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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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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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