Thursday, February 06, 2014

I'm way behind #15: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

The marketing hook for this film is that you haven't really seen it unless you've seen it in IMAX 3D, or at least regular old 3D, so I may have missed some of the full impact, having chosen to see it in 2D on a conventionally sized theater screen. It certainly looks like a film where 3D was an aesthetic choice and not just a marketing gimmick and a way to bump up the ticket price, but I wear glasses and hate putting 3D glasses on top of them, and 3D gives me a blazing headache within a half hour of the film's starting time, so I rarely see a film in 3D. Life is in 3D, and I appreciate film as a 2D medium.
That caveat aside, my opinion of Gravity is largely positive, with some major reservations. This is a film that uses its large Hollywood budget and FX-driven story for good instead of annoyance. I find major, effects-driven Hollywood films almost unwatchable since CGI largely took the place of handmade effects and stuntmen. I've made my complaints known multiple times before on this site, but CGI has led to a uniformity in style, a disconnect between the camera-filmed and computer-generated parts of a film, and a narrative structure that is spatially incoherent and exhausting. Mainstream big-budget genre films are now just one noisy climax after another with a cluttered frame and an ignorance of the preceding century of fundamentals.
Gravity is refreshingly different. Here is a film that dramatically unclutters the frame and uses it for composition, space, and movement, not the jarring, crowded clusterfuck of bombardment we're mostly getting from recent box-office hits. Cuaron's compositions are gorgeous, quiet, meditative, and, in scenes of high action, coherent and thrilling. The setting no doubt helps. Turns out, space has lots of space, which is why we call it space, so cluttering it up with a bunch of nonsense was not really an option. Cuaron, though, has proven he can handle very different canvases masterfully, exploring the space between the frames with expertise in this and his previous three films (Children of Men, his Harry Potter movie, and Y tu mama tambien). Whatever the merits and weaknesses of his varied work, the shot compositions and expressive movements of the camera are always positives.
My problems with the film are mostly related to its screenplay. Though both big stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) acquit themselves nicely, any time the conversation gets away from the specifics of their job and toward their personal lives, the dialogue is cringingly sentimental, forced, and full of Hollywood cliche. It gets even worse when Bullock cranks out a couple of monologues and tries to communicate with a space station. This pulled me out of the nice meditative thing I had going for the bulk of the movie.
I know it's bad form to criticize the movie I wanted to exist rather than the one we have, but I'm going to get unfair and talk about my fantasy version of the movie. I would replace Clooney and Bullock with unknowns. I didn't have a problem with their performances,but I'd prefer two actors who are less sparkly, less People cover, more mysterious, and more anonymous to match the film's setting. I'd remove almost all of the dialogue, including everything personal, and a lot of the score, focusing on silence and the sound of machines and tools. I'd keep everything else. Of course, I'd ruin the film's commercial potential, and what studio would want to distribute my version?
Despite my qualms, I encourage Hollywood to make more films in this vein, to get back to classic Hollywood fundamentals, to use the vastness of the frame in ways other than trying to cram as much shit in it as is humanly possible, to bring back wonder and eliminate bombardment.   

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