Thursday, November 14, 2013

Five Comments on Gravity

It's hard to imagine two films that are more different than Upstream Color and Gravity, but in one sense at least they ping me the same way--they both seem like films about which it would be a waste of time to try to write a conventional review.  Or at least, the way I write reviews, focusing on plot, character, and theme.  Like Upstream Color, Gravity is a film whose power lies elsewhere, in its visuals and design, and in the way it reaches directly for emotions like fear and anxiety.  That's not to say that there haven't been interesting reviews of the film (I'm fond of this one, by Wai Chee Dimock at The Los Angeles Review of Books), but as I did with Upstream Color, it seems to make more sense to gather my stray observations about the film rather than write a proper review.
  • Watching the film, I was reminded of an essay I read in 2009, by a reviewer who was trying to explain away negative reactions to James Cameron's Avatar by, essentially, claiming that people who didn't like the film had been watching it wrong.  Avatar, his argument went, was a plotless movie.  To complain about its dull story, thin characters, and self-contradictory message was to miss the point, which was the film's visual spectacle and immersive cinematic experience.  This is, obviously, a ridiculous argument to make about Avatar, but it suits Gravity to a T.  Not because Gravity's visual spectacle outweighs the thinness of its plot and characters--that's a determination that every viewer has to make for themselves--but because it lacks the kind of dumb, insistent, offensive plotting with which Avatar weighs down its own stunning visuals.  Gravity is simple enough to describe in a single sentence--two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, are stranded in orbit when a debris storm destroys their shuttle--and yet that description tells you virtually nothing about the film.  Its script is essentially one drawn out, constantly worsening disaster scenario, whose power is rooted in the judiciousness with which director Alfonso Cuarón and his son and co-writer Jonás pace the film's moments of tension and relief, the way that they allow us to breathe when the astronauts appear to have been saved, only to reveal yet another complication--low oxygen, equipment malfunctions, that same cloud of debris coming back around the Earth to pummel them again--that worsens their already precarious situation.  It's a brilliant bit of disaster writing, but it's not, strictly speaking, a plot, and Gravity works because of the way it realizes that disaster--and the astronauts' experience of being helpless and alone in orbit--in such an immersive, visceral fashion.

    Which makes the script's attempts to invent an emotional arc for Bullock's character seem more than a little like a failure of nerve.  For the most part, Bullock and Clooney don't really have personalities to play.  Their characters embody the traits for which the actors have become known--his twinkling charm, her approachable warmth--and don't develop any further (to the extent that though it's easy to mentally replace Clooney with Robert Downey Jr., the actor originally attached to the male role, it's hard to imagine Gravity with Angelina Jolie, whose public persona is very different from Bullock's, playing the female part).  They are both--and particularly Bullock, who spends the latter two thirds of the movie on her own after Clooney's character sacrifices himself to save her--audience identification figures, only slightly more rounded than the first person player character in a video game.  And like that figure, they exist mainly as an every-person through whom the audience can project themselves through, and into the film's nerve-wracking scenario. 

    So when Gravity tries to give Bullock an emotional arc, there's little for the actress to hang it on.  I was pleased, at first, when the film revealed that Bullock's character had lost a daughter and had no other family--it seemed like a rejection of the too-common assumption, in disaster stories, that characters need a reason to want to survive.  In its final third, however, Gravity interweaves Bullock's predicament with her grief--choosing to make one last stab at returning to Earth is also a choice to relinquish the numbness she sank into after her daughter's death and live again.  It's not a point that the film belabors, but it also feels unnecessary and, given how thin the character is, not very well-realized--the pain of losing a child, and the difficulty of choosing to go on after that loss, can't be captured in a few trite lines of dialogue, and Bullock isn't the actress who can elevate that thin material to make her character's return to life truly resonant.  It's not deal-breaker for me, but I think that I would have been very happy with Gravity as a perfectly-realized disaster piece with gorgeous visuals and minimal character work.

  • Does Gravity need Bullock's character to be a woman?  As I've said, Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone is the film's main audience identification figure, and Sady Doyle has written an excellent piece about the importance of casting a woman in such a role, especially in a technology- and jargon-heavy, and thus supposedly male-oriented, film like Gravity.  The film's success, Doyle argues, puts the lie to the claim that men can't identify with female heroines the way women habitually do with male heroes.  Doyle's point is important (and it remains valid despite he caveats I'm about to pile on it), but underpinning it is the assumption that Gravity would be exactly the same movie if Stone were played by a man, which I don't think is true.  In interviews, Cuarón has said that he and his son envisioned the film's lead as a woman because they wanted "to strip it from heroists," a non-word that has caused some flurry of interpretation and consternation.  But to me Cuaron's meaning seems obvious from the film itself--he needed Stone to be a woman because she is defined, first and foremost, by her vulnerability.

