NOTE: This post (originally titled “Dr. Stone and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Space Walk”) contains three things — my original review of Gravity; links and excerpts from a few other reviewers whose write-ups resonated with me; and my response (published a few days later) to the wave of complaints and protests that came in response to my review. It turns out that if you dislike this movie and say so, you’ll infuriate a lot of people.

First… the review itself.

A Worrying Trend in Special Effects

Whenever the movie industry achieves a major advance in special effects, movie screens are soon alive with blockbusters that demonstrate the new wizardry of those effects. And moviegoers emerge bug-eyed, astonished, perhaps even speechless. Some herald these blockbusters as major events in cinema history.

And once in a while, these groundbreaking spectacles are directed by someone other than James Cameron.

But maybe you’ve noticed an unfortunate commonality in these game-changing “event” films. I have. It seems to me that almost all movies that boast a new world of special effects end up employing those effects to produce wild displays of massive destruction. Like kids with their first chemistry sets, impulsive filmmakers rush to see who can set off the biggest explosion. “Hang on,” says the egomaniacal director, “because I am gonna blow shit up in ways you’ve never, ever seen before. I’ll blow your mind so powerfully, you’ll watch this violence again and again — even in slow motion — to track every piece of wreckage. I’m gonna make you say, ‘Wow, how did he do that?!’

This sets in motion a chain reaction, with competitive and unimaginative artists lining up to produce an ongoing variation of the same thing.

And thus, sadly, we rarely learn what other kinds of wonders might be possible with that chemistry set.

We can make dinosaurs come to life? We need a long line of movies showing them destroying everything in sight. (What else were dinosaurs good for, really?) We can make a photo-realistic, big-screen representation of a cruise ship? Let’s design the Titanic and then astonish people with its spectacular destruction! You know what that means? We can start blowing up national landmarks on screen in one movie after another, with alien invasions and terrorist attacks. We can show a tsunami destroying New York City? Let’s find some screenwriters who will give us an excuse to do it. Now that we can make it happen, let’s have a Star Trek starship crash into downtown and call it an allegory of 9/11. Now that we can make it happen, let’s have Superman fight Zod in a way that wipes out a major metropolitan area.

Like a beach populated by giddy six-year-olds, the big screen becomes foundation where smash-happy sand-castle builders assemble mediocre structures for the sole purpose of knocking them down.

And moviegoers — numbed by the relentless sensations of constant media on their phones, iPads, and TVs — line up for something bigger and louder just so they can feel a little something again.

It’s the impulse that led Peter Jackson to cut essential scenes from Tolkien’s Middle-earth narrative in order to leave room for seemingly endless sequences of elaborate warmaking. It led the filmmakers responsible for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to turn a page-and-a-half stretch of C.S. Lewis’s children’s storybook into 20+ minutes of battlefield hysteria, while cutting key conversations.

Once in a rare while, an innovative filmmaker will employ a brave new world of special effects in a way that unleashes beauty instead of chaos, that inspires joy and gratitude instead of demanding we cower in traumatized submission. Whether or not you liked Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, you’re unlikely to deny that the special effects in that film were not engineered to emphasize Holy Crap Destruction, but breathtaking creation and transformation. We felt as if we were there, hovering with angels in the cosmos, watching worlds come into being.

I also think back fondly to Jim Henson’s dark, strange fantasy The Dark Crystal, which spent equal amounts of time cultivating beautifully mystical environments and nightmarish caverns full of monsters. That film had some terrifying violence, all the more effective for its brevity. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain understood the mysterious power of visual beauty in the development of suspense and horror. And James Cameron’s Avatar had some sense of this. Even though I was disappointed in that movie for how it ultimately slumped into storytelling cliches and predictable patterns, I admired how Cameron took the time to develop a rather beautiful world to explore… for a while.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying every movie should be a meditative journey through beautiful pictures.

I’m just saying that I’ve lost my taste for destruction derbies, for films in which the sensory assault overwhelms the rest of the experience.

Holy Crap Destruction films make me feel like I’m swimming upstream through hurtling debris in hopes of arriving at something meaningful. And if what I do find there seems like Symbolism 101, or a sentimental pop sermon (“Be all that you can be!” “Follow your heart!” “You can do it, little camper! Dig deep!”), I have a hard time feeling grateful for the experience.

