Flixist Discusses: Gravity


Gravity has run away with the critics and audiences since it’s release. Netting an extremely rare 100 from Flixist and pulling in a ton of money at the box office. While almost everyone agrees that it’s a good movie, there’s been some debate as to if it’s good enough for the 100 score that Matt gave it amongst the staff. This debate kicked off when Matt asked everyone if they thought it was worth the 100 score.

What follows is the discussion that unfolded once he had decided to score it 100 via email. There’s definitely a variety of opinions on if it stands up to that score so we’d love to hear from you as well. Do you find the screenplay faults that some editors did or do you think it stands on it’s own as a accessible masterpiece? Let us know.

Liz Rugg: I thought it was good, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a game changer. I think people who know movies will really like it but I just don’t see it changing the way movies are made in the future (maybe I’ll be proven wrong… I kinda hope so). The 3D was definitely an example of doing it right, because it was more of a background affect for depth (given that the setting was almost entirely the vastness of space). More than anything else it was a tense, sometimes quiet character study in an extreme situation. (Thematically the character being studied being all of humanity implicitly sometimes.) Would not give it a 100. Personally I’d maybe give it something in the 80s, which is still pretty great.

Hubert Vigillia: I’m also going to be that guy who think it’s great but not wholly magnificent — tops out at the mid 80s for me since it’s a technical marvel, though I wonder about its larger technical achievements and how it will push other filmmakers to come. Kinda see why a 100 is warranted, but kinda wary even if the groundbreaking elements are the predominate features of the film.

The film making is stellar, and it’s an unassailable technical achievement, so that is faultless. There’s great tension sustained through spatial relations in three dimensions with a added fourth dimension thanks to the various ticking-clock elements that recur quite expertly in the plot that is really goal-oriented — go here, then here, then here. There’s constant unease, and the shifting camera perspective is the bees knees (I think the second or third shot in the film is pure brilliance w/ its shift from distance through the helmet into POV to see the HUD and then out again with seamless elegance), and there’s nice use of lens spatter for greater immersion.

But a couple things irked me as the film unfolded that all had to do with the writing and the predictable character arc once the back story was revealed. Also, thought the swerve before the third act was silly rather than resonant. Also, why would you try to get into a conversation with your colleague if that person is down to 2% oxygen? Captain Chatterbox talkin her into calm place I can understand, but Captain Chatterbox trying to make her keep talking was kinda fucked up. Dude could have given her an extra minute of air if he wasn’t yapping so much. If you remove about 25% to 40% of the dialogue, I think it would have been even better since it would strip the story down to the visceral survival elements that play into the fine technical achievements, and the thematic notes of life and the will to live would be achieved through implication and inference rather than lots of on-the-nose hand holding.

Still, the pure daring of the camera movement and blocking in space overcomes the clunky writing.

Liz Rugg: Yeah, it seems to me that what most of the reviews are saying will be its lasting legacy will be its technical elements and honestly, I hope that’s true, though I’m still very skeptical. Most everything else besides the technical stuff was good, or ok, even great sometimes, but not wholly phenomenal…. It just doesn’t do enough new or interesting things outside of its technical achievements to warrant being legendary to me.

Hubert Vigillia: I think that’s why I think some of the 2001 comparisons seem extremely hyperbolic to me. Kubrick created a technical marvel that also told a different kind of story in a different kind of way. Cuaron has basically told a very conventional story in a technically and visually fascinating way, with a lot of the techniques that are a refinement of what he did in Children of Men and what Hitchcock attempted with Rope, but in regard to the latter, Cuaron’s masked cuts (which I think I identified pretty easily in that opening shot, but only because I’m a geek for simulated continuous takes) were more artfully done and compelling.

Matthew Razak: I don’t think the screenplay was as bad as you, though I do agree that the talking with little air was dumb, but you are correct in saying it held people’s hands and was cookie cutter. I think it was good cookie cutter though and it made its themes more accessible to a wider audience than the likes of 2001 does. While we’re obviously not insulting 2001 here, I think one of Gravity‘s successes is that it addressed a lot of the same themes (life, rebirth, humanity-things) while still being enjoyable for even the most simple-minded of our theater going brethren. 

Hubert Vigillia: I wouldn’t take the condescending route with it in terms attracting the average theatergoer, but it’s surprising how absolutely stunning and forward-thinking the film making is but how absolutely inept and by-the-numbers some of the screenwriting is.

I think there’s a way to make a movie intelligent without it being dumbed down, and I really think subtraction of dialogue to reduce to the film to imagery and physicality (which Gravity excels at) is where it’s at. It adds more artfulness and naturalness (and also reflection and tension) without sacrificing all the bread crumbs that lead people to the bigger thematic stuff.

