Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The gravity of the situation

Note: Spoilers for Gravity

My experience of watching Gravity has been one, perhaps inevitably, of watching it on increasingly smaller screens ... and becoming increasingly less impressed with it.

It would have been hard to top my first viewing back in October of 2013, when I saw it on what bills itself as the world's third-largest IMAX screen, at the Melbourne Museum. Socks = knocked off.

A month later I saw it again on a "regular" movie screen, not in 3D, but still larger than ... well, if not larger than life, then at least larger than my TV screen. Socks = less knocked off.

When I finally did watch it a third time, last night, it was of course on my TV screen. Socks = dangling from my toes.

I guess at this rate, to keep things going, I'll need to watch it on a smartphone next, at which point the backs of my heels might not get cold.

The thing is, the parts that were supposed to impress me still impressed me. It just became harder to ignore the schmaltzy parts, of which there are many.

One of the most consistent complaints about Alfonso Cuaron's movie is the way the astronauts foolishly fritter away their small reserves of oxygen on chit chat. I think the scene that's most cited is when George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are floating over toward the International Space Station, relying on infrequent bursts from his thrusters and a hope that they are on the right trajectory. Her oxygen is at like 1%, yet he insists on peppering her with questions about what she'd be doing if she were home right now, and if there's a "Mr. Stone." The most ridiculous thing about that is not, perhaps, that he'd be wasting the oxygen, as you could argue that he's trying to keep her alert so she doesn't pass out. What's most ridiculous is that he wouldn't know the answer to his questions about her family already. If an astronaut were going to space and had lost a child to a freak playground accident, it would be in some kind of dossier he would have read at the very least, and more likely, it would have been the subject of a hundred newspaper feature pieces.

That one I noticed on both my first and second viewing. What I may not have noted those times, but definitely did this time, is the conversation he has with her after becoming untethered from her with no hope of survival. Now sure, he may just be indulging in the last minutes of chitter chatter he'll ever have. But before she has reached safety, when she's still trying to fumble with the lid of some hatch to get in to the ISS, he's peppering her with questions about whether she found him attractive or not. I suppose you could say that he's also becoming untethered from his own rational thoughts, except in the same breath he's also giving her instructions about what she needs to look for and what she needs to do when she gets there.

All this failure to understand the gravity of the situation, as it were, is clearly intended to spoon feed the audience what it needs to relate to these characters. But it's laid on a bit thick. On this viewing I noticed how awkward it was when, right before strapping on a pair and deciding to face her destiny with an open mind and a vigilant heart, Ryan Stone gives the deceased Clooney in her mind orders to go talk to her daughter in heaven and tell her that her mother loves her. It's a nice sentiment but her little speech goes on for like 90 seconds. That's 90 seconds that would be used much better on logistics related to your situation and the goal of arriving back home to terra firma.

One thing I couldn't help be distracted by is some of the film's retrograde gender politics. I wouldn't have noticed them at the time, but in the last few year's of increased sensitivity to these matters, I couldn't help but be aware of them. Although on the surface, Ryan Stone is a very strong female character, she has to be saved -- multiple times -- by Matt Kowalski. Her failure to disengage early enough from the arm to which she is attached means that she goes waaaaay off further into space than she otherwise would have. And while this sets up one of the film's best and most awe-inspiring shots, it also requires Matt to use most of his available thrusters to come out and pick her up, a rescue mission with an extremely low probability of success to begin with. He then later sacrifices himself for her by letting go of the tether so he won't drag her off, thus foiling her attempt to return the favor and save him. She also doesn't stop her repair task outside the shuttle until he tells her about the third time, leading to a slower response to the debris storm, though the film makes certain to absolve her of any guilt related to that. It's Matt, of course, who has to do the absolving, giving him yet another paternal aspect related to her child-like character. Now of course, there is a major disparity in their outer space experience, as he's trying to set a spacewalk record while she is on her first trip, but that doesn't do much to reduce the sense of a gender imbalance in the script.

I'd thought this viewing would be useful in helping determine if Gravity might be an outside contender for my top 25 of the 2010s, a list I will be forming a little more than 18 months from now. It was only my ninth ranked film of 2013, though that did come along with a five-star rating from the original socks-knocking incident. A third viewing might tell me which was more accurate, the five-star rating (which would certainly make it a contender for my top 25) or the ranking of ninth from the year (which, extrapolated outward, might make it only ranked somewhere in the 80s for the decade).

And yeah, technical brilliance and all, the writing in this movie is just too distracting to reward it with those kind of accolades. I still like the movie quite a bit, and felt the tension and stress of that debris field as much as I ever had. But that star rating is more appropriately 4.5 or even (gasp) four than it truly is five.

Thank goodness that technical brilliance is a very important factor for me, because Gravity is a movie I'm glad to support. I may just wait for a future incarnation in which it's available on a big screen, rather than my smartphone, for my eventual fourth viewing.


Chris said...

You've given me an idea for a post, top 10 films that are not as good on the small screen!

Derek Armstrong said...

Excellent. Yeah, I would suppose that any film that obviously prizes technical achievement over story would fit this description. Although I certainly intend to at some point, I have yet to see Avatar on the small screen.