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Gravity debris

Gravity movie review – It’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey

Gravity debris
Gravity collision in outer space

Gravity fails to inspire

If you’re planning on seeing Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, you might want to read this review first. As most of you cinema fans know, the American movie industry is based largely on hype. In order to generate that hype, you have sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which amalgamates a bunch of national movie critic reviews to provide a percentage of what critics overall think of the movie.  It also includes fan reviews. But the emphasis is first placed on what the national movie critics think. Critics definitely influence the fate of movies and how well or poorly they will do at the box office. Movies that tank are often the butt of jokes and movie critics themselves get their share of the blame by producers who feel their film was never given a chance.

But back to Gravity. The visuals are, for the most part, spectacular on the big screen. I felt like I was floating in outer space and nauseous at the same time. Director Alfonso Cuaron certainly does his best to use technology as a means of capturing the story of our two beloved astronauts at the center of the picture, George Clooney (Lt. Kowalski) and Sandra Bullock (mission specialist Stone). George plays a cowboy’esque astronaut; he’s quick to raddle off tails of his escapades back on Earth to alleviate the boredom of his spacewalk. I can’t recall the last time an astronaut was ever bored in outer space. He comes across as a smart-ass. If I were an astronaut, I’d be insulted by Clooney’s performance.

Now I’m not sure what astronauts are like in outer space and I’d be very curious to hear recorded conversations between NASA headquarters and the astronauts in space to get an idea of just how chummy the communications are. But by any stretch of the imagination, Lt. Kowalski’s personality is a real turn-off. He’s the “know it all” so when the proverbial sh-t hits the fan, he’s the one that will lead the rescue of himself and Bullock. Well that’s not exactly how it goes and I won’t go into greater detail about how Bullock saves herself but the repartee between both characters had a false ring to it.

When astronauts travel to outer space together don’t they know a little bit about the background of each other? I’ve got to believe they do and yet we have Clooney peppering Bullock with questions about her family life back in Illinois when her oxygen levels are dropping precipitously. Why would Lt. Kowalski knowingly endanger Stone’s life by asking her more questions when she should be slowing down her breathing and not be talking at all?

Stone, as played by Bullock, is more realistic. She’s doing her best to not vomit while performing her duties nearly 400 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s nothing to dislike about Stone but then you keep asking yourself is there anything special about her? Not sure there is.  Bullock displays adequate relief and drama as things progressively worsen for her. But by the film’s conclusion, I was sort of like, thanks Hollywood, I know how this one is going to end.

In space no one can you hear vomit

At 372 miles above the Earth

There is nothing to carry sound

No air pressure

No oxygen

My expectations for Gravity had me thinking that I was going to be overwhelmed by the gigantic universe. And in a way I was but at the same time director Alfonso Cuaron performs the cardinal sin.  In outer space, there is no sound. No oxygen. There is silence. But throughout the entire movie, Cuaron actually plays sound. As if it was necessary? If any one of you reading this now ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will remember that the scenes taking place in outer space were DEVOID of any sound! It was creepy!

But in Gravity, we’ve got sound; we also have synthesizer music that tries to heighten the level of tension. It’s absolutely ruinous to the film’s drama. I’m not sure what prompted Cuaron to provide a soundtrack but this film would have been so much more memorable if there had been NONE. Imagine, you’re watching mission specialist Stone fighting to survive in outer space and all you can do is watch and you can’t hear a pin drop!

Much of Gravity is based upon a series of calamities. Things just get worse and worse for our astronauts once they have been notified by Mission control that a shower of debris is heading their way. We see in slow motion just how powerful the collisions are and I can’t imagine why visuals alone wouldn’t be sufficient to keep your attention. But Cuaron insists upon a soundtrack and suddenly we are taken away from outer space and brought back down to some studio somewhere on planet earth where a composer is fiddling around on some MacBook Pro figuring out what sounds can be made to fit the disaster on screen.

The casting of movie stars did little to enhance Gravity

Movie critics like Mick Lasalle of the San Francisco Chronicle couldn’t rave enough about the casting in Gravity. I’m not sure why they fell in love with the acting in this film. As previously mentioned, Clooney’s macho bit was obnoxious. Bullock did surprise me. I’ve never liked her voice or her acting. But she does an adequate job here. Not that the dialogue she’s given was believable in the slightest. Talk about family and children just seems trite even in outer space. Screenwriter Jonas Cuaron had to come up with something for our astronauts to say but I think he misses the boat. Bullock, when alone in her capsule, adequately expresses her fear of dying. In a funny moment, Clooney appears out of nowhere and we expect him to “save the day.” Alas, it’s only a dream. The thing is, did I really care if Bullock was going to make it or not? When you watch the ending of the film, you might actually have a good laugh instead of the catharsis you were hoping for.

I don’t think the casting of Clooney or Bullock was in anyway inspired.

Time to revisit 2001: A Space Odyssey

Back in 1968, no one was prepared for the “Space Odyssey” that Stanly Kubrick brought to the screen. In particular, the battle between HAL and astronaut Dave Bowman was scary and watching HAL kill off one of the astronauts was positively frightening. And guess what?  There is NO SOUND IN OUTER SPACE. Watch this clip to remind yourself of just how powerful a scene this was not only then but to this day. I can tell you that Gravity doesn’t even come close to matching the drama of this one scene alone.