    In the film's first third, Stone is frantic, just on the verge of panic.  Her relationship with Clooney's Matt Kowalski, the mission commander, is one of dependence.  In the film's opening moments, before the debris appears, he's helping her complete a technical assignment while she shakes off nausea.  Later, after she's been flung away from the shuttle, he calmly, even cheerfully talks her through the procedures she needs to follow to help him find her.  After they're reunited (a scene in which Stone clings to Kowalski, and, when he tells her that he's about to pay out the line with which they're tethered so that he can use his maneuvering jets, begs him not to) Kowalski quite clearly manages Stone, acting alternately paternal and lightly flirtatious, distracting her with jokes, questions about her life, and most of all an insouciant, untroubled tone that never wavers, even when he launches himself into space. 

    To be clear, Stone's panicked reaction is entirely normal and reasonable, regardless of her gender, as is the fact that Kowalski feels the need to handle her--especially given that, as we learn at the beginning of the film, Stone is a rookie astronaut on her first mission, who's only had six months of training (her panic actually makes more sense than her sudden burst of competence and devil-may-care spirit in the film's final sequence).  But it's hard to imagine a movie--and certainly not a big-budget Hollywood movie--giving those kinds of character beats to a male character, and it is even more difficult to imagine the kind of dynamic that develops between Stone and Kowalski being replicated if their genders were reversed, or if they were both men (at least, not without making the Stone character significantly younger than Kowalski, while Clooney and Bullock are only a few years apart in age).  Doyle is right that Gravity is unusual in being a blockbuster film mostly carried by a female lead, but Stone herself isn't so unusual a figure--when it comes to suffering beautifully, being battered about by circumstances, and powering through with pluck and determination, modern pop culture tends to reach for women (for a recent example, look at the current season of Homeland, and the pummeling that it has dealt to Carrie Mathison).  It will be interesting, for example, to compare Gravity to J.C. Chandor's forthcoming film All is Lost, which has a very similar premise, but whose sole survivor character is an older man played by Robert Redford.  Already from the trailers it seems that Redford's character's competence is never in as much doubt as Stone's, and I would be surprised if his performance turns out to be as rooted in vulnerability and fear as Bullock's is.

    That's not to say, however, that Gravity salivates over Stone's suffering, or expects us to pity her.  However unbelievable, her arc over the course of the movie is one of growing competence, and her final actions to get herself back to Earth are just on the verge of cartoonish heroism.  Even more importantly, the way that Cuarón shoots Bullock seems designed to showcase her strength even before she realizes it herself.  Bullock is a tall, imposing woman, and though she spends most of the movie swaddled in bulky spacesuits, when she emerges from them she looks anything but vulnerable.  More than a few jokes have been made about the underwear Stone reveals when she shucks off her spacesuit (including the observation that it leaves little room for the adult diaper she ought to have been wearing), but to me the operative mood of that scene isn't titillation, but awe.  When she reveals herself as a body, rather than just a head floating in a suit she can barely control, Stone suddenly seems powerful, all strong arms and muscly runner's legs.  Those legs serve her in good stead in the film's final disaster, when her landing pod's floats malfunction and it sinks into the water, forcing Stone to swim against the gush of water filling the pod and out of her dead-weight spacesuit.  It's not at all believable that someone who has spent a week in microgravity (and the last ninety minutes scrambling from one temporary haven to another and nearly dying from oxygen deprivation) could make that swim, but Bullock's physicality sells it.  When she crawls, and then walks, onto a shore in the film's final moments, the camera hugs Stone close, shooting her from below as she rises to her feet, and then climbing up her body.  It's a shot that could easily have seemed prurient, but instead it reaffirms Stone's strength--she looks like a giant, as powerful and tangible on the earth as she was vulnerable and ephemeral in space.

  • It's disappointing to have to say this, but even in a film in which only three actors appear on screen (with two others present as voices, and another two bodies which may or may not have been modeled on actual actors) it's still the non-white guy--another member of the shuttle crew named Shariff (Phaldut Sharma)--who dies first, taking a piece of debris to the head in the film's opening disaster scene.

  • As much as it is an immersive, absorbing film, I think that for most people watching Gravity there will also have been a small voice piping up throughout it, wondering: how did they do that?  Is that bit animated or real?  How was this effect achieved?  How much of this film was created on a set, and how much in a computer?  After learning some more about the film's absurdly complicated creation process--which Cuaron describes as combining the worst challenges of live shoots and computer animation--what struck me was that Bullock's performance, which is being praised to the level that she's considered a safe bet for an Oscar nomination, is a construct, as much the work of animators and technicians as it is hers.  There's a degree to which this is true about any performance, but when you read about how Ryan Stone was created it seems almost like a metaphor for this collaborative process.  Bullock's movements in some scenes had to be minutely choreographed well before the shoot, because the objects she'd be interacting with would only exist in a computer.  For the scenes in which Stone floats in zero G aboard various space stations, Bullock was suspended in a rig, her limbs manipulated by a team of professional puppeteers.  I was reminded of a similar (and, arguably, much better) constructed performance, by Andy Serkis as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, which like Bullock's was the product of both an actor and a team of technicians.  There's obviously more than one reason why Serkis was never considered for an Oscar while Bullock is almost certain to be nominated for one--he's a lower profile actor, the campaign to get him nominated was a fan-driven affair and not, as far as I know, seriously pursued by the studio, Gollum is more obviously a construct than Stone--but I wonder if we haven't also reached a point where this kind of marriage of craft and technology is being taken seriously, and what that bodes for the future, as computer animation becomes a more integral component of filmmaking.

