Did You Put Some Underwear On?


Gravity (2013)
A Review By Ben Hunter
3½ Out Of 5 Stars
October 4, 2013

“GET TO THE POINT BEN!”

The visual effects and cinematography are down right AMAZING!  But it becomes smoke and mirrors that mask a not so amazingly written story.  The film lacks character development; particularly with the lead character that we follow, alone, for the majority of the story and can’t get behind to root for and truly engage with what could’ve been an incredible journey.  Instead it’s a decent and okay one.  Even bringing out thematic elements to visually convey the messages of the film only goes so far.  A weak story is a weak story, making those thematic elements add more to the smoke and mirror effect more so than the adding on to/making greatness aspect.  

Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. 
Earth, in all its glory fills the screen to its max or its IMAX.  We hear only what one would in space, nothing.  Faint sounds of mission control slowly come into recognition, as a small ship slowly becomes a big one to take up the IMAX.  Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama También, Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) raises the bar of filmmaking with his classic style of long takes and holding to cut as we become introduced with veteran astronaut George Clooney and the newcomer, medical engineer Sandra Bullock.  For the next 15 minutes, roughly, Cuarón takes us on an unbroken, uncut shot; all in one length as we circulate the ship and follow the astronauts as they work, chit-chat and find out a little about who they are.  Sandra Bullock is extremely nervous and doesn’t want to ruin the mission.  George Clooney is his charismatic self that he is in real life, as his character needs to be this way because he’s the veteran and this is all normal.  Trouble soon strikes and the crew separates, leaving only George & Sandra due to debris.  Tethered together, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock now must fight for survival and make it to a nearby space station before they run out of oxygen.  Dazzled up with some of the greatest special effects and cinematography mankind has EVER witnessed. Cuarón has definitely raised the bar of filmmaking and I’m happy he’s done such, taking Clooney & Bullock with him for the wild and adventurous ride that is Gravity. 

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock made a great team … … George Clooney and Sandra Bullock … … … wait, what were their characters’ names again?  … Oh that’s right, Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock).  I felt a little too disconnected to their characters, especially Bullock the lead, that I kept calling them by their real names … as that’s who I saw on screen, sorry about that.

In a better sense, when I viewed Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), playing the part of Chris Gardner, I cheered for him when he found joy, I felt sad for him when he couldn’t find a proper place to sleep for his son, I darn near cried when he did when he genuinely found true happiness (little did I know I’d embark on a similar journey myself a couple years later); in fact, all throughout the movie I kept going “come on Chris, you can do it, come on Chris … I know you can make it! …” not ONCE did I call him “Will Smith”, but Chris Gardner.  I was engaged into the story, rooting for the hero.  A well developed character, say what you will about the movie. 

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Detrimental to a story’s success or failure, without it, I’m either ROOTING for Chris Gardner or OBSERVING Sandra Bullock (instead of rooting for Ryan Stone).  Character development, just like with Inception (2010), was my problem with Gravity and ultimately why I feel it subdues to the gravity of overall, true, cinematic accomplishment. 

George Clooney in Gravity
Well I loved it Ben, I thought it was so suspenseful and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  I actually rooted for “Sandra Bullock”.

Okay, well allow me to retort. 

Let’s start with the universe and work our way into things. 

I'm a seeker, too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better … than man … Has to be.” – George Taylor (Charlton “Chuck” Heston), as he’s just landed on “a strange planet” (insert smiley face). 

Gravity kicked off Oscar season, my FAVORITE time of the year!  What a way to start things off with such a grandiose film!  Harvey Weinstein (The Weinstein Company) has gone on record to say that this year (2013) is one of the most, if not the most; competitive seasons for cinema he’s EVER witnessed!  Gravity has received so many good ratings amongst the few that had seen it early, James Cameron is so happy his Avatar paved the way for it and that his buddy Cuarón has now given him the ball back in his court to raise bar with Cameron’s next film … yet all I could think of during the end credits is “somewhere in the 2013 universe … there has to be something better … than this … Has to be.”  Not about how gripping the suspense was, or how everything was animated but the faces of Clooney & Bullock and how that’s some darn good animation, or how AMAZING and tight knit the cinematography and special effects were, I mean, give them an Oscar right now for that … all I could think of … was, “I can’t wait for 12 Years A Slave (the other #1 frontrunner this year next to Gravity)”, or Saving Mr. Banks (a new frontrunner at the time of Gravity’s release), The Monuments Men, will Captain Phillips sink in its debut the next week, … Almost anything BUT how “amazing” Gravity was.  My palms weren’t “still sweaty” as the girl in front of me was ecstatic about at the end. 

