COLUMN: More Than Meets The Eye
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 22:10
This past weekend, I finally got around to seeing Gravity, the sci-fi blockbuster that has dominated the box office charts week after week. As I entered the theater, I bought my ticket and took my 3D glasses with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. The reasons for excitement are clear enough: with the countless 4-star reviews, the 97 percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, and the presence of Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) in the director’s chair, my expectations were exceptionally high. But there was also a nagging skepticism in my head—partly instilled by friends who had complained to me about the movie’s redundancy, its faulty logic, and its cliched script. But the skepticism was also of a more fundamental sort, and it boiled down to this question: how could you make an entire movie out of an astronaut free-floating in space?
When it comes to evaluating movies, the conventional wisdom places a premium on storytelling, and on that basis alone Gravity seemed to have a handicap. Gravity does not tell a great story. It’s a movie about two astronauts adrift in space, and their struggle to survive. A movie pitch does not get more basic than that. In the minimalism of its schema, Gravity resembles another recent critics’ favorite: All is Lost, the lost-at-sea drama starring Robert Redford and … nobody else. Like Gravity, the plot of the movie is so basic that it’s surprising an entire feature was squeezed out of it. Indeed, despite all the rave reviews, both movies have elicited audience grumbles that “nothing happens” over the course of the movie.
And yet, films like Gravity and All is Lost prove that defining movies by the stories or plots they depict is a fool’s errand. When watching Gravity, I was reminded once again that the experience of a movie is so much larger than the narrow confines of its plot. In the hands of a master like Cuaron, even the simplest story can become exhilarating.
On one hand, the success of the movie lies largely in its technique. Gravity is the rare effects-driven movie that still has the capacity to create a sense of awe and wonder. When I watch a massive CGI spectacle like The Avengers, I feel impressed in the short term but ultimately rather numbed. How many times can we see a city being annihilated before the effect loses its “special” quality? Gravity, though, is something different. The movie integrates its style with its subject, rather than having the effects serve as window dressing. With the camera gliding through space in long takes, and the 3D effects simulating floating objects and satellites, Cuaron creates the most genuinely immersive portrayal of space—not to mention the best argument for the 3D format—that I have ever seen on screen.
On a more fundamental level, though, the appeal of movies like Gravity goes far beyond technique. Oftentimes films with limited and focused plots prove to be, oddly enough, more engaging than narrative-driven movies. Rather than rushing through a checklist of plot points, movies with a singular focus allow viewers to breathe, to spend time with the characters and to explore variations on a theme. Think of Cast Away. Half of the movie is concerned with a man talking to a volleyball on a desert island. In some sense, “nothing happens,” but the movie’s patience and its willingness to spend time with its main character (not to mention Tom Hanks’ terrific lead performance) make the payoff incredibly affecting. I think the same is true of Gravity. Admittedly, the movie gets a little treacly toward the end, delivering its life-affirming message rather literally, but Sandra Bullock’s performance and Cuaron’s direction make it work. Having spent so much time with Bullock’s character—often taking on her subjective perspective in the movie’s most tense scenes—the audience becomes invested in her fate and feelings.
One of the paradoxes of Gravity is that it is at once a big film and a small one. It has its cake and eats it too. It’s an expensive blockbuster, of course, replete with innovative special effects and conceived on a massive scale. But it’s also, at its core, a small and intimate movie: lean and quick and focused, with few characters and a simple plot.
Perhaps Hollywood could take a cue or two from Cuaron. In an age full of sprawling comic book epics like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, and convoluted sci-fi films like Inception and Looper, here is a movie boiled down to its essentials. It’s a timely reminder of the virtues of simplicity in movies, and a reminder, too, that beneath the simplest concept there may be much more than meets the eye.