Gravity – Review

Gravity is a very unique film, and I would go as far to say that it is the best example of modern visual effects done right.  That being said, there are some glaring problems with the science of the film, and many of the artistic choices seem to counteract the effectiveness of its original intentions.  Ultimately, it is a film about the struggle between being in control, and not being in control.  And there is nowhere that this struggle is more apparent and important than in space.  Clooney and Bullock star in the film, as the film’s solitary characters.

I have to admit that I saw the film in 2D, as I am plagued by  3D induced headaches.  I plan on doing so eventually, however, and I will write a follow-up regarding it.  However, I do not feel like the 2D experience hurt or hindered the film in any way.

This is probably the first heavily CGI film that I thought was genuinely beautiful.  The film marks a triumph in the visual effects industry for our current level of technology.  As with any CGI, however, I could see a lot of seams, bad motion tracking, low polygon models, imperfect shaders, and unrealistic animation.  So while I admit that the VFX were spectacularly well done for our time, it will unfortunately not age well. After a couple years, these problems will quickly become more apparent.  This is a shame, but is not uncommon with any VFX-heavy film, especially since the dawn of CGI, as digitally generated material is very hard to update later on.  All this being said, it is incredibly refreshing to see CGI finally used in a way that showcases its ability to take cinema anywhere without going overboard or taking us into self-indulgent territory.

The story is the main thing that makes this film unique.  It’s really quite simple: a disaster occurs during a spacewalk to repair Hubble.  The two main characters are left adrift in space and must find a way to survive and return to Earth.  It’s a story that has truly never been attempted to this degree.  With modern technology, we are able to create a weightless environment unlike any we’ve seen before in cinema.  I commend the filmmakers for attempting such a bold and unique film.  To general audiences, the premise of a film being based on characters adrift in space might sound boring, but Gravity is certainly not.  While I did not find it as gripping as many others did, it was certainly enjoyable.  I’m quite impressed with the filmmakers’ ability to take such a concept and turn it into something enjoyable and marketable.  And the box office is evidence of how huge early buzz and high critical acclaim can market a film in of itself, despite relatively minimal traditional marketing.

The acting was very solid, especially from Clooney, who played a very calm-in-the-face-of-danger astronaut.  Bullock was a little talky occasionally, but she was very good in such a serious role, and her panic felt very genuine.  Similarly, the script is pretty solid despite some serious scientific blunders.  The film is paced well, except for several moments where we see characters react unbelievably slowly to certain events, making tense moments  feel a little dragged out.  The script does, however, fall into the pit of predictability.  A couple twists and turns can be seen coming from a mile away, and there was no doubt in my mind as to how the film would end.  That being said, the structure of the film is not like many other films.  It’s very continuous, but not quite real time, and is a good example of structuring one’s narrative around a central theme or idea in such a way as to compliment that idea, instead of structuring it around a predetermined set of rules or formula.

Now for the science rant!  Scientifically speaking, the film operates on a series of very rocky premises.  The initial incident that occurs in the film is a detonation of a Russian satellite, which results in a field of debris that knocks out the comsat and destroys the space shuttle Explorer (a fictional shuttle) and  Hubble.  After this initial collision, the survivors must find a way back to Earth by maneuvering themselves using an MMU jetpack to meet up with the International Space Station.  The problem is that the ISS, the Hubble, and the communication satellites are all on vastly different orbits.  To put it in perspective, to get from the Hubble to the ISS, it is a 100 mile trip between their orbits.  Even an entire space shuttle could not make this trip, let alone the MMU  that Clooney’s character uses.  In the film, the debris field intercepts our main characters every 90 minutes.  This is about the same as the orbital time of the ISS.  So the film basically assumes that the ISS, the Hubble, the comsat, and a chinese space station (which comes into play later in the film) are all in a line of site with each other and on roughly the same orbit, all of which are not the case.  In addition, because of the frequency of their encounters with the debris field, it must be either geostationary (which wouldn’t be possible at that altitude) or on an orbit of the same speed as the ISS, but at a different eccentricity, which would cause the field to only intercept the ISS once every orbit instead of twice (which is unbelievably unlikely).  The idea of satellite debris cascading like this is a very real concern, but is highly unlikely due to the sheer distance between each object in orbit.  Of course, the idea behind the film is that it does happen.  It doesn’t matter that it’s unlikely, because the film takes the premise of “it happens, so then what would the consequences be?”  I’m fine accepting this premise, but it does bend the reality of orbits, physics, and the placement of real satellites and stations to the point that it simply would never happen like it does in the film.  But even so, there is an even more glaring problem with the film’s physics, which, for the most part, are pretty solid.  There is a moment when one of the characters is being pulled away from the other, despite one of them being fastened to a space station and there being a tether between them.  This results in a “don’t you dare let go!” moment, which works on the ground where gravity might actually pull someone away from another.  But here we are, in orbit.  In freefall.  One little tug and the problem would have been solved immediately.  It’s incredibly glaring to me not just because it is an example of bad physics, but because the event marks a huge plot point, and the arc of the film hinges on this moment.  It makes it feel unbelievably contrived, and is unfortunate that the very fabric of the narrative structure of this film hinges on such a blunder.

