Awards season is over, and I breathed a sigh of relief when Gravity failed to take home best picture at the Academy Awards. Still, I couldn't help but be a bit bothered when it grabbed an award it definitely did not deserve in the best director category, as well as being nominated for a ridiculous amount of others. Meanwhile other far better films like; Place Beyond the Pines, Elysium, and Rush were not even nominated for a single Oscar. Gravity follows in a recent tradition of films that put special effects above story, along with Life of Pie, and of course the one that started the craze, Avatar. All of these movies are visually stunning but lack compelling plot. However, none of the previous offenders have been so devoid of interesting story, characters and social commentary as Gravity.
Now I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I have something against modern special effects, far from it, I love them. They allow filmmakers to do some amazing things, things they would never have been able to do in the past. Many of my favorite films from the last few years, like Inception and Hugo, have been loaded with special effects. The problem arises when the plot exists to prop up the special effects, instead of the other way around. Gravity might look amazing, but when the audience can’t connect to the characters in a character based film, there is a big problem.
I remember the first time I saw a trailer for Gravity, which I believe consisted of about 90% Sandra Bullock’s annoying cries, I laughed in the middle of the theater because it looked so terrible. Instead of setting up the plot or introducing the characters the trailer was a single scene that told viewers all they would need to expect from the movie; Sandra Bullock is in space and things go wrong, oh and the movie looks amazing. Then I saw that Alfonso Cuaron was directing and I realized right then and there what kind of movie this would be. After seeing Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I felt like I had a pretty good feel for the kind of movie he makes. Both Harry Potter 3 and Children of Men are some of the coolest looking movies around, but seem to sacrifice plot for stunning visuals. Even so, both are still pretty good movies (although not as good as they should have been) because they have an advantage Gravity does not, they are based on novels. The novels have complex plots, and even while those plots are partially removed or changed they still are the backbones of the movies. Without a strong starting point like that the plot of Gravity is paper thin and is made up entirely of Sandra Bullock’s character moving from one destination to the next.
The movie’s runtime is only about 90 minutes but somehow it manages to feel longer then the second Hobbit movie. The reason for that is simple, nothing happens. The second half is worse than the first because (spoilers) at least in the first there is some dialogue between characters, while in the second it’s just the ever aggravating Sandra Bullock talking to herself. Of course there is nothing wrong with a solitary character struggling conceptually speaking; it’s the execution in Gravity that is wrong. Cast Away, for example, is a brilliant movie because Tom Hank’s character, Chuck Nolan, is one that we as an audience cared about on a deeper level. In fact I actually care more about Wilson the volleyball than Sandra Bullock’s character, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.
The reason we can connect more with a volleyball than Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock’s character) is due to the fact that Chuck treats him like a real person, he has meaningful conversations with him and Wilson floating away is one of the saddest moments of the film because he has kept Chuck (relatively) sane for the past five years, and was his only friend. Once Wilson is gone Chuck has lost the only thing in the world he had left, we see him at his lowest, which makes his salvation more spectacular. At some point in the movie Dr. Stone reveals she had a son who died, which explains why she is such a sad mopey character. It also explains that she lost her only motivation in life, which makes her struggle to get back to Earth alive more symbolic and meaningful as she decides she has something to live for. Regrettably, her change from mopey astronaut who has given up on life to mopey astronaut who wants to live happens, not over the course of the movie, but in one scene where she hallucinates/dreams about George Clooney and has a brief interaction with someone she can't understand.
The rest of the movie is just Dr. Stone getting from one place from another while we are hit over the head with how visually stunning the film is. She travels from one space station to the next, each one is miraculously intact until the moment she needs to leave it, when the cloud of space debris return and destroys the station she is currently on, but luckily for her, not the next one she needs to get to, until of course she reaches it and the process starts again. Basically Dr. Stone travels at the speed of plot, but makes sure to take breaks to do things like pose for an overly long shot where she looks like a child in a womb, which Stanley Kubrick did better back in the 60’s.
So really, why am I so upset by the success of Gravity? It’s because despite the fact that it is a terrible movie, it still was received overwhelmingly positively by; critics, moviegoers, and the Academy. Its success is a bad thing because it means that the thing that really matters in a movie is not plot or character development, but special effects. The more that films like Gravity and Avatar succeed, the more they dominate the film landscape and other more original thought provoking films are passed over in favor of simplistic hollow films. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, Avatar 4 has already been announced despite Avatar 2 not even having entered pre-production. On the other hand Blade Runner, one of the best science fiction films ever made, actually lost money at the box office back in 1982 and Ridley Scott’s planned sequel still hasn’t arrived after 32 years.
Gravity’s message comes across sloppily; Cuaron attempts to make us connect to Stone by giving her a child who died pointlessly, and then having Clooney’s heroic sacrifice awaken her once again giving her life meaning. Clooney’s death scene is nearly identical to a scene from the much reviled Mission to Mars, and it’s just as unmoving. Even Michael Bay pulled off a better scene where a character sacrificed himself to save someone else in Armageddon. For the life of me I can’t understand why such a poorly acted, thinly plotted excuse for a movie has such universal renown other than this; it was a great experience. However, film isn’t about taking the viewer on a cool ride; it’s about telling a story, or at the very least making a connection to the audience.
There are all kinds of theories about the deeper meaning of the film, which isn’t surprising to me; when something is particularly shallow it can be interpreted any number of ways. The film certainly provides a sense of awe, but for all the wrong reasons. The only way Cuaron seems to be able to connect to audiences is through visuals, so instead of having a relatable character we can root for, or even like, the things that are meant to move us are include Stone crawling from the mud in some kind of weird visual metaphor for evolution. Gravity totally fails when compared to the films it emulates, (or rips-off if I'm being honest) movies like; Moon, Apollo 13, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even Wall-E. All of these films deal with many of the same issues that Gravity touches on like; isolation, hope, making a connection to your fellow humans and dealing with your own humanity, but these better films address these themes in a much deeper and more profound manner.
It’s honestly extremely saddening to me that the movies which often boast such incredible new special effects are so bland in terms of plot and character. It doesn’t have to be this way of course; Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in its use of CGI, but that wasn’t what made it great. It stands the test of time because we connect to the characters and relate to the movie on a deeper level than “Man, those dinosaurs look cool.” Gollum in The Two Towers is another great example. Modern technology brought to life a classic literary character and it let us see his tragic story in a way we never could before. Special effects are one of the greatest tools a director can use, but the danger comes when the film exists just to show off its own technical merit and simply look pretty.