I think I read somewhere that the people who saw Gravity at Toronto noted basically the same relative faults that we’re discussing, and it was just a matter of degree regarding how much it bothered people. I think I’m just especially hard on the film (a film I’d still score somewhere in the mid-80s) since the disparity between expert cinematic technique and clumsy writing was jarring for me.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I basically agree with everything Hubert said. Too much sound in general. The most intense part was the stuff in the capsule at the end because the sound of the camera going in and out of the water minus the constant dialogue added the tension that was being broken for the entire rest of the film. I didn’t even have a massive issue with Kowalski, because with him at least there was narratively justified hand holding thanks to her ineptitude. Didn’t like it, but was willing to accept it. When it was just her, though, my forgiveness ran out much more quickly.

Space is the perfect place for introspection. The solitude and silence is totally unlike anything else ever, but the film doesn’t allow for any of that. Between the over zealous score and constant talking, there’s too much sound.

But it’s a technical fucking masterpiece. Wow.

The issue I have with this conceptually is that it will not hold up off the big screen. People who see it now will all but undoubtedly be influenced by it and it is unquestionably the new bar for technical excellence, but in five years, people who watch this on their iPads won’t understand where the acclaim came from.

Matthew Razak: I gave Gravity a 100 because I thought it nailed almost everything perfectly. For me everything really jived, and while you can definitely nit pick the screenplay (what movie can’t you), it successfully tackled a lot of big themes and issues while still remaining incredibly accessible. It’s sort of the not-thinking man’s 2001, where you can enjoy it as both a masterpiece of action cinema and a thought provoking character piece. It was easy to fall into Ryan’s life and care about here, but also easy to extrapolate that out to a broader commentary on the growth of mankind and life in general. I found the screenplay, the thing most people have issue with since almost no one is criticizing it for its direction of technical achievements, a sturdy backbone to a film that could open up into much more.

Hubert Vigillia: You know, I forgot to bring up the score in my initial rant, but yeah. A friend of mine were talking about it over the weekend and we thought if you dial back the dialogue by about 50% and dial back the score by about 50%, the movie is a masterpiece.

The score is just as hand-holdy as the dialogue, especially when she’s alone in that capsule and hears the voice from Earth. There’s no point to have music there to manipulate the audience. Her fear and isolation and the sound of another voice so far away is enough to drive that scene emotionally.

I think that’s why I couldn’t get involved in the film emotionally: the movie felt legitimately intense but so false with all its emotional appeals.

Matthew Razak: It’s weird the sound was too much for you guys. I was especially impressed by how it was balanced between sound and noise. Alec, I do agree at the end there was some of the best as the world came flooding back to life for her and she almost drowned, but I thought the score was so well woven into what was going on and hit some really strong points as it complimented, not negated, the silence of space. Again, it goes back to accessibility for me. I don’t think they over did it, but I do think they brought you along. Would the film work with less talking, yes, but it wouldn’t work for as many people and I don’t think it would be as enticing. 

As for not seeing it in theaters, I 100 percent agree. If you don’t see this on the big screen it will be a tenth of the movie it is. I would have given this a high 80s score had I seen it at home simply because the size and 3D are two of the points that make it work so well. I don’t think that makes it less of a great movie, but it is only great in that single location where the effects are most stunning. I think that applies to dating it as well. As long as you see this on the big screen I don’t think it’s ever going to be dated.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: On a laptop screen in the trailers they already don’t look nearly as good as in 3D projected.

Which is kind of my point from earlier.

I think most of the zero gravity will hold up (at least in part because they didn’t fake a lot if it), but I’m less sure about the scenes of destruction, for example.

As for the hand holding, it’s a matter of what you want from your thematically heavy space survival film. I don’t think the film *needs* to be accessible. The music and dialogue tell you what to feel and when to feel it. Emotional manipulation is fine, but it’s not interesting and lessens the impact after the fact.

Huber Vigillia: It’s sort of interesting in that I saw All is Lost yesterday for NYFF. It’s about a guy sailing alone on a yacht 1700 miles away from land in the Indian Ocean when everything goes wrong. It strips everything down to almost no dialogue and almost no back story, but it doesn’t really hold interest because the plot is more about being adrift and surviving rather than the mission-oriented survival of Gravity.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: Yeah, I was actually going to ask how it compared. Interesting. I was expecting Gravity to be more like that. I was actually surprised as how structured and fast paced the plot was.

Hubert Vigillia: I mean, there’s a reason I agree with Tobias’ (of The Dissolve and formerly the AV Club) assessment that Gravity is kinda like “Movie: The Ride” since it’s a bit like Star Tours or the Indiana Jones ride in ins structure. “Normalcy thwarted, let’s get out of here!” In some ways it’s also like a really rudimentary videogame as well. Go from point A to point B to achieve an objective, then from point B to point C to achieve an objective, etc.