It is with all of this in mind that I walked out of the theater after seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity.

Cuarón’s Destruction Derby

Sure enough, almost everyone is raving about Gravity as one of the great leaps forward in filmmaking. Almost everyone is praising it as a must-see film, as a “You Won’t Believe Your Eyes” experience. And some are describing it as an enthralling trip into outer space. Friends of mine who are fascinated by the science of space travel and the allure of the cosmos headed out on opening day — which they rarely ever do for a movie

I shared their childlike eagerness. I love the idea of a movie that gives me a powerful new apprehension of what it’s like to spacewalk in zero gravity, suspended between the earth and the stars.

And I expected nothing less than a spellbinding experience from the director of Children of Men (my favorite film of 2006) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (far and away my favorite film of that franchise).

But after I emerged from Gravity like everyone else — dizzy, exhausted, blown away — I quickly realized that I was not only dissatisfied but deeply disturbed by the experience.

And thus, I find myself in the extreme minority.

I don’t like being there, but I require honesty of myself, so here I am, working through thoughts and feelings that surprise me.

Gravity lost me about 15 minutes in. The opening minutes — which displays three astronauts at work during a beautiful but precarious “spacewalk” — were awe-inspiring. My mind reeled with the possibilities that were opening up.

But then came the initial crisis, and I quickly began to worry that this film’s vast realm of possibility was going to narrow into a predictable marathon of disasters, a methodical chain reaction of explosions and malfunctions and crises, while human beings race against countdowns to fix things and improvise their survival. Having experienced so many sequences like this, I began settling in merely to endure it. My suspension of disbelief got caught by the gravity of unimaginative storytelling, and crashed hard on its brutal surface.

Am I saying that such catastrophic events are impossible? No, of course not. I believe that some of these things could definitely happen in space. Similarly, I believe that someone might get on a plane someday and set loose a dozens of poisonous snakes.

It takes more than possibility to draw me into a movie, make me care about its characters, and make me believe in what I’m seeing.

This isn’t a movie about what it’s like in space 99.99999999% of the time. It is, instead, a relentless simulation of a Worst-Space Scenario, in which just about everything that can go wrong does. Gravity is basically Sandra Bullock and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Space Walk.

In short: Three space-walkers get caught in the blast wave of an explosion, and two of them end up enduring wave after wave of subsequent calamities as they venture through space trying to find some kind of contraption that can return them safely home. She’s scared and struggling, he’s confident and charismatic, and the rest is sound and fury.

I didn’t give up. As the rollercoaster ride accelerated into increasingly vertiginous dives, increasingly cacophonous noise, and increasingly elaborate images, I kept looking for something that might capture my imagination, something that would make the whole more than the sum of its sharp-edged, high-speed parts.

What I found seemed simplistic, sentimental, familiar, and undercooked.

This is the kind of movie that names its lead character “Dr. Stone” because, well, that just underlines the fact that she’s likely to fall to plunge back down to the earth’s surface. This is the kind of movie that makes its main character instantly sympathetic by giving her a “My baby died!” personal crisis, instead of, well, character traits and personality and real history. (And this, of course, underlines the already obvious umbilical cord imagery of tethered astronauts curling into fetal positions.)

Don’t get me wrong — none of this is the fault of the cast. George Clooney does what George Clooney does well in this film — he plays a guy who’s cocky, charming, and able to win over even the most stubborn female character to make her wiser and stronger. (Watching him, I thought back fondly on films that seemed more worthy of his sandpapery voice — like Out of Sight, in which he brilliantly sweet-talks Jennifer Lopez in the trunk of a car.)

Watching Sandra Bullock, I became nostalgic about her greatest asset — her sense of humor. (Her performances in the underrated Bogdanavich film The Thing Called Love and in Speed remain my favorites of her career.) As she solemnly submits to the demands of a Basic Woman-in-Distress template, a character no more complex than today’s video game avatars, she gives an impressively acrobatic performance. Her character’s journey from “solitary and numb” to “trial by fire” to “fetal position” to “surrender” and “rebirth” suggests promising possibilities for character development. But I never for a moment thought about anybody but Bullock herself as I watched her.