Why?

THE CHARACTERS WERE UNDERDEVELOPED!  I couldn’t get behind our lead, Sandra Bullock, to root for her, to feel sad when we learn about Bullock’s family, or to feel joy when she overcomes obstacle after immediate obstacle.  Where’s the emotional depth? 

I should’ve been saying, “Wow!  That movie is SO heart clenching!  It’s now my favorite movie this year, maybe of all time, IT WAS SOOO GOOD!  I don’t know how 12 Years A Slave could even possibly top this!  We’ll see!  I can’t wait!” 

Instead, I said this, “Yeah that was good, but there’s something better this season.  I think 12 Years A Slave just might top this.  It feels like one of the many Oscar films on the very near horizon has it in them to be the best this year and overcome Gravity.  We’ll See!  I can’t wait!”  

And now I know, the character development is why I couldn’t completely connect with this simple story.  Just like with Inception, but this time without an overly complicated story, but with an overly simple one. 

Trouble continues to stir.  
For starters, the connection to Bullock’s back-story was absent; I couldn’t buy into it AT ALL.  It was such a stretch!  I feel that because Cuarón kept the entire story in space, the “niche” or with how I feel about the film, “the gimmick” of the film.  This is why there was no connection to the back-story of our lead.  It felt EXTREMELY forced!  “George and Sandra are floating along in space so we have to have them doing something right?  Hey let’s sneak in some dialogue about where they come from and such.  The audience can learn about who they are more this way!  Clooney is already charismatic, he can just start asking Sandra questions!”  So when it’s time to “get behind” Sandra who decides now to fight for her life and for her family’s survival, it all came off as clichéd.  “Just put your feet on the ground ... and move forward.  Tell my daughter, Momma’s coming home!” When I don’t really know anything about or care enough about any of that which was just said … cliché!  No amount of special effects and brilliant cinematography (that was some amazing camera work by the way, loved it) will save a poor and weak story, this is filmmaking 101.  Why do I keep calling Kowalski & Stone, Clooney & Bullock?  Well because it feels like I’m pushed back to sit and observe instead of float along with our heroes and experience with them as they experience.  “Kowalski & Stone” felt like name tags and not identities to relate and connect with.  This is the essence of the film’s low score in my book. 

In the beginning of my film school term, I’m talking screenwriting 101, we learned you have to “show don’t tell” your audience new information.  Use dialogue as a crutch or basically not as much as visually revealing new information to introduce new plot points and such to your audience, “show, don’t tell/less is more”.  In Gravity we have to be told this in conversation amongst our Astronauts, or with Sandra Bullock talking to herself, to learn about her and “this is why we now care about her and the trouble she faces”.  Well, this is EXACTLY why there seems like NO connection whatsoever to her back-story and why I couldn’t follow her, thus, hardly liking this story. 

“… … But there are some really cool special effects!” … Come on now.  

Well what about movies that are dialogue driven?  Or that only take place in one or few locations and are ONLY driven forward with dialogue, like your favorite movie of all time Ben? 

Well, their characters are better developed to get me into the story to want to stay in that one room or few locations and follow them all throughout!  THIS IS EXACTLY WHY I LOOOOOOVE my favorite movie of all time!  … Come on now.

Well come on Ben, look deeper than these surface level observations that you’re making.  The film carries more weight than you’re failing or choosing not to see because of all the bigger themes that it deals with:  life, existence, human nature, the will to survive and to want to live your life and not be defeated.  You can relate to that, you struggled, as an upcoming filmmaker in Hollywood didn’t you?  Come on, you had to be at a loss for words when the main thematic element of the film “rebirth after adversity” is brilliantly conveyed when Bullock finds her center of control within her spirit as she cradles into the fetal position after almost dying to get oxygen, and finds her focus to fight onward.  I mean, come on Ben, that alone speaks volumes on SO MANY LEVELS in addition to ALL the other brilliant visual representations of thematic elements; so much more than words could ever explain!  This film is just SOOO MASSIVE on all levels of intellect than how little you’re putting it down to be and failing to see it as.   

