Review: Gravity


Praising a film for its special effects is dubious, it’s almost like standing in front of a painting and saying, “Wow, what a great frame!” Special effects, as advanced and amazing as they can be, are filigree when it comes to film–the story is what matters. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, has terrific special effects, and, fortunately, also a pretty good story, one that is old as the written word itself–survival.

The tale unfolds in space, where we are told in a title card that life is impossible. A team of astronauts is repairing the Hubble space telescope, but why a medical doctor (Sandra Bullock) is doing it is inadequately explained. The mission commander (George Clooney, looking like Buzz Lightyear) is frolicking with a jet pack, hoping to break the record for longest space walk. But then a warning from Houston: a Russian satellite has exploded, and the debris is heading their way.

Bullock and Clooney will be the only survivors, and for a few moments Bullock is flipping through space, unattached to anything, which must be just about the worst terror imaginable. Clooney tracks her down, and they make their way to the Soyuz, hoping to find a way back to Earth. (Who knew space was so crowded with vehicles that can get you home?)

What makes Gravity effective is the sharing of the sense of dread at being marooned in space. The effects are so good that I didn’t even spend any time thinking, “How’d they do that?” but instead just suspended disbelief–the reptilian part of my brain just assumed I was watching people float in space. Shots from Bullock’s point of view, through her visor, the sun reflecting through it and her vital signs displayed on the periphery, were very effective, especially in 3D (yes, I forked over the extra five bucks to watch in IMAX 3D, the first time I’ve done so, but Gravity may need to be seen in 3D to get the full effect). Then, then the scenes of her floating around inside Soyuz in her underwear were wonderful, for more than just one reason.

Still, Gravity is not the best film of the year, or will even make my top ten. It has lots of cliches, such as the tapping of an gauge to reveal that it’s really on zero, or giving Bullock a dead child to mourn. Many have noted that Bullock says the thing she likes about space most is the silence, but the soundtrack is a cacophony, with egregious harm done by Steven Price’s score. A more daring choice would have been to have no score at all, and let us understand what a vacuum really sounds like.

But the film moves briskly–it’s only 90 minutes, a wink in time compared to most Hollywood prestige pictures, and the tension is palpable. Bullock fully commands the screen, as she is alone for a good chunk of the picture. Clooney plays his usual self, a charming rogue, the kind of thing he could do in his sleep.

As for scientific accuracy, Neil deGrasse Tyson plays the role of buzzkill. He did enjoy the movie, though.

My grade for Gravity: B+


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

22 responses »

  1. it’s almost like standing in front of a painting and saying, “Wow, what a great frame!”

    Eh. Don’t agree. Wouldn’t the special effects of a painting be the paints themselves, and the subject matter be the meat of it? I don’t appreciate a LOT of paintings for their subject matter, but I will never stand in anything less than awe of their craftsmanship.
    You’re nitpicking by making a poor assumption, IMHO.
    I haven’t seen the movie, but that feels disingenuous.

  2. But I should add I see your point, absolutely, and on what everyone else has said, it feels disingenuous for critics to ignore how apparently poor the script is.

  3. But how would you even *make* a movie like this without the special effects? Again, I didn’t see it, but certainly in most other movies the effects serve the plot, but isn’t this one of those occasions where if you didn’t believe the effects, the movie wouldn’t work, like, AT ALL?
    Doesn’t it seem the filmmakers made a decision, and stuck with it, and everyone more-or-less bought it? I dunno, maybe I’m just in my Cuaron apologist mode because he is one of the 5 best filmmakers working today.

  4. Rob and James both had those issues, but for neither of them, and for you also, it seems, it didn’t detract from your enjoyment, and if there was a good script and people hanging on wires, well, what would the point of the movie have been?
    Avatar got more of a pass. And that had bad cartoon effects AND story.

  5. I think you’re misunderstanding me–I don’t dislike special effects, and yes you couldn’t make Gravity without them. What I’m saying is that a lot of critics, or people in general, will say about a bad movie, “Yes, but it has great special effects.” My contention, and it’s just my personal viewpoint, is so what? That’s not a reason to see a movie, at least for me it isn’t.

    And Avatar didn’t get a pass from me.

  6. Actually the score and use of sound did detract from my enjoyment. So did the repetitive nature of several of the set pieces (Bullock bangs into side of _____ when she’s trying to land on ____ or _____ explodes and she nearly tumbles off into space).

  7. Well, I suppose that I could nitpick about this or that, but on the whole I think the movie is fairly remarkable. It’s so rare for a movie to offer up something so truly visionary, and if there’s a few problems with the script or with scientific details, so what?

    Honestly, I don’t think the special effects are either here or there, and bringing them up is a strange way to start a review. Yes, the movie depends on them to work, but at the same time, even if one assumes perfect special effects, I’m not sure how many filmmakers could produce such an artful film. In a way, the movie is directed to within an inch of its life, but it succeeds so marvelously at communicating the vastness of space and the overwhelming, absolute threat that space presents to life. I think that’s a unique and substantial achievement, but like filmman points out, the special effects have nothing to do with that – they’re just a means to an end.

    Also, I thought the score was just about perfect.

  8. The score will probably play great on Spotify or in my car, but it was a bit too much at times during the movie. But again, I think there was too much sound period between the score and the dialogue.

