‘Gravity’ and the Past and Present of Cinema

By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)

Gravity pic

They say, that there was once a time in America when nothing was comparable to going to the movies. The cinema was a magical place that could take you on an adventurous thrill ride, transport you to a new world and stir your imagination in ways beyond your wildest dreams. The movies were the pinnacle of the entertainment industry, and an unimpeachable hallmark of American life. This supposed halcyon era was before my time, but I’ve seen Hugo before; I get the idea. Technological advances boosted profitability and Hollywood collectively turned its attention towards profitable brands, movie franchises and toy merchandising, while leaving behind good ole fashioned movie magic.

That narrative is, of course, simplistic and over-dramatic, but not entirely untrue. Coming off a summer of mostly bland, city-destroying and snooze-worthy blockbusters, it isn’t too hard to get cynical about the state of movies. Now, I’m not going to decry technology, because that’s absurd and fundamentally regressive; however, I will say that I’ve been jonesing for something different. On that note, I am happy to report that Alfonso Caurón’s Gravity is not only exactly what we’ve been waiting for, but also the best moviegoing experience of the year.

It is easy, and at first glance, logical to attribute movies’ problems to the people behind them. You know, the directors who are obsessed with making everything as grandiose and bombastic as possible, the one-note actors who are more concerned with making paychecks than art, the writers who have run out of original ideas and the studio execs who clamor for unimaginative, but commercial sequels. But to see reality, you have to expand your scope a little bit; there are outside factors at play. Television has caught up, and in numerous cases, surpassed movies in terms of storytelling. State-of-the-art home entertainment systems, Video-On Demand and Netflix have made it more convenient to view movies from the comfort of your own home. The Internet has been a thing that regularly consumes ungodly amounts of people’s times for quite a while now. And yes, Hollywood has dangerously fallen under the influence of formulaic screenwriting, largely thanks to godforsaken Save the Cat! So, to recap, moviegoing has become less enticing because there’s been a decline in quality in popular movies, because there are more entertainment options in the world, and lastly, because there simply isn’t as much of an incentive to physically go see a movie anymore.

Gravity is a fantastic and thrilling film in its own right, but what makes it an incredible achievement is that it manages to expertly skate around every major issue facing Hollywood right now. It beautifully marries the movie magic feeling of yesteryear with the technology of today, while using computer-generated images to their full potential. Better yet, though, it is the rare film that demands to be seen in theaters in order to be fully appreciated. The three-dimensional solar system surrounding the two main characters – and you, as you sit on the edge of your seat – are absolutely spectacular in the truest sense of the word. As I sat enthralled and enchanted by the visually stunning images, I wondered if that was what it felt like to watch Jurassic Park in theaters twenty years ago, or the original Superman in 1978, or Star Wars the year before that. It was one of the most visually impressive things I’ve ever seen. I was blown away from the very first image of the movie – a picturesque view of the Earth from space that develops into a striking long shot, revealing a tiny space ship off in the distance.

But thankfully, the merits of Gravity aren’t limited to visual appeal. Against all likelihood, Gravity somehow manages to be a remarkably multifaceted film. The vast majority of the movie consists of the trials and tribulations of just two characters as they try to do the impossible: survive space. The plot is as delightfully simple as any in recent memory. A small team of astronauts is nearing the conclusion of a routine space shuttle mission. The commander is affable veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is chatting up a storm, taking a victory lap as he reminisces during his final expedition. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the mission specialist and newcomer, nervously doing the best she can, while battling space sickness. The voice of Ed Harris, appropriately, is Mission Control from Houston, who calmly directs the team and puts up with Matt’s well-earned yammering, until he detects a flurry of debris from a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite coming their way. He orders the team to abort the mission, but it is too late. The debris strikes furiously and indifferently, severing the astronauts’ communication with Houston and leaving Stone and Kowalski stranded from their shuttle. From there, the two of them have to fight the cosmos as Murphy’s Law swings into full effect.

It is then that the flip side of tranquility and solitude of space reveals itself. In an instant, everything that was beautiful becomes terrifying. One of the most affecting (and coolest!) aspects of the film is the way that it alternates perspectives as the action transpires. However, I don’t mean between the two characters; Caurón does something more unique than that. He employs a first person view, accompanied by a menacing score during the most dramatic moments, but then he conspicuously switches to an objective perspective, which utilizes dead silence to accentuate the indifference of space.  There is no sound in space and the intermittent reminders are more chilling and even more foreboding than the most droning Inception noise.

Although the film contains elements of both science fiction and horror, at its heart, Gravity is a drama. Yes, it’s high minded and technological (even if some of the science has been disputed by actual scientists; party poopers if you ask me) and tensely terrifying, but what elevates it above standard survival stories are the characters and the actors playing them. George Clooney is ultra-smooth as the perpetually poised expert opposite of Sandra Bullock’s portrait of panic. It is Bullock, though, who has the higher degree of difficulty. Her Ryan Stone has to deal with the pains of her past, along with the impossibility of her present.

The title of the film is both ironic and fitting, because even though there’s no gravity in space, there does seem to be an uncontrollable natural force conspiring to bring them down. It is quite literally them versus the universe. They are forced to dig deep inside themselves to find the will to continue living. And let me tell you: it is well worth pausing your Netflix, getting off Twitter, leaving your home entertainment center and going to the cinema to watch them try.

In 2013, there may not be such thing as “movie magic” anymore, but that’s okay. This is just as good.

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday. 

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