Let’s do away with the Hollywood soundtrack and SOUND IN SPACE

When I read all of the ridiculous reviews praising this film’s grandeur and inspired casting, I’m reminded why it’s so beneficial to be a student of history. You can research and identify what films have come before that tackled similar subject matter. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a more honest attempt at capturing drama in outer space. Director Alfonso Cuaron missed the opportunity to create a dramatic film without the Hollywood varnish. He blew it. We not only get an artificial soundtrack but we know that Sandra Bullock will survive.

If you’re like me, you don’t go see movies to make you feel good. You go see films to be riveted, captivated, and drawn into something that makes you forget it’s only a movie. It’s a movie that doesn’t come rapped with a bow tie. I can’t say Hollywood makes too many of those. Films that make you forget they are films are an endangered species.

For those who go to the movies to simply turn off your brains than by all means go see Gravity and be enthralled by the large scale visuals of floating in outer space above planet Earth. But for those who see films to be both entertained AND engaged than you require just a bit more truth, profundity, and less Hollywood contrivance.  In particular, let’s do away with the Hollywood soundtrack. Let’s do away with the artificiality of soundtracks, meaning synthesizer-oriented sounds that are clearly added to height the drama, which a film, if it’s a great story to begin with, doesn’t need.  The human drama provides plenty of soundtrack until itself without the need for an artificial one.

Before Midnight: The truth hurts but authenticity trumps fantasy (spoiler alert)

Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke as Celine and Jesse
Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke as Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight

When I first heard about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the third film in his story about a romantic encounter between Celine and Jesse in Vienna, I couldn’t wait to see it. I distinctly recall when Before Sunrise first came out back in 1997. I was 28 and desperately wondering when I’d fall in love. Watching the film then, I couldn’t help but be delightfully impressed at the provocative banter between actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy. I recall just how refreshing it was to see a film that weighed heavily on the verbal exchanges between both characters to propel the story forward. If the dialogue failed to deliver so would the movie. The fantasy of just such an encounter was not new, however.

I traveled to Europe as a college student (having attended the University of Oslo) and most certainly entertained the idea of meeting a French (or in this case, Norwegian woman) and falling in love. Why not? My parents met in Caracas, Venezuela of all places at a party purely by chance. The encounter led to my Dad wooing my mother for more than a year and eventually she capitulated and they married in Paris. They later moved to San Francisco and started a family.  They are still married to this day; my father is 83 now.

Tracking the lives of two characters enveloped by chance

The magic behind this unique trilogy is the quality of the screenwriting. LinkLater has made it clear that in all three movies there is no improvisation between both actors. Ethan and Julie memorize the dialogue and act it out in as natural way as possible. While garrulous, the verbal play between both characters comes across so authentically that you’re wondering whether you’re watching a movie at all.  In Before Sunrise, Celine came across as a romantic cynic.  Jesse was more the idealist. The culmination of both character traits shine in Before Midnight. Celine, upon realizing the significance of Jesse’s pain in not being able to raise his son on a 24/7 basis, quickly takes a defensive position. She does not want to move back to the States for the sake of Jesse. All Jesse wants is to have a sane conversation about the idea, to express his regret, and if anything, receive some sympathy from Celine.

Celine’s insecurities about the choices she has made in her life play an important part in why both characters fight in the hotel room. Jesse complicated his life by falling in love with Celine. He divorced his first wife to start anew with Celine and finds himself a parent a second time around with twins no less.

When does love matter most?

Before Sunrise was a perfect little romance. Before Sunset saw the maturation of both characters, nine years later, and the realization for both of just how important they meant to each other.  Before Midnight captures the willingness of both characters to fight for a love none thought was originally possible. I don’t believe in miracles and I never thought the chance encounter between Jesse and Celine came across as one. But when does love matter most? Is it when you’ve made perfect love with your partner, somewhere in Greece? Or having kids and spending time with friends, cooking, drinking, and sharing meaningful conversation?  No. When love seems like it’s on the precipice of disappearing is exactly when it is time to take off the gloves and fight for it to come back.  Relationships are challenging. Toss in kids and you’ve got plenty of potential complications thrown into the mix. Divorce remains an ugly reality because couples just are not willing to make the sacrifices and/or compromises needed to forge a lifelong commitment towards one another.

Authenticity satisfies more than Hollywood endings

Before Midnight is a rare cinematic example of art reflecting back on life without the need for metaphor. It is authentic and perfectly suits a more jaded time; we live in a period in which the idea of romance remains an ideal but in practice is more effort than it’s worth. I’ve grown sick and tired of hollywood endings, and Before Midnight is a gratifying slap in the face to those movies that seek the fantasy route to satisfy their viewers. There is no bow tie in Before Midnight. It’s merely the realization that love is a fragile flower requiring an endless supply of affection, attention, understanding, and commitment. Something easy to agree with but more problematic when trying to apply.

The Before Midnight screenplay was a collaboration between LinkLater and the actors, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy. The script deserves an academy award.  Share with me your thoughts about this movie.