Art’s power is in its suggestiveness. Outside of an outline that could have been scribbled on one page of a legal pad, with darkly underlined points like “SPIRITUAL SUBTEXT” and “VISUAL METAPHOR”, Gravity doesn’t offer us much in the way of narrative or poetry. Compared to this undercooked script, Jurassic Park is a drama of Shakespearean dimensions, Contact was a film of timeless theological significance, and Cast Away was a Cormac McCarthy-esque masterpiece.

Oh, no, I get it. As a special effects demonstration reel, Gravity‘s first-rate.

Like the CGI that dazzled us in Titanic, The Return of the King, Sunshine, and King KongGravity is… well… bigger and busier. It’s somewhat distinct in the way its digital trickery delivers the illusion of “long takes,” but how do you assess a long take if most of what you’re seeing was produced on computers? (As a friend said, that’s like congratulating Pixar for a “long take.”) Like most digital animation breakthroughs, what we’re seeing is merely a matter of more, not really anything terribly new. The aspect of the film that impressed me most was the way they created a sense of weightlessness (we’ll come back to that word) by suspending Bullock on strings and turning her about in mid-air. So yes — hooray for CGI and actors suspended on strings! It’s true that the digital animators and and the extraordinary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have integrated actors and animation almost seamlessly.

But…

…the movie undercuts its own visual achievement by using pauses only as opportunities to set us up for the next excruciating cataclysm. In music, rests serve far greater purposes than merely allowing us to draw breath before the next searing, bone-jarring blast of Beethoven force. That fact seems to have escaped these “composers.” Frankly, I felt more suspense, awe, and terror in that quiet, dream-like opening scene then I did in anything after it, when everything started blowing up all the time.

And speaking of music — I found myself wishing I could just drift away from all of this trouble, if only to float out of range of one of the most overbearing, merciless soundtracks I’ve ever endured. It turns out to be true: In space, nobody can hear you scream… because of Steven Price’s deafening “musical” score.

Yes, the filmmakers seem to take an admirable risk by forgoing the impossible sound effects of most space-travel movies… but then, as if they’re deeply unnerved by the silence (as they should be), they fill it up with searing noise. Once they’ve enthralled us with their realistic CGI, all the filmmakers can think to do for the audience is put them through the cinematic equivalent of waterboarding in order to show off their power to make us feel. We’re bludgeoned with spectacle and severity, as if Cuarón and Company are mad amusement park ride operators. Occasionally, they tease us with something like a human moment, a gasp of something like “Nobody ever taught me how to pray!”, or maybe a 3-D teardrop comin’ right at ya, only to deprive us of oxygen again and hold us under the next punishing rush of deadly metal shrapnel.

Praising Gravity for its spiritual undercurrent feels to me a little like praising Playboy for its book reviews. This a plate filled with the Wow-Factor of Kaboom, with a garnish of goodness — a meal that feeds appetites we might do well to question.

As Flannery O’Connor said, if an artist’s attention “is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

I’m not condemning the movie as worthless. I’m not saying it needs to match the surreality or poetic ambiguity of 2001 or Stalker or even The Fountain. I’m just saying that I found it disappointing because I can see so many richer movies within the filmmakers’ reach.

Clearly, this film exists in a different genre than anything by Terrence Malick, and that’s fine… but I found myself longing for one minute of the kind of awe that I felt during any 30-second stretch of The Tree of Life‘s creation sequences. If we’d sailed off into visions like those, it would have been bleak, but it might also have been haunting and beautiful.

Where is Alfonso Cuarón, who brought such enthralling magic to A Little Princess, such mood and nuance and character development to what could have been a routine Harry Potter episode, such complexity and literary skill and ambiguity to Y Tu Mama Tambien, such interesting characters and social commentary to Children of Men?

And it’s just so amusingly predictable that the well-toned female astronaut will spend much of the movie floating around in her girl-power underwear. Call it a tribute to Alien, a film full of heavier ideas than this one, if you must. All I could do was wonder: What if the lead character had been a man? Would the filmmakers have been willing to shoot Forrest Whitaker, or William H. Macy, or Liam Neeson as they swim around zero-gravity lakes in their undies?

Speaking of predictable — the filmmakers are quick to pin blame all of this catastrophe on Russians, because what else are Russians good for but threatening the world? (Oh, yeah… vodka! Don’t worry — this movie makes them responsible for that, too.)