  • Is Gravity science fiction?  There's nothing counterfactual or futuristic about the film's technology, and its premise is even based on a real theorized worst case scenario.  Nevertheless, it's been embraced by fans as being at least SF-adjacent, simply for portraying space exploration and for straining for some degree of accuracy in doing so (though as astrophysicists and actual astronauts have pointed out, the film takes many liberties with the realities of life in space).  But I wonder whether Gravity's SFnal credentials don't hail from a different direction, one that old-school genre and space fans might be more suspicious of.  Gravity fits right into a sub-genre that has been slowly emerging over the last decade, of films nominally focused on space exploration and life in space, but which inevitably turn into horror stories.  Recent release Europa Report has been praised for the accuracy with which it depicts a mission to Jupiter's moon, but its story still revolves around the astronauts discovering something that goes bump in the night.  So, apparently, do other recent space-set films like Last Days on Mars or Stranded, and even a film with such high stakes as Danny Boyle's Sunshine felt the need to add a horror component to its story to make it palatable.  Among recent space-set movies, I think that Moon alone stands as the exception to the rule that the only stories that can be told in such an environment are about the characters being picked off one by one by evil aliens, mysterious contagions, or space madness.

    Gravity is slightly different--it's more a terror film than a horror film, and the danger that threatens its characters is perfectly understood and even mundane, the result of the botched destruction of an old satellite, rather than something that jumps out at them from the shadows.  Nevertheless, it is a film that works hard to justify its opening statement, that "Life in space is impossible"--and if it wasn't impossible when the film started, it certainly is by its end, which sees all major man-made objects in Earth's orbit destroyed while space exploration is rendered impossible for decades to come.  That's obviously in keeping with the conventions of disaster films, which habitually feature death and destruction on an unimaginable scale, then ask us to cheer at the survival of a few main characters regardless of how difficult (or impossible) it will be for them to rebuild.  But somehow Gravity feels different.  For a film that seems designed to appeal to space nuts and science fiction fans to, essentially, poison space without even acknowledging that it has done so seems almost too cruel.  It doesn't make the film any less exhilarating, but it does leave a bad taste spoiling the triumph of Stone's survival.


Sebastian said...

First things first, I've been an assiduous reader of your blog over the last few months, but this is the first time I've actually posted a comment. Probably because I've been told by friends that I need to see "Gravity" no matter what. Every assumption I had about this movie was borne out by your analysis, though. It is very hard to find people with such analytic skills on the Internet, so I thank you for your input and the links of like-minded people you've posted throughout several of your articles.

The point you raise in your last paragraph is particularly troubling. The notion that life in space is impossible runs against not only the grain of science fiction, but the core strength of literature, which is, in my view, demonstrating the heights of willpower, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. Survival for survival's sake, although it makes for a compelling story, it's not much of a compelling them.

Fangz said...

I just watched this film on Friday. My feeling of the final scene is different, I don't think the film poisons space at all. Look at the final scenes.


The way Ryan crawls up on to the beach, grabbing at the dirt. Then she gets up again, slowly, fumbling because she's not used to the gravity. Before that, we have Houston at last getting back into contact, we know a rescue mission will be sent. But more importantly, recall the camera during all this. The camera is positioned low, so that as she gets up, it looks up, up into the sky. We see some of the debris burn up in the atmosphere.

I think the implication is clear enough. Humanity, as represented by Ryan, has been dealt a setback. But the setback is temporary. As Ryan got back up from standing on the literal bottom of the sea, to swimming in it, to crawling, to standing, all of the time elevating herself, the ending is hopeful that mankind would eventually go up into space again. In time the debris would clear itself, and a less complacent, more meaningfully confident mankind would return.

The opening might declare that life in space is impossible, and that reflects Ryan's viewpoint at the start. But the point is that she did survive through it.

Dragonchild said...

I kind of differ on your take of Stone's lost daughter. On one hand I don't think the film aims to be groundbreaking in not explicitly clarifying why someone wants to live; I think it's OK that it's self-evident. Most people aren't suicidal so I kind of feel insulted when writers feel the need to explain it. Besides, most scientists shouldn't need to explain why they'd want to live because their lives are immersed in discovery, but these characters are not scientists so much as vessels for audience insertion, so evidently we gotta discuss family though it adds nothing of value to character or story. On the flip side, Stone's backstory fills another all-too-familiar cliche in that her identity as a heroine is in part defined by loss of a loved one.

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