While the sound design of the film occasionally uses the silence of space, it is actually quite rare.  Scenes of destruction are overpowered with loud music, taking away from the effectiveness of having a totally silent catastrophic event.  To me, silence should have played a much bigger role, especially because the beginning of the film basically states in text that “space is totally silent because there is no air pressure.”  And while the sound design is very simple, the music counteracts this idea.  I would have much preferred the movie to not use music at all.  Dwell on that silence.   There are scenes of beautiful chaos: debris literally tearing entire space stations and shuttles apart as if it was made of tin foil.  But the powerful imagery of this chaos is overpowered by a droning score.  Cut that out.  Destruction of that magnitude is beautiful when accompanied with utter silence.

Alfonso Cuaron is quite famous for letting the camera roll through an entire scene.  The camerawork that he employs in Children of Men is among the greatest in cinematic history.  In Gravity, he approaches the film with the same idea of letting the camera roll, but unfortunately he is seduced by the idea that the camera can go anywhere, since about 90% of the film is CGI.  What results is a camera unbound by the laws of physics.  The camera can tilt, pivot, soar, even pass through glass, throughout the scene with control and precision.  So why is this bad?  Because the horror of the events in the film are totally beyond the control of the characters.  In a 3D film, the camera cannot be disorienting, because if it is, the audience could get physically sick.  This is one of the firm rules of 3D cinematography.  However, this all defies the point of the film.  The film is about the struggle of taking something so outside of one’s control and doing everything in one’s power to control the situation.  It’s a survival film set in an environment that human beings are simply not designed to be able to control without help.  The camera, on the other hand, has complete control.  In Children of Men, what we don’t see on screen is just as important as what we do.  The camera is very present, and it becomes very apparent to the viewer that the camera cannot be everywhere at once because it is a physical instrument bound by physics.  So it does what it can, carefully following the action.  There is a sense that the camera is just another character and a sense that the cameraman could actually meet his or her own demise at any point, just like any other character in the film.  In Gravity, I never got the sense that the camera was present.  I never got the sense that the camera and the operator were in just as much danger as the characters.  This translates to the audience, by the way.  I never felt like I was floating in space.  I was never disoriented.  The camera always pointed at what I needed to see.  My advice would have been to bound the camera to physics.  Simplify its movement.  Make the camera present.  Disorient, confuse, and frustrate the audience with its inability to be everywhere at once, while captivating us with the imagery and the atmosphere in front and behind the camera.  This would have resulted in the audience feeling as though they were in the same situation as the characters.  We would have been that much more frightened, because the feeling of fighting against something that you cannot control would have been an experience that the audience would be actively having.  It would have been more intimate, more personal, and more of an effective thriller.

While I have raised many issues with the film, I think Gravity is a unique and decent film.  My opinion of it is more positive than negative.  The VFX were very well done, and the application and philosophy of the effects here makes me optimistic about the future of heavy CGI films.

BREAKDOWN:

Direction: 7/10

Acting: 8/10

Cinematography: 6/10

Story: 5/10

Dialogue: 7/10

Editing: 8/10

Art Direction: 8/10

OVERALL:

“Film as Entertainment” Rating: 7/10

“Film as Art” Rating: 6/10

Overall: 6/10

-Nicholas Coyle

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