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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (3/28/14) 3:09am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Moving the media updates to Thursday, to even out my weekly schedule a bit.]

Movies:   Gravity [spoilers]
TV:  <none>
Books:  <none>

Gravity [spoilers]
This is Alfonso Cuarón's 2013 feature about an orbital space-shuttle accident, and the survivors' desperate attempt to get home.

Okay, I get it.  I need to watch everything Cuarón has ever done.  With this, and Children of Men, and the third Harry Potter film, Cuarón is damn near unmatched in putting a viewer into a new and strange world.  In every other Harry Potter movie, I thought that a team of people had done lovely work creating Hogwarts for us.  In Azkaban, I felt like Cuarón had just hired a Hogwarts-ian film crew.  His worlds feel convincing, and old, and lived-in.  And he shoots in a style that, again, feels like the film crew is *from* there.  Cuarón doesn't let a shot linger on a chocolate frog.  Why would he?  It's just a chocolate frog, and, in this world, those are commonplace.  With Chris Columbus, the shot says, "Oh!  Hey!  Look!  Look at this!  A CHOCOLATE FROG!  Isn't it amazing?  Isn't it magical?"

It's a strange zen thing.  Since Cuarón doesn't overtly pay attention to world-building, it feels more convincing.  It's just there.  It's just how the world works.

All this is a long-winded way of getting around to Gravity, which feels like the answer to every space nerd's prayer: "Space is cool *as is*.  Why not make a movie about *that*?  Why do they have to keep showing us 'fake space'?"

We all know fake space.  It's sci-fi space.  It's the space that transmits sound.  It's the space in which you can go faster than the speed of light.  And it's the space that isn't relentlessly, mercilessly trying to kill you.

Don't get me wrong -- it makes perfect *sense* that all our movies have been in fake space.  For one thing, humankind has almost no experience with real space.  How many human beings alive today have been in space?  A hundred?  Maybe?  Movies reflect our experiences, and if space is absolutely foreign to our experience, we're not going to set movies there.

And even if space travel were common, it would take a while for movies -- and for storytelling itself -- to readjust and catch up to the technology.  We're always remaking the movies of yesteryear, and trying to use the old tools of cinema to tell new stories.  Hell, we've had smartphones for a decade or so, right?  And for the longest time, we treated them, cinematically, like you'd treat any other handheld object, like a lighter: show a person pulling out the object, cut to an insert shot of the object, show the object long enough so that the audience knows what they're looking at, cut back to the previous shot.  And that's just stupid for smartphones, which are a new thing that needs to be treated differently.  The little floating captions in 3D space that Sherlock pioneered are working nicely.

And this is to say nothing of screenwriting.  Years ago, countless stories would create dramatic irony by making character A know something that character B needs to know, but arg! there's just no way for them to communicate!  (With cell phones, the end of Romeo & Juliet could have gone quite differently.)  As screenwriters grappled with the introduction of cell phones, "oh, we can't get cell-phone coverage here" became a common trope, just so the writers could rehash old story techniques, the ones that would unravel if you introduced universal handheld communicators.  It's only now that we're starting to see storylines move away from "oh noez, I can't talk to Bob because I'm in the office and he's in the parking lot."

So of course (say) Star Wars isn't going to take place in real space.  The audience knows bugger-all about real space.  The screenwriters have no experience building stories around real space.  Instead, we'll just ignore that, tell stories based on old, well-honed techniques, and everybody -- writers, viewers, George Lucas -- will be happy.  We see a "space battle", and it's basically a World-War-II dogfight.  And that's *fine*.

But that meant it was a happy surprise to see somebody make a movie in real space, and a further surprise to see it connect with audiences.  Yes, Neal DeGrasse Tyson has found a number of glaring astrophysical errors in the film, but to yokels like me, Gravity rings true.  Yes, if you use a fire extinguisher in zero gravity, the recoil will slam you back against the wall, because physics.

And space is basically the most unforgiving video game this side of VVVVVV.  You jumped towards the station, but missed it by a foot?  You're floating off into space.  You're dead.  Your suit sprang a leak?  You ran out of oxygen.  You're dead.  You didn't prep your ship for re-entering earth's atmosphere?  You burned up.  You're dead.

And so on.  I shudder to think of what the spacefaring version of The Oregon Trail would be like.[1]

And I loved how simple and focused this movie is.  The whole story hinges on one simple objective: get home alive.  The adversity is simple: space is constantly, relentlessly trying to kill you.  Yes, there's an emotional story in there about Ryan Stone finding some renewed passion for life after being destroyed by her daughter's death, and that's fine, but if you asked me "what is Gravity *really* about?" I wouldn't say, "it's about a mother working through the grieving process."  I'd say something more like "space shuttle go boom oh crap oh crap oh crap".

With everything geared towards that one objective, and with Cuarón making space absolutely convincing and absolutely terrifying, the film can concentrate on making things as bad as possible for Stone.  The shuttle gets torn to shreds.  The Soyuz catches fire.  Stone has to read a landing instrument panel that's in Chinese.  That's a hell of a bad day, and a relentless nail-biter.  Bullock does great with the task, leaving me a little sad that she's spent so much of her career playing action-movie love interests and rom-com plucky heroines.  (That's the tragedy of all big-name movie actresses, I guess.)

I loved watching a movie that was so unequivocally a *movie*.  Often, even with tentpole action movies, I feel like I'm watching a movie that wishes it were a TV show.  The film will set up multiple storylines, and broad casts of characters, and pull in elements of comedies, and action thrillers, and love stories, and mysteries.  And there's a place for that, and sometimes it produces amazing results.  (I'll never watch an Altman film and wish it were simpler.)  But sometimes it feels like these movies are just afraid of simplicity, and cater desperately to so many demographics, that they wind up bloaty and underwhelming.  How refreshing to see a film that's just a simple, straight shot.  It picks one thing, does that well, and hits all the traditional plot beats that a well-made movie is 'supposed' to hit.

It's my favorite movie I've seen in some time.

Currently finally getting around to Inglourious Basterds.  I'm still catching up on podcasts, but eventually I'll start on The Better Angels of Our Nature.

[1] "You have died of: EVERYTHING"

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