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Defying Gravity: Notes From a Dissenting View

Posted: 10/25/2013 1:11 pm

In Children of Men (2006), adapted by five screenwriters from a P. D. James novel and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the sociopolitical element of James's novel has been subordinated to the protagonist's progress from detachment to purpose. The entire film carries a blunted impact, because much of the story's context is blurred or has been dissolved away. At times it's hard to understand or even to believe what's going on around Clive Owen's character. At least he has a life history and relationships, and the challenge he adopts takes him through stages of development.

Children of Men represents a species of anti-realistic filmmaking in which people are abstracted from much of their world, leaving a presumed essence: someone facing the situation of the moment, which is often rendered virtuosically. In one unbroken sequence, a car in which the main characters are riding is attacked on a country road for no apparent reason except that, gosh, the world has become a bad place, and besides, something needs to happen to one of them for the sake of the plot. The scene is nearly pointless but also a true technical marvel.

In the current film Gravity, Cuarón has taken the process of abstraction much further. Here he works again with cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, from a script he wrote with Jonás Cuarón, his son.

The world has now literally been removed to the background, along with all but two specimens of humankind. The film transpires in orbit, with the great globe itself (to borrow from Prospero) not dissolved but put firmly in its place, as Cuarón seems to think, somewhere beneath us. The situation is simple but desperate: two astronauts, deprived of their shuttle-shelter, must find a new vehicle that can take them home. As in the road sequence of Children of Men, bad things happen; reasons are given, which appear to satisfy many viewers, but they're almost all scientifically dubious. The real reason for much of what happens is that Cuarón and Lubezki want a chance to show some tricks. They can make you believe that they do impossible things before breakfast. But their movie is little more than a kinetic thrill ride, the newest thing in an amusement park.


In Gravity, Sandra Bullock doesn't play a traditional action hero -- she doesn't wield a kick, a punch, a head-butt, a knife, a sword, a crossbow, or any form of firearm, for which I'm grateful -- but she gets knocked around a lot all the same. In fact, she and George Clooney are bounced about like balls in a pinball game. For much of the movie, these two capable and respected actors are reduced to the status of mere moving masses.

Gravity is only 91 minutes long but is so short on ideas that it keeps repeating itself. A cloud of orbiting malevolent debris keeps trying to kill our heroes. They keep jetting off to a new refuge and finding, so to speak, no room at the inn. Sandra Bullock keeps opening an airlock from the outside and being caught off guard by what happens. The film even shows us its title three separate times. Mostly, it keeps indulging in a mechanistic orgy of things, including people, getting flung around.

Imagine a scene set on an ice rink, with Sandra Bullock standing on the ice and holding the rail at the side of the rink. If George Clooney went whizzing by her and she managed to grab his tie, he'd come to a stop, right? You know that if you know anything about ice rinks, and you know that if she then released his tie he'd stay put. Now imagine a scene set in Earth orbit, in which Bullock is essentially attached to a space station, so she's stationary. When Clooney passes by, she grabs a tether that's attached to him. This is exactly how a scene in Gravity begins.

What happens next? Clooney comes to a halt, but the movie shows that some mysterious force keeps trying to pull him away. The zero-G environment is irrelevant (though the eminent Neil deGrasse Tyson implied otherwise); this wouldn't happen on an ice rink any more than it would happen in space. The mysterious force pulling on Clooney is only the screenwriters, who want to force a climactic decision on him. Many more absurdities having to do with physics and astronauts working in space occur in Gravity.

Beyond that, it has lightweight characters, flimsy plotting, and some clunky dialogue. What's to like?

In a way, it's naïve to complain about Gravity's scientific-technical cheats. But some remarkable works with which it might be compared -- for instance the novel Moby-Dick (there's a fine LA Review of Books essay here, though I disagree with it) and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey -- have told their astounding tales without abandoning realism. Yes, 2001 turns mystical at the end, but as long as it's operating in the known universe, it follows the rules of physics. Fact need not be opposed to enchantment.


Gravity is like a bad horror film crossed with a bad disaster film. It keeps throwing shocks and threats at its characters simply to keep things happening.

This film wouldn't exist without science and technology. Its making required them; the situation it shows -- people and machines in Earth orbit -- depends on them. Yet its story frequently violates science. This encapsulates an ongoing mystery of American life: our culture depends on the fruits of science and technology but disdains both and would rather believe in angels. Curiously, Gravity includes an angel (in a manner of speaking).

As far as I know, only a few people share my overall distaste for this film: the friend with whom I saw it -- we could be dismissed as crackpots -- and New Yorker critic Richard Brody, who cannot.

 

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