A couple of years ago, when a terrible break-up left me desperate to fill up all of my newfound free time with social interaction, I went over to a friend’s house and watched him play Grand Theft Auto. After I saw him drive through a bunch of beautifully-designed streets, rob some girls with digits-in-all-the-right-places, and shoot a rocket launcher at a fleet of cop cars, I went home. I learned a valuable lesson that mind-numbing night: No matter how perfectly-orchestrated the sound, no matter how artistically-chiseled the graphics, no matter how hair-trigger the gameplay, watching someone else play a video game is boring.
That is exactly what watching Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is like.
There’s no story to follow, no characters to care about, and nothing of substance to learn about space travel seeing as it’s basically one giant “artistic license” to get Sandra Bullock to walk around in her underwear for awhile. The whole movie-going experience — which costs me $18 bucks for IMAX 3D — is the same thing as going over to Alfonso’s house and watching him play a version of Tomb Raider that somehow incorporates the icy game controls of NHL’94 — but even more boring than that.
Here’s the plot: Big Screen Actor flings around like a pinball, grabs ahold of another Big Screen Actor, almost runs out of air, gets knocked into something else, grabs ahold of something, performs some function that isn’t made entirely clear to get home, almost runs out of air again, has something bad happen to him, pinballs again through space, runs out of air again, pinballs again, gets low on oxygen, and then flies back down to Earth. As my ladyfriend said exiting the theater, “it’s Mr. Bean in Space.”
In the last scene of the movie — which is kind of the whole thing in a nutshell — Sandra jettisons from her space escape pod into a lake. She swims out, but is weighed down by her heavy spacesuit. So, you know, she’s about to run out of air again. To save herself, she quickly — and not dramatically at all — takes off her suit and swims to the surface. But then, instead of going straight up, she has to avoid the giant parachute from her escape pod falling onto her, so she takes a weird angle to almost make sure to get caught momentarily in a bunch of reeds. Adding to the suspense. “Will she ever get oxygen?!” Spoiler: She does, because this is a movie that doesn’t take any chances.
There are attempts to get us to care about the characters. George Clooney is given a few good lines as the Cowboy on His Last Mission before playing the hero to Sandra’s sobbing Damsel in Distress. And Sandra, we learn briefly, likes “the silence of space” (despite it really never being silent during the entire time she’s up there) because her daughter died back home on Earth, which was a big bummer. But that’s it as far as character development or general interest. You do not need infinite-monkeys-in-front-of-infinite typewriters to come up with these cookie-cutter characters. You need 12 donkeys with sticks tied around their tails. Put them in a sand pit, have a drink at the saloon, come back in an hour, and you’ll have roughly the same quality of writing as Gravity.
Early on, we comprehend the infuriating inadequacy of Ryan Stone — which by the way is Sandra Bullock’s character, in case you assumed otherwise — in any and absolutely all space activities. If there is any way for Dr. Stone to sabotage the endeavor of staying alive, she WILL find it. Additionally, Matt Kowalski — the George Clooney character — WILL suffer the repercussions of her incompetence. And he will do it with a charming smile even though this was supposed to be his last flight as an astronaut before retiring. His sweetness and patience towards Ryan are almost as infuriating as his eventual self-sacrifice for her survival.
The film’s character issues stem from the horrendous dialogue, written by Alfonso and his son, which has a clichéd blandness that can be attributed to one of two things: (1) ESL issues, which probably isn’t the case after seeing displays of Cuarón’s impressive fluency in interviews; or, more likely, (2) trying to make everything as simple as possible for the global market. (This is a $100 million movie, after all.) So, instead of anything interesting or memorable — honestly, I’ve been spent the last 20 minutes trying to remember the film’s dialogue — you get revealing snippets like, “I’m going to die,” and “Keep it together,” and “I’m either going to survive or burn up during re-entry, so I guess ‘dem’s the breaks, kid!” No, folks, it’s not easy to create dialogue for one actor to say to themselves, which Sandra does for most of the movie. It worked in Cast Away, but only because Tom Hanks was given that volleyball to talk to. Usually, it comes off as forced. And that’s the case here.
And there are incredible moments in Gravity. This film represents a great achievement when it comes to IMAX 3-D technology and digital projection. It looks amazing. In one scene, an astronaut is completely wiped out by a bunch of space debris, to the point where you see Earth poking through the big hole in his face. Sandra Bullock’s tears float into the camera. You start looking at her from outside of her helmet, but then the camera goes inside of her helmet to shows her oxygen displays, and then go back out to see her worried face. Throughout much of it, I was sitting there asking myself how the fuck did they do that?
Then I remembered. Oh yeah, computers.
It’s computers, people. They use computers to do all of this. Computers. For moments in films made before CGI like the opening scene of Touch of Evil or the big killer reveal at the end of Young and Innocent, it was fun to ask “how’d they do that?” And answers like “They had to make sure to physically rack focus while moving in from so far to so close,” or “the stunt man was using a flame-suit” were kind of interesting. But nowadays the answer is “they had a bunch of green-screen and some lonely neckbeard guys sat in front of computers for a while until they pushed the right button to make it look good.”
Like Gravity, Alfonso ‘s Children of Men had nifty visual tricks going on that amazed you by how long they shot seamless scenes without cutting. The difference, however, was that there was a whole lot more going on in Children of Men in regards to little things like plot and substance than in Gravity. When people died, or when Clive Owen was put in peril, it mattered. The extended shots were cool and learning about how they were done was a nice bonus, but it all worked to serve the story. Gravity is the other way around. The story, or lack there-of, serves the shots. If you’re not seeing Gravity in IMAX or in 3D, you’re basically watching a high school TV production final assignment that your precocious neighbor shot for $20 in a week.
What puzzles me about Gravity is the fact that no one else can see how worthless it is. The movie is 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic gave it a 96 percent positive rating, and IMDB has it at 8.7 out of 10, which ranks it as the 44th best movie of all time. People are actually asking if it’s the best space movie ever.
Hey everybody, let’s calm down here. It’s not.
Aliens is the best space movie of all time. 2001 is also an acceptable answer. Event Horizon is scarier, Apollo 13 is more suspenseful, hell, Mission to Mars has more fleshed-out characters. Gravity? This is a middle-aged man being given $100 million to throw together a Sandra Bullock vs. CO2 video game and then force us to sit there and shut up and watch him play.
Rick Paulas did not like that movie.