Rebirth Through Review: My Thoughts on Gravity

After six long years, Alfonso Cuaròn has returned with his much-anticipated Gravity. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it’s a dazzling, intense ride, following two astronauts trying to survive in Earth’s orbit after their space shuttle is destroyed by satellite debris. This movie has been incredibly hyped and scrutinized due to its lengthy production and the incredibly ambitious effects work that was necessary to make it happen, and understandably so, given that it’s a film that lives and dies by those effects. And while the SFX are indeed incredibly impressive and well-used, I found myself somewhat uncertain about how I felt about the movie and my perception of it. Spoilers (and rambling) after the jump.

So, yes, Gravity is perhaps one of the most beautifully composed, technically impressive motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Both as a carefully-calibrated series of escalating dramatic moments and as a deft and ambitious use of CGI, Gravity stuns and thrills consistently. And yet once the film was over, I was left somewhat distant and detached from the movie. While the excitement and danger were palpable and gripping in the moment, I was not left particularly engaged or moved in the end. I didn’t have the sort of triumphant catharsis I’d expect at the end of such a thrillride, and given how involved I’d been while watching it I was surprised, to say the least.

Initially, I assumed that this had to do with how minimalist the actual narrative and emotional arc of the story is. Bullock’s Ryan Stone and Clooney’s Matt Kowalski are given some (very basic) defining characteristics, which are still decently effective because of the limited- and smartly timed- exposure given to them in a very tight script. The end result is that these characteristics have more weight than they might in a longer or slower-paced movie, while being (on paper anyway) incredibly rudimentary. The driving emotional core of the story seems to be Ryan overcoming the current adversity in a way she wasn’t able to with the tragedy in her past (the loss of her daughter). This is handled subtly and quickly, in a way that I didn’t fully connect with; perhaps that seeming lip-service to an emotional arc is what left me chilled on the movie?

But that doesn’t seem like it either. Unlike other large-scale auteur movies defined by their SFX advancements (Avatar, Star Wars prequels), I can’t really think of a better way to accomplish what Cuaròn had set out to do with Gravity. While I can easily (and with great relish) nitpick the scripts of movies like Avatar and suggest what could’ve been done differently or better, I don’t think I can do that with Gravity without completely changing the type of movie that it is. Instead of just being a sloppy attempt at emotional storytelling, it is clear that Gravity’s character work, limited though it is, was clearly thought out and carefully considered in the greater scheme of the movie, rather than just being tacked on to a massive SFX behemoth.

So why the continued frustration? Despite what I’ve already concluded, there’s still something off about Gravity for me. It bugs me that the characters are so broad and nonspecific, even while there’s no easy way for them to be approached any other way (and even though the movie is too thought out for it to be anything but what was intended, as opposed to being poorly constructed). Cuaròn says that it’s a story about surviving tragedy, emotionally-speaking, and being reborn through adversity; and while I wasn’t completely unaware of this when I watched it I was still looking at it primarily as a scripted character ar. But maybe instead, it should be viewed more as a philosophical/thematic concept that the movie is exploring, and that, in being so defined by theme and philosophy, the film needs to leave the characters as broad as possible by default. When looking at it that way, it makes more sense for the characters to be so broad, and a character arc that seems simplistic or trite for a specific character to go through is actually an open-ended rumination on a philosophical concept.

In considering the movie this way, I’ve realized that Gravity is actually a lot closer to the sort of formless, non-traditional stories that I tend to ignore, but as seen through a context and premise that is more interesting to me. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it might just be that I as a viewer want stories with specific characters to attach to, rather than broad archetypes used purely for thematic exploration. However, it’s worth noting that my more surface-level approach to watching movies almost led me to dismiss Gravity as being a shallow special effects exercise. But thankfully I kept considering it; might not change the way I respond to movies but it does remind me that there is no one right way to craft a film story, and you need to approach the movie on it’s own terms. And bearing that in mind, Gravity will definitely be a movie that I need to rewatch and reconsider.

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