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Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is a Harrowing, Compelling Piece of Hard Sci-Fi
Okay, so after taking a break for several weeks, I'm back with a review of the movie Gravity, by Alfonso Cuarón, director of the third "Harry Potter" film. And it's not a bad movie to come back on.
If you've seen the trailers, you've no doubt seen several scenes of astronauts in peril, plenty of shouting for help, and not much else. And as is typically the case, I'm sure you're thinking to yourself, "Obviously those are the most exciting parts and the story's got to be more nuanced than that."
Well, if you were thinking that, you're kind of wrong on both counts. But we'll get into that later.
But first, the story
As we start our movie, we get a long shot of the Earth from orbit. And I mean a loooong shot. Think the opening of Alien if Stanley Kubrick had directed it. Eventually, we realize that there's an object coming toward us in orbit. As it gets bigger, we can make out a shuttle docked with the Hubble telescope.
As we get to know this particular team of astronauts, not only are there only two that matter, but there are only two actors we actually see acting on-screen at all for the entire movie. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a veteran astronaut. He's taking on the supporting role for girl-with-a-boy's-name Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who is a medical engineer, installing a new circuit board on the Hubble. She's been given some training for the mission, but her line of work typically includes considerably more breathable air and a definable downward direction.
They get word of a cloud of debris from old, destroyed satellites coming their way and they kick it into high gear to abort the mission and get out of there.
And if you've seen enough movies, you know they don't do that in time.
Ryan gets thrown out into space and our crisis begins.
Dot dot dot
The first thing I would mention is the genre classification of this movie. I've heard others debate whether it should be considered science fiction or not. Sure it's in space, but there's no alien influence or new technology at all. With the exception of the improbability of several plot points, the whole thing could happen today. Is that really sci-fi, or is it just a drama in space?
The answer is, yes it's both sci-fi, and a drama in space.
Within the field of sci-fi, there are two major branches: Soft sci-fi and hard sci-fi.
Soft sci-fi is the kind that people typically think of. In that branch, you've got Star Trek, Star Wars, Starman, Stargate, Starship Troopers, and Star Total Recall. Ridiculous or simply incompletely understood physical laws. New technology that is frequently impossible, based on the understanding of today. New lifeforms and new civilizations. Boldly going where no one in their right mind would ever actually want to go.
But hard sci-fi is most strongly characterized by its use of modern understanding of science and technology. More realistic adventures and plot developments. Hard sci-fi novels and short stories are not typically considered thrilling or interesting enough to convert to movies, so they tend to be under-represented on film. But it's what Armageddon and Deep Impact were aiming to achieve. Both movies dealt with giant asteroids about to destroy earth, and they both used modern techniques to try to deal with that crisis. They had different results and succeeded to varying and debatable degrees, but they both attempt to make hard science fiction thrilling or interesting enough to justify their existence.
Gravity is very much hard sci-fi. And it very much justifies its existence.
The next thing I would point out is that there are many very long shots in this movie. I know most of them are probably several shots put together since it's about 115.7% special effects. But you know that synopsis I gave? That much of the story and more is all contained in the very first, long sustained shot of the movie.
I mean, Forrest Gump's famous opening shot's got nothing at all on this movie.
But why should that matter? Why would I feel the need to point out the use of long sustained shots?
Well, there are a couple of reasons.
First, the use of long shots in sci-fi films such as Alien and 2001 is not uncommon, and Gravity's both in good company, and a bit of a showoff in that regard.
But the use of long, uninterrupted shots is more than a presentation choice. In a typical movie, every time the the camera cuts to a new angle or a new scene, it's a relief. Like a mental blink. Without them, your mind is just staring and staring without a break.
When we get long, sustained camera shots in the middle of terrifying, possibly deadly action sequences, we are forced to live through it as if our lives were on the line along with those of these astronauts. They don't get a break, so we don't either.
Gravity - Official main trailer
Enough rambling. What do you really think of the movie?
Now, more specifically to the elements of story or characters in the movie, there really isn't a whole lot of either. That isn't a dig against the movie. We do get to know a bit of the back story of Ryan Stone, and we have a great view to see just how well she deals with this terrible situation, but we don't really get to know who she is in her personal, every day life. But we don't need to.
The story and character development—minimal as they are—are both sufficient for the movie being shown. We don't need more, because we're dragged over the coals enough as it is.
My main complaints with the movie are these:
First, the movie shows space to be much more crowded than it really is. I mean, the world is a humongously vast and open area. And that's just down here on the ground. But up in orbit, it's even more so. But not in movies. Things are bumping around all the time up there on film. But, in this case, if they didn't do that, there'd be no movie, so I will accept it as it is, laws of probability aside.
Second, while the movie shows the physics of zero gravity extremely well in most instances, there are two key points that strain my suspension of disbelief, though not to the point of ruining the movie. First there's one moment of "cut me loose or we'll both die" that doesn't quite sit right with me. I think I can see how the filmmakers justified it in their minds, but it doesn't quite play out as believably as I would like.
There's also the debris that caused the problem to begin with. It shoots through like hundreds of little cannonballs. But since they're moving that much faster than our heroes, they really shouldn't be able to stay at the same orbital level. But, again, if they moved up to a higher orbit, the story would be considerably different, so I accept it as it is.
Still, overall, they do an excellent job at portraying the physics of space and drawing the audience in to follow our hero.
It's compelling and relentless. It may not be for everyone, but not for any fault of the movie.
But what do you think of the movie?
For me, I would have to give it a 7 / 10. It could have easily gotten an 8 or 9, but with such a bare-bones plot (well done as it is) it ends up as a movie that I probably wouldn't feel the need to see it that many more times in my life. It's well done and very good, but it drags its audience over the coals for a story that, no offense, could have made an excellent episode of Star Trek. The end payoff just doesn't feel as cathartic as you might like for what you've just been subjected to.
Gravity is rated PG-13 for a bit of language (including use of the big 'F'), a couple disturbing images, and countless sequences of intense peril.
Oh, and be sure to see this one on the biggest screen you can, and in 3D if you don't hate that format. I don't care how great your home theater is. You need to see this in the largest format possible. To bring out the sense of just how vast space is and how alone they are, there's no replacement for a giant screen.