See, there’s a bit of a controversy surrounding the movie. Well, “controversy” is too strong of a word. What actually happened was more of a kerfuffle. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist (read: the only one anyone can name) tweeted a handful of times about some of the scientific errors in the film, and nerds got all butthurt. The errors in question were pretty minor to begin with, but I think what people really don’t get about this movie is that it’s not science fiction. Science fiction is speculative: it takes place in the future (usually) and deals with technology and shit that doesn’t exist (yet). Gravity is an action-adventure movie set in space. It’s less 2001 than Die Hard, more Jaws than Solaris. Visually, it is absolutely stunning, and believe me, if you haven’t seen it, you must rush right out and do so this instant because this is the sort of thing that needs to be seen on the big screen, preferably in IMAX and 3D.
What Neil DeGrasse Tyson meant to do was educate people about some of concepts that play a role in the movie, nothing more, nothing less. But he didn’t quite get there. There’s something rather grouchy about his tone, as if he can’t accept that Alfonso Cuarón’s movie could be worth seeing if it’s not as accurate as Kubrick’s. But that’s not fair. Reading comments on the internet (always a good idea), I discover that morons are angry about the fact that the astronaut’s visors are transparent when real astronaut’s visors are opaque (to protect them from ultraviolet light, I’m guessing). It’s a movie, you braindead parasites. Also, the idea that a satellite could explode, then take out a bunch of others in a chain reaction is not impossible, but rather implausible. It’s. A. Movie. Also, it’s very difficult to steer yourself in zero-g using nothing but a fire extinguisher. Have the normally-astute imbeciles at Red Letter Media forgotten what a fucking movie looks like? I could rant about this all day.
I think the real problem here is that people went in expecting something other than what they got. Mike (from RLM), to his credit, owns up to that, but I still think that most of his criticisms are patently absurd. So what if the film stars two A-listers rather than a pair of unknowns? Have you ever heard of suspension of disbelief? It’s possible that the studio forced Cuarón to cast them and give Bullock’s character a more emotional backstory, but if so, good on them. Gravity is more accessible than Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien, as suggested by the film’s exceptional performance at the box office. I really don’t see the problem with a filmmaker deciding to set a movie in space but not make it as heady or cerebral as some of the sci-fi classics out there. My favorite thing about Gravity is its emotional pull. Watching it, I found myself wondering what I would do in that situation, and before too long, I had forgotten that I was watching movie star Sandra Bullock entirely. (Clooney is a little bit more Clooneyesque, but SPOILER he doesn’t stick around for long.)
Gravity is not about the birth of civilization or mankind’s urge to explore the universe. It’s more character-driven (something that could not be said about 2001). The dialogue is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, but then again, they had only 90 minutes in which to tell their story, and the events of the film practically unfold in real time. When people find themselves in a dangerous situation where survival is uncertain and they have to improvise solutions, they open up. They try to understand why they are here and have some agency in their own fate, even if they don’t make it. They don’t want their last words to be something pointless and inane.
Watching Gravity, I found myself thinking back on (what else?) my year in grad school. I know that feeling of being untethered, of being adrift in an environment in which you’re not quite sure you belong, much less if your presence is anything more than a hindrance to others. Bullock’s character, over the course of the movie, learns to believe in herself. She learns to take risks and make sacrifices in order to fight for what’s really important. It’s not the most thematically rich film ever made, but why does it need to be? It’s a brainy thriller with a real heart, and on that count, it almost couldn’t be better.
Pauline Kael famously said, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” She’s right, but what’s crucial about that quote is that neither art nor trash is inherently superior. We need In N Out Burger just as much as Four Seasons, and if you think you’re failing to live up to your full potential by enjoying the occasional cheeseburger, that’s your problem and no one else’s. Spielberg gets criticized a lot for being “too Hollywood” or “too commercial”, but all I hear in that argument is the utterly ludicrous implication that anything that can be enjoyed by the unwashed masses can’t be great art. Yes, it can. 2001 is not objectively superior to Jaws. They are both great films, albeit with very different approaches and goals. People went to Gravity expecting the former and they got the latter. Tough.