  9. Well, I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that the film should emphasize the silence, and think that would have played much more poorly than a lot of people seem to assume. But I also think a very conventional score would have played somewhat ridiculously.

    But this one was unusual and angular. It’s loud but unsettling, an implacable but eerie force of its own. It’s forceful but also complementary – I never felt like it overwhelmed the action on screen, but emphasized it. Like the movie itself, it approached its subject in a way that I haven’t encountered before and didn’t expect.

    I guess I’m not really saying anything that makes much sense, but what can I say. Just worked for me.

  10. A relentless miracle of filmmaking with some incredibly beautiful moments.
    The only issue I had with the constant talking was on the tethered ride with Clooney. A silent ride over to the ISS would have been so beautiful, maybe Brian is right, it would have been too beautiful.
    I had no issue with the music at all, and the ISS destruction sequence is almost too good, from the sound design to the-I mean, the way it all drops out of view before it breaks up-
    And call me a sap, but I loved the ‘dream sequence’, everything about it. How it was handled, how he appeared, all of it.
    But yeah, the movie is saddled with the ‘dead child’ nonsense. It’s relentless drama enough just to survive space. We’re invested, we’re there, we believe it all for every second of the movie. It felt unnecessary.
    But that ending…so perfectly done. She died when she turned off the oxygen, the rest, as one writer said, ‘an absolution’.
    Amazing, amazing film.

  11. Lots of spoilers in that comment! But you’re not seriously buying that alternate theory ending are you? That’s just silly.

  12. It’s not that I’m ‘buying it’. I looked-up that link after I watched it. I place it there for reference.
    She died in that capsule. I thought that the moment George showed up. There isn’t a single false note in the movie. There isn’t the ‘glaring problem’ (again, except for the speechifying on the trip to the ISS) with the script, the movie doesn’t once ring ‘false’ and the ending is so perfectly shot Cuaron and Lubezki and I’m so blown-away by a third act I never say coming…amazing, amazing movie. Is staying with me as long after as Children of Men did. He’s truly one of the greats.
    ********************SPOILER 2************
    The ISS dropping out of view is one of the best moments ever captured. How the hell did they make it so real?

  13. It makes it all make sense.
    The semi-implausibility, again, of her making it on another spacewalk (while the ship is entering atmosphere, breaking up), of the entire sequence mirroring the sequence of the entrance into the Soyuz (she has done in once before) and in the ultimate show of perseverence, she does it once more, in death, finishes the ride she is meant to finish, with Clooney pushing her to make it back to where she needs to be back to, and it’s that final shot, man, where they cut and what she looks like and…I freaking love this movie.

  14. And to think of it, perhaps an argument could be made that the not stopping talking on the reentry was a little much, but I’m firmly with Brian on this that I think an overabundance of silence would not have worked the way many people think it might have.

  15. Well, I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that the film should emphasize the silence, and think that would have played much more poorly than a lot of people seem to assume. But I also think a very conventional score would have played somewhat ridiculously.

    I don’t think the score was particularly unconventional, at least in modern terms. As I mentioned shortly after exiting the theater – it reminded me a lot of Trevor Rabin’s work.

    And I’m not suggesting the entire thing should have been silent. But there’s almost never an opportunity to just breathe and take in the grandeur of space…or to reflect on the terror of Bullock’s situation.

  16. Saw this again last night. Wanted to see if 3d added or changed anything. I am still staunchly a 2D man. While it was immersive, and there wasn’t a moment you didn’t feel you were in space with these two, (and some of the shots, like going from space, through the helmet, to her point of view and back out in one fluid shot were more astounding in 3D) I still feel no need to search out the 3D. And if this film didn’t convince me, I don’t think anything will. And the theater I went to, the color temperature was so changed by the glasses, I mean, the screen was dim to begin with, but the change in color temperature, also? No, thanks.
    But this film is two of a piece. i was able to concentrate on the music and what they say and really pay attention and this is a remarkable film, the first piece the journey of her body to death, and the second piece the journey of her soul to life. Pretty astounding movie.

  17. And the theater I went to, the color temperature was so changed by the glasses, I mean, the screen was dim to begin with, but the change in color temperature, also?

    Interesting. At the theater I work at, the hard drive we were sent had two versions of the movie for 3D – one for silver screens, and one for white screens. Presumably the point was to counter exactly the problem you’re describing. I wonder if the theater you went to just ignored the difference.

  18. I was going to ask if anyone who works in the theater knows if this is an issue. You would think this could be rectified with different glasses, but then I suppose the glasses are the way they are for the 3D.
    Yeah, I would assume they ignored it, since the difference was quite evident. I would assume the theater ignored it, seeing as how, though it’s a nice theater in most respects, the air conditioning units were so loud, and the theater so small, it sounded like planes were taking off on the roof. Ahhh…going to the movies in the burbs. 25 choices, crammed into a space that shouldn’t hold 3 theaters and with no interest in how the movie is presented.
    One of the most egregious things in the presentation was a terrible ‘ghosting’ effect, seen most prominently in the credits and when a single character had a ‘shadow’ effect, like if a piece of film was shifted in front of the lens or something. I couldn’t believe the issues the theater had.

  19. And it was a relatively ‘new’ cinema. An old building, surely, but recently renovated, with all ‘digital projection’. Clean, well-kept, with some very good-looking young people staffing the place.
    But…presentation, man.

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