… *Sighs* … Okay … let me put it this way.  

Questioning Survival
In director Zack Snyder’s recent Superman film there’s a lot of symbolism.  In fact, the symbol on Superman’s chest is indeed, the second most recognizable symbol ON THE PLANET (second to the Christian Cross).  In the movie, there’s a shot of our beloved hero hovering over a government military base, ready to surrender himself, in order to save mankind.  It’s such an AMAZING shot that brings out the kid within me (upon countless other “cool shots” that do exactly the same).  He’s hovering above the base, looking heroic, cape blowing perfectly in the right direction; I instantly became a giddy little schoolgirl each time I viewed this scene!  This scene is SOOOOO POWERFUL and it’s built up perfectly to create this majestic and simply breathtaking moment!  I couldn’t help but think, “oh my gosh, something so amazing is about to happen!”  The energy that flows through it is quite awe inspiring and magical to experience, time truly does stand still as the hero of all heroes displays why he is that hero of all in that moment with just visuals.  So many things could be said about this scene, how it looks, how he’s positioned upward and the soldiers are looking up towards him to possibly symbolize how we as humans can be still in a perfect moment of focus to find our direction in life, be still, look up, and know a solid direction to your life is coming and already in the works; in the movie, Superman was that direction … … annnnnd then this brilliant scene JOLT cuts to a familiar shot from the trailer where Superman is in handcuffs surrendering.  WHOA!  WHOA!  WHOA!  WAIT A MINUTE! ... Okay, take a step back.  What the heck just happened?!  This brilliantly built up scene … just … stopped.  Yeah, the reason for the edit makes sense but it disrupts this AMAZING scene and completely destroys the power from it that was just created (which was my problem with this entire film, the editing and the pacing to relay an overall feeling and mood towards it).  So a not so good scene was just experienced.  It could’ve been SOOOO MUCH better!  Instead, we get decent mediocrity …

… But it alludes to such powerful themes about the human race and how we can find our purpose and direction if we accept destiny or choose to create one, making the film accessible to everyone and makes the simple plot and forced dialogue as you say acceptable and makes the film stand out amongst the many other top contenders this season yada yada yada …

Come on now!  Don’t give me that!  I don’t even think I need to answer this now.

Oh, and you want to talk forced? 

Alfonso Cuarón:  “Okay let’s hold on the fetal position shot for a couple of extra seconds than necessary, I REALLY want the audience to get it!” 

But Ben, this is SUCH a POWERFUL scene!  It alludes to all kinds of bigger themes in life that we can relate to, which makes it stand out and become something much bigger in its short space; which we see was all that was actually needed.

Okay, I see I do need to answer this. 

Alright, in Superman, did you not just feel how awkward of an editing cut that was?  Why did this amazing mood and feeling that this scene brilliantly portrays, all of a sudden just … stop?  Go back and finish the scene to properly segue to the next scene.  THEN add on other things as you see fit. 

“But it alludes to all kinds of amazing themes and messages which make it stand out amongst others and gives it a bigger purpose …”

DID YOU NOT JUST SEE HOW AWKWARD OF AN EDITING CUT THAT WAS?!

Okay, yes, I see how cool of a shot this fetal position and countless other shots are.  Such as the brilliant cinematography of perfectly transitioning from third person observant to first person present, perfectly easing inside of Sandra Bullock’s helmet to then only hear and see what she does, to then ease back out of her conscious back to third person to observe her float away, all in one, long, fluid, Alfonso Cuarón-esk/trademarked shot.  It’s darn good cinematography, and I loved it … but you have to put on your underwear BEFORE you put on your pants, at least most people do, and I think we all can agree this is something we all should probably be doing. 

So, in Gravity, were you told about Sandra Bullock, or do you actually know her name, TRULY UNDERSTAND WHERE SHE’S COMING FROM and CARE about her?   

 “Well, okay, the story’s structure isn’t as good as most screenwriters or average people would say, yes you’re right about that; but the movie as a whole alludes to bigger themes of life that help to make up for the weaker story which balances the equilibrium and having the visual effects and cinematography only to serve as the cherry on top and not so much for overall credibility.” 

WERE YOU TOLD ABOUT SANDRA BULLOCK, OR DO YOU ACTUALLY KNOW HER NAME, TRULY UNDERSTAND WHERE SHE’S COMING FROM AND CARE ABOUT HER?!

"Don't Let Go"
There’s so much tension created in this story and I can’t truly experience any of it because of the story’s lack of development, particularly with the lead, Sandra Bullock.  A true testament to how I know this is true is because I keep saying “Sandra Bullock & George Clooney …” and not “Ryan Stone & Matt Kowalski”.  Now we want to talk about an Oscar nomination for Bullock and not being surprised if she ACTUALLY wins?!  That’s an entirely whole new review in and of itself.  But have we completely forgotten about Cate Blanchett?  The ONLY contender for the Oscar at the time of Gravity’s release?  The only TRUE emotion I felt in Gravity, 100%, is with Clooney’s character “arc”, if you want to call it that.  In fact, with as little as Clooney was involved in this story and with all the time consuming hell Cuarón went through, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clooney demanded to be written out of the movie quickly.  He does have a writing credit on this project. 

I don’t care how artistic, alluding, and deep you are with your shot selections.  Does the audience know that person A is talking to person B?  Does Person A’s mouth sync with the words that are coming out of it?  Do you properly end the scenes?  Or do you JOLT cut from one scene to the next because as a writer/editor in film school, you were taught to “get in late and leave early”.  Does the audience PROPERLY know enough about your characters to want to get behind them and cry when they cry, get into trouble, and lost in space?  Or do you force and stretch the back-story because you have so many technicalities to deal with in all of the cinematography and visual effects? Write a sound story first, with solid characters, AND THEN raise the bar for filmmaking technology wise.  Put your underwear on FIRST! 

But Ben, the director is examining the human Psyche and how our role in this massive universe can take its toll on our existence.  This is what makes the film so much bigger than it is and why it’s so powerful.

Were you paying attention at all to what I just said?!  Did you put on your underwear before you put on your pants?  You socks BEFORE your shoes?  BEFORE you started layering your scenes with all these amazing themes and super cool shots, do we know the names of your characters?  Or did you briefly mention it a couple times (because you’re so sly with your writing) when you forced it on us?  Do we know anything about these characters to care if they’re going to make it through all these cool shots of avoiding space debris, or floating above a military base, or while in space?  “You’re too caught up in layers onion boy that you’re afraid of your own feelings!” – Donkey, Shrek   PROPERLY express your feelings with a well-written story FIRST and focus on the technical SECOND. 

He may be examining the human psyche and how we play our part in the universe, but I’m not invested enough in this universe he’s created (pun intended) to care about how amazing of a concept this actually might be!  I JUST DON’T CARE enough about the characters or this world to want to truly experience it all.  I was just observing. 

Put on your underwear BEFORE you put on your pants. 

Come on Ben, it’s a heart clenching film; my palms were so sweaty by the end.  You’re just being too harsh. 

You’ve forgotten, this is an Oscar film.  So that means the film critic hat goes on extra tight and EVERYTHING is examined under a microscope.  Cuarón seemed to have thought of everything anyways with all the technical work that went into this film.  It’s the writing of the story that suffered (which is ALWAYS most important).  I wish I could feel the passion most people do with this film.  Maybe if “Dr. Ryan Stone” wasn’t a name tag but a tangible, complex character, that felt like a real person who I could get behind, root for, and put my all into, to feel what she feels and experience what she does, I’d probably feel that same passion and talk of where it ranks on my list of favorites as its newest entry.  Instead, it was Sandra Bullock, not Ryan Stone, going through some serious stuff.  Stuff I was removed from, observing the entire experience, and not going through it with her.  I wanted a fully fleshed out character, not a nametag, or to not feel like a showpiece for a celebrity to show off her perfect body.  I wanted to get lost in the story with her, calling her by name, like I did with Chris Gardner.

Gravity is a nice ride overall … but in no way is it a best picture. It’s got nice little moments, but the movie as a whole doesn’t work for me as a true cinematic experience, just a decent film.  I just hope the film doesn’t take up more credit than it deserves.  For this is how those more deserving get overlooked and disrespected, like with Ben Affleck last season. 

So now it’s time to move onward to the next stop on the road to the Oscars!

But before you head out of the house to that next stop, remember, put on some underwear first!

Gravity
Sci-Fi, 91 Minutes, PG-13
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón & Jonas Cuarón, and George Clooney (collaborator)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast:  Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, & Ed Harris

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