Others will go on and on comparing Gravity to groundbreaking works of art like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but… really? Yes, this movie takes place in space. With astronauts. And space stations. But the similarities stop there. Kubrick’s classic got all of my senses, my imagination, and my mind roaring to life. Gravity made me long for even one character as interesting as Hal 9000.

Since I realize my experience with this film is going to be one of the only negative-ratings on the charts — and believe me, I make a habit of avoiding Armond White-style contrarianism — for good measure I’ll send you over to the review by my closest moviegoing friend and colleague, Steven Greydanus. He’s very impressed with Gravity. He applauds the film’s dazzling, persuasive physicality, its convincing sense of weightlessness. And so do I. I won’t disagree that Gravity‘s quite an achievement there.

It’s just that my interest in that kind of achievement doesn’t hold for long anymore, because I’ve experienced so many better fusions of effects and poetry, effects and narrative, effects and art. And if the hook is “You won’t believe the latest innovation in IMAX-sized destruction,” count me out.

Once again, an artist of formidable powers has had an opportunity to use those powers to fill the big-screen with wonder, beauty, and mystery. Once again, he’s been given the privilege of a worldwide audience eager to go where no audience has gone before, to see new things, to think new thoughts. He has the power to give us a simulated orbit of the earth, and what does he do? With the imaginative impulse of a 5-year-old, he subjects us to 90 minutes of everything exploding.

And sadly, many will be grateful merely to have felt the stress of it — to have felt anything at all, at the movies, for a change.

What that suggests about moviegoers may be the most troubling thing of all.

There is treatment available for people who seek out violent experiences in order to feel alive. But what’s the first important step in that treatment? Realizing that yes, Houston, we have a problem.

In the last couple of months, I’ve seen three movies in which two human beings walk alongside each other, engage in human conversations and relationship, and look about at ordinary things. And I’ve seen one set in outer space in which characters struggle through life-and-death calamity. I’m not saying every movie needs to be a philosophical debate directed by Richard Linklater. But of those four films, which three do you think will stay with me? Which three gave me characters I can’t wait to revisit? Which three will remain, by far, the most meaningful part of my moviegoing experience? Those three low-budget earthbound productions were the movies that really showed me something new and mysterious, that took me where no movies had gone before.

Imagine what those screenwriters and directors would have done with a scenario like this. They might have revealed the real gravity of the situation.

A Few More “Minority Opinions”

I’m apparently not alone out here in space.

I’m grateful to have found a few others touching on some of the questions I’ve been asking. Here are a few…

Richard Brody of The New Yorker (one of my favorite film critics):

It’s hard to recall a movie that’s as viscerally thrilling and as deadly boring as “Gravity,” a colossal and impressive exertion of brain power aimed at overriding—at obviating—the use of brain power. Seeing the movie in 3-D and close to the screen (as I did) delivers the sensation of jetting about in a space walk, and then, when catastrophe strikes, of floating untethered in space, with a breathtaking immediacy. The free-floating camera is a glorious trick; when satellite debris blasted toward the camera, I ducked.

But the movie involves a far more menacing emptiness than the physical void of outer space: the absence of ideas. . . .

Calum Marsh at The L Magazine:

And so it is that Gravity motors on, stopping on occasion to unload an embarrassing bit of half-baked backstory or to ponder mortality with the air of a college-aged stoner. Cuaron, to his credit, seems dimly aware that his dialogue is laughable (the film opens with a “Macarena” joke!), and so he soon conspires to jam inter-astronaut communications to better focus on the much-discussed contemplative silence of space. But even here he fails himself: Steven Price’s bleating, obnoxious score drowns out the natural sounds of nothing at all. It’s just more of the same old spectacle, precision-calibrated for audience appeal. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Gravity facilitates such praise. It’s been constructed as a vehicle for enthusiasm, tailor-made for gobsmacked and unthinking awe before its glitzy high-tech wonders.

Ken Morefield at 1 More Film Blog:

As a technical achievement, I give the film full props. There are individual shots that are stunning, and scenes of visceral intensity to match any thriller white knuckle for white knuckle. I submit to the bravado of the long take.  Even in a scene like the first where I felt as though my attention was being drawn to the formal elements (like the long take) in a way that felt too self-conscious–and hence said “gimmick” rather than “innovation”–I still felt awed by the technical achievement. [A good comparison might be toLes Miserables, where something new–the live singing–was done, but the film drew so much attention to the fact that it was done that way that it threatened to overpower other parts of the film.]

