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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Julian Schnabel: Years ago, I was down there with my cousin’s wife Corky. She was wild — she wore makeup on her legs, and she had a streak in her hair like Yvonne De Carlo in “The Munsters.” She liked to paint. I had overalls on with just a T-shirt and looked like whatever. We were trying to buy a bunch of supplies with my cousin Jesse’s credit card. They looked at the credit card, and then they looked at us and thought maybe we stole the card, so they called Jesse up. He was a doctor who became the head of trauma at St. Vincent’s. They said, “There’s somebody here with this credit card and we want to know if it belongs to you.”

He said, “Well, does the woman have dyed blonde hair and fake eyelashes and look like she stepped out of the backstage of some kind of silent movie, and is she with some guy who has wild hair and is kind of dressed like a bum?”

“Yeah, that’s them.”

“Yeah, that’s my cousin and my wife. It’s okay, they can charge it on my card.”
~ Julian Schnabel Remembers NYC’s Now-Shuttered Pearl Paint

MB Cool. I was really interested in the aerial photography from Enter the Void and how one could understand that conceptually as a POV, while in fact it’s more of an objective view of the city where the story takes place. So it’s an objective and subjective camera at the same time. I know that you’re interested in Kubrick. We’ve talked about that in the past because it’s something that you and I have in common—

GN You’re obsessed with Kubrick, too.

MB Does he still occupy your mind or was he more of an early influence?

GN He was more of an early influence. Kubrick has been my idol my whole life, my own “god.” I was six or seven years old when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I never felt such cinematic ecstasy. Maybe that’s what brought me to direct movies, to try to compete with that “wizard of Oz” behind the film. So then, years later, I tried to do something in that direction, like many other directors tried to do their own, you know, homage or remake or parody or whatever of 2001. I don’t know if you ever had that movie in mind for your own projects. But in my case, I don’t think about 2001 anymore now. That film was my first “trip” ever. And then I tried my best to reproduce on screen what some drug trips are like. But it’s very hard. For sure, moving images are a better medium than words, but it’s still very far from the real experience. I read that Kubrick said about Lynch’s Eraserhead, that he wished he had made that movie because it was the film he had seen that came closest to the language of nightmares.

Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé