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By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

The Torontonian Reviews GRAVITY

GRAVITYFrom open to close, Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi survival drama is a technical and visual achievement.  Indeed, in the 3D cinema game, Gravity is currently king. But what starts as a casual space stroll between Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) soon becomes a series of unfortunate events, and the result is weightless entertainment. The 3D IMAX magic of it all reveals itself to be little more than eye candy, and it’s disappointing that a film this ambitious stimulates only certain parts of your brain.

If you are okay with ignoring the silliness of it all, Gravity is really, really cool. And while the film’s spectacle is indisputable, I nevertheless feel compelled to argue how goofy some aspects of this movie truly are. Throughout the experience—and it is one, to be sure—I was never challenged philosophically by the premise, never moved by the events, and most importantly, never swayed emotionally by the characters in any meaningful way.

This criticism is derived from an inexcusable handling of character development. Gravity is full with clunky dialogue exchanges that break the immersion, because we know they are artifacts of the screenwriting process. We have to have some background information, right? Certainly, but at the same time, we don’t want our hands held. Consider an early moment where Kowalsky attempts to calm down a rattled Dr. Stone: “Where is home?” he asks, pointing at our planet below. “Where are you from?” If you can buy that this question had yet to come up (maybe back home, in a NASA bar somewhere?), great. But this is not the only example of how blatantly Cuarón and his co-writer son Jonas attempt to provide us with narrative bread crumbs.

Around the middle act, another fragment of Dr. Stone’s background is revealed: the poorly fleshed-out mention of her late daughter, an “angel” who Stone finds the strength to continue from. This comes out of nowhere and is wholly underwritten, coming across as Hollywood cliché. It’s a shame that what holds this film down is something that could have been changed far before they went to set.

It’s also bizarre that the writing is so overtly visible, because most everything else is seamless. Through some special effects trickery, Cuarón manages to sneak the camera in and out of space helmets without cutting, and you’re left scratching your head in disbelief. “How did they do that?” you’ll ask, trying your best to ignore how conspicuous the dialogue is.

When it comes to survival films, the current entry to beat is J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (coming later this fall), due to Robert Redford’s profoundly excellent solo performance and the movie’s conceivable premise. Gravity, on the other hand, is more concerned with visual splendor than it is telling a believable tale. But allow me to give credit where credit is due: Bullock’s performance is very strong (Clooney’s, somehow, is a throwaway) and the actor lives up to her 2010 Academy Award.

The issue here is depth and a screenplay that has bigger problems than typical coincidences and photo-finish escapes (which are more or less forgivable for this type of movie). In terms of these obstacles, the film does a fine job selling you the same sense of emergency over and over, and just about every way you could die in space is hinted at. It’s definitely very entertaining. Maybe a little repetitive, too, but at least Cuarón asks for only ninety minutes of your time.

Finally, there has been some rhetoric online that Gravity is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. I don’t exactly agree, but I can see why the sentiment is being tossed around. Fans of Cuarón’s earlier work and accomplished direction (the tracking sequences in Children of Men continue to stand out) will find much to appreciate here, and the film’s 13-minute opening shot is worth the price of admission alone. At the end of the day, however, the film is comparable to James Cameron’s Avatar: both films deliver astonishing 3D visuals on a debatable script, and it’s up to you to look past it.

One Response to “The Torontonian Reviews GRAVITY”

  1. pj says:

    This is first review I read that really laid into the dialogue…is it really that bad? Wow! Noticed it seemed a bit stiff in trailers but this makes it sound just flat awful.

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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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