As for All Is Lost, it would have been interesting to see it done with a tighter time frame and a greater sense of impending threat (Movie: The Ride Part II – At Sea!). It’s so loosely plotted and there isn’t a sense of constant unease like there is in Gravity. Also, Robert Redford’s performance is basically just three notes: grumpy, grumpily surprised, stoically old.

Matthew Razak: I can see that “Movie: The Ride” argument, but I guess I don’t see it as an issue because I don’t think it dominates the film’s more artistic endeavors. The reason it keeps you so interested is because of that videogame structure, but I don’t think it’s losing anything because it has it. Instead it gains what a lot of films striving for bigger messages loose: entertainment. You’ve got the best of both worlds with this one instead of just working into a corner of either being thoughtful or being action. 

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I guess the fundamental difference here is that I don’t think the movie is particularly thoughtful. It’s totally entertainment, and I see that it’s got those major themes of rebirth and everything, but it also is so blunt about them that there isn’t really thought involved.

It stands in stark contrast to Children of Men that way, which was definitely entertaining but was wayyy more thoughtful than this is and far less hand-holdy. I guess I wanted something more like that.

Hubert Vigillia: I think there’s still a happier medium to be struck. Dialing back could still punch up a lot of the more artistic and existential elements that are integral to the story that Cuaron and son wanted to tell without sacrificing entertainment. I wouldn’t want anything as spare as All Is Lost, and I do appreciate that mission/goal-oriented  structure of the film since the movie is operating on a ticking-clock sort of plot. My main issue is just one of degree regarding all the thematic stuff. All the visceral stuff felt like tension, most of the dialogue felt like Screenwriting 101.

I guess I think of it this way. Gravity is kinda like The Beatles’ Let It Be. It’s a bit too much in spots because of Phil Spector, but it’s still a great album.

Geoff Henao: I’m gonna jump in here and break the flow a bit with some of the stuff Liz and I talked about after we saw the film:

While I really enjoyed it, Liz had a problem with empathizing with Stone. If I remember correctly, she felt that there wasn’t much to drive Stone to actually survive. Because of this, she had a problem actually caring whether or not she made it back alive.

This argument ties into a larger thing with the film’s scope. I loved that the film was singularly focused on the conflict in space- there aren’t any flashback scenes, there aren’t any filler/fluff scenes that take away from the real conflict facing Stone and Kowalski. Instead, the film sprinkled in a little exposition and background to their characters that added some extra depth to their characters (and the narrative… somewhat) without becoming an unnecessary subplot.

Matthew Razak: I mean, we shouldn’t say, “Look at how much worse it could have been,” but damn cutting out of the narrative for any reason would have destroyed the movie for sure. I think that what you’re saying Geoff does relate back to the structure and screenplay of the film in that you’re given more on the characters without sacrificing the forward thrust of the film. Whether you thought that more was too much or a fantastic way to attach to the people on screen seems to be the where people differ on their enjoyment of the film.  I agree that handling the back story through exposition might actually lend to the screenwriting 101 complaints, but that info did have to come out.

Hubert Vigillia: I’d say it’s a matter of degree and making certain judicious choices that make sense in story. Flashbacks and mission control stuff would ruin the sense of isolation in the film and cut into the immersion, but I also think the last thing most people would want to do when they’re down to 3% oxygen is deliver a monologue about their back story as a way of establishing a character arc.

Geoff Henao: What little exposition was there (revealed through the conversations between Stone and Kowalski) was enough for me. Really, how much more empathy do you need to cheer on an astronaut drifting through space with the slightest of chances of survival? If you can’t empathize with somebody literally lost in space, you’re a soulless animal.

Hubert Vigillia: It’d be an interesting experiment once the film is on DVD to sort of do “Gravity… Naked” kind of like that release of “Let It Be… Naked.” Strip out lots of the dialogue, maybe dial down the score in some scenes, and see how it plays. Obviously it’ll be difference since it’ll be a second or third time through the film for most people watching it, and most people don’t have a home IMAX 3D theater, but I do wonder about what happens when you reduce the film to one of immediate survival with just the barest notions of a grieving process and existential crisis for Ryan.

Geoff Henao: Have any of us (participants in this discussion or not) seen the film in 2D? I wonder how different/less thrilling it looks without the added effects.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I was actually thinking about that. Although I was actually just thinking about watching it with the sound off to the soundtrack of 2001.

Hubert Vigillia: Now I’m waiting for someone stoned out of their gourd to try to sync up Gravity and Let It Be like Wizard and Dark Side.