But I grow weary of intensity for intensity’s sake. I would much prefer that special effects help create and sustain the illusion of a story that draws me in. …  There were plenty of places in Gravity where I said, “I wonder how they shot that?” or “I wonder how strenuous a shoot it was for Sandra Bullock.” At no point, even in an early point-of-view shot did I say something like, “Poor Dr. Stone, that must be unimaginably terrifying.” For such a tense, dread-filled film, most of the emotional responses were engineered through music, jump-cuts, money shots; very few were arrived at organically. It was a drama with a thriller’s sensibilities.

[October 17 UPDATE: A review of the reviewers who reviewed my review.]

“Self-indulgent.”

“Self-important.”

“Bad… just bad.”

The reviews are in. No… not the reviews of Gravity. The reviews of my review of Gravity.

Funny thing, though. When I posted the review, I included all kinds of disclaimers.

Some complained that my review strayed from its subject. And yet, I made it clear in the opening paragraph that this was a blog post about more than just Gravity. It was about a trend in big-budget special effects movies.

Some called me a “hater.” I gave this movie a “C” on Rotten Tomatoes — which is a long way from “hating.” Those who actually read my review will find that I’m impressed by several aspects of this movie.

Some called me “self-important” and “an elitist.” What kind of elitist repeatedly admits that he’s just one moviegoer, describing his experience, and gives credit to others who have a different opinion? Hey, I even linked to a review by a colleague who disagrees with me.

Some criticized me for “judging” this film before I saw it. I can’t imagine why I would have done that, as I am a fan of this director, and have eagerly anticipated this movie for a long time.

Some assumed I object to the film’s “scientific implausibility.” Nope. I don’t expect scientific plausibility of science fiction films. I do, however, value “the suspension of disbelief.” This film only suspended my disbelief for about 15-20 minutes.

One guy — seems like there’s always one — told me that I shouldn’t criticize a movie unless I have the ability to make a better movie than the one I’m reviewing. Which is like saying that nobody should point out a worm in an apple unless he can grow a perfect apple himself.

Some complained that my review was too long. Hey, complaining that an Overstreet blog post is long is like complaining that a large pizza is large. If I were writing for a magazine… or Twitter… I’d be concise. This is my blog, which I often treat like a notebook, scribbling down long-winded first impressions. I’ve been doing that here for more than a decade, and I don’t remember anybody complaining before. Writing is a way of thinking for me — I find out what I think by writing. Readers have no obligation to come with me, and I’m not offended if they move on. Those who do pay attention — I’m grateful for their patience and their company.

Some complained that my experience of the movie was different than theirs. Others went further, condemning me and machine-gunning me with insults. Reading those blast-waves of messages felt like… well, it felt like watching Gravity again. I felt like an astronaut trying to find a refuge from a constant hail of deadly shrapnel.

As a result of that… comments on this review are now closed.

Thanks to all of you who agreed, or disagreed, respectfully. I appreciated and enjoyed your contributions. But, due to the relentless work of many intolerant accusers, I’m not willing to host a conversation on this film anymore. Not now, anyway.

I’m currently traveling — teaching and speaking at a couple of schools in Georgia and Tennessee. I’ve met moveigoers here who agreed with me about Gravity. I also met some who respectfully disagreed. Together we’ve marveled and laughed about the bruising I’ve taken for my review. Several of them have asked me to re-post my thoughts. (I removed it for a while, just for a break in the trouble.) In gratitude to them, I’ve agreed.

You’re invited, but not obligated, to read it and think it over. Perhaps we can discuss it someday. But please understand that, for now, I’m ready to move on to other subjects.

I do owe all of those Angry Torch-Wielding Readers one note of thanks: They’ve brought my blog more traffic than it has had in years. They’ve inspired me to focus even more energy on challenging popular opinions about movies, and teasing readers into more thorough conversation and contemplation.

Thanks for bearing with me through this unfortunate, but necessary, update.

One more thing: Let’s all revisit my blog’s foundational article — “Mystery and Message,” by Michael Demkowicz — reflect on what we talk about when we talk about art, clean the slate, and start over.

 

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