D medium. Shots are clearly composed in three dimensions, and I found it rather fun to see the occasional pen or notebook floating around in the fore- or background of a good number of scenes.
For these reasons, Gravity is one of a very short list of films that I believe may be worth paying the extra ticket price to see in three dimensions. Given the choice between IMAX and 3-D, however, I would recommend IMAX. The way the full grandeur of space fills the field of vision on an IMAX screen cannot be surpassed, and I suspect Gravity will fare much more poorly on small screens, especially when brought to DVD. If you’re going to see it, see it on the big screen.