After watching a movie that everyone loved, there used to be a time when you were damned if you said a bad word about it. If you didn’t like The Dark Knight — or even agree that it was the greatest movie ever made — the burden of proof was on you, the naysayer, to explain in full detail any miniscule problem you had with it. People couldn’t handle anything other than total praise, and to quibble about it’s editing issues or weird plotholes was anathema. I remember when I explained my very minor issues with the film (which I still adored) to a friend outside of the movie theatre, I thought his head might cave in from shock. I reminded him repeatedly how much I admired Nolan’s achievement, but that wasn’t enough. Only perfection was enough.
For me, loving The Dark Knight wasn’t about accepting the movie as perfection. The “perfect movie” is a strange, elusive concept that’s really hard to define and even harder to prove, and the movies I would call the decade’s best all fall short of perfection. The Social Network is a searing critique of misogyny that might be a little misogynistic itself, and as anyone who loved The Tree of Life as much as I did knows, that movie has problems. But any minor faults I have with Before Midnight or A Separation pale to the film’s sky-high successes. It doesn’t matter if the movie fits a definition of perfection. It’s perfect to me, and exploring its minor flaws only make me love it more. This is what falling in love is.
I felt the same way about Gravity, one of the most groundbreaking, awe-inspiring and utterly nerve-wrecking technical achievements in the history of cinema. This is the kind of rare humanist spectacle that we go to the movies for, the rare piece of art that dares to be epic in every possible sense, from its visionary use of technological to the scale of its emotional impact. Gravity is less a science-fiction tale than a ballet melodrama set in space, one that plays like a galactic horror film. Everything in Gravity is both very big and universal, the rare film that’s both intellectually challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Instead of esoteric ideas, Alfonso Cuaron makes the visual into its own form of poetry, a breathtaking rendering of style as substance.
This is a movie in which every shot and every moment is a technological miracle, where everything we are seeing is absolutely impossible, yet Cuaron makes it look so simple. This is because the Mexican auteur, one of the great wizards in film, spent years developing the technology and getting each edit exactly right, from pulse-pounding cuts to a twelve-minute unbroken shot that makes us feel weightless. Cuaron’s is not virtual reality but a film that feels real in the moment. Like an adaptation from a novel, it doesn’t have to have absolute fidelity to the source material — actual space missions — but needs to succeed on its own terms, as a fictional film. If this were not the case, scientists would make movies for us. No one wants this.
At a recent screening of the film that Neil deGrasse Tyson attended, the ever-quotable public intellectual used his encyclopedic knowledge of the final frontier to pick the movie’s inaccuracies apart — of which there are many. Tyson live-tweeted his gripes about the movie, which are entertaining and often informative, but miss the point of film. What Tyson seemed to desire was a documentary film about the perils of space exploration, which Gravity is not and never claimed to be. In Tyson’s case, the scientist came in with something of a grudge against the movie — complaining that people seem more interested in movies about space than funding space exploration. This is true, but it’s not Alfonso Cuaron’s fault that the NASA program has largely been defunded. If anything, movies like these can teach us to dream of space again. It’s not the heavens, but it’s the closest we’re going to get.
This shows just how much the tables have turned since The Dark Knight, where the burden is on everyone who loved it to prove its flawlessness. In the ongoing critique of the film, Gravity continues to be dogged for “approaching perfection” — as if only perfection were acceptable as a moviegoing option these days. Roger Ebert once wisely said that you cannot fault a film for not being the movie you wanted. This is an issue I’ve long had with Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, a punishing masterpiece I initially hated for making me uncomfortable. It was a movie that pushed my buttons in ways I didn’t like and forced me to ask questions about redemptive violence I wasn’t ready to consider, which made me angry. However, to critically engage with the movie, I had to accept the movie on its own terms — or else I was holding it to unreasonable standards. I wasn’t letting Lars Von Trier make his own movie.
The same has been true of Gravity, whose tone wasn’t the one many expected out of a space horror film, one closer to Douglas Sirk than Stanley Kubrick or the Alien franchise — which is what people wanted. Gravity fuses old cinema and classic tropes with the new technology, and Gravity’s stark depiction of the existential horrors of space is juxtaposed with the simplicity of its emotions. To illustrate that point, Cuaron’s characters speak in general platitudes. It’s pure corn, but the adage speak works within the context of the film and its characters, two astronauts who would actually talk this way. Sandra Bullock plays a woman from Lake Zurich, Illinois, and as she discusses the grief she left over losing a child, I could see a real woman saying these words. She sounded like my mother. The dialogue was clunky, but it achieves “emotional truth.”
For many others, however, Bullock’s dialogue played like existential camp, particularly the “driving” monologue. To that I say, what’s wrong with that? When Gravity‘s preview first debuted in theatres, many laughed the trailer right out of the theatre, because of the innate ridiculousness of watching Sandra Bullock float away in space, but watching the film elicits a different response. Gravity is already being compared to that other high melodrama, Black Swan, a movie whose camp aspect — while kitschy — makes the film more gripping. Sometimes not everything has to work the way it was intended to be effective, and the camp aspects of Gravity don’t detract from the film’s power or make it any less terrifying. Just because it’s art doesn’t mean you can’t laugh a little.
If audiences expected a Ripley clone out of Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, they are bound to be disappointed at a characterization that’s more complex and less one-dimensionally badass than Sigourney Weaver’s iconic action hero. You don’t want the dead kid melodrama, just the space magic tricks. However, this debate reminds me of the one around Homeland last year, when the show took a turn into pulp that many audience members weren’t expected, eschewing its characteristic grittiness for Carrie chasing a terrorist with a pipe. Against the backlash, TV critics Ken Tucker and Todd VanDerWerff reminded us that our stories don’t always have to be perfect. They just have to be emotionally compelling. When Gravity is playing, I defy you to look away.
The kind of intense scrutiny that Gravity has already received is always a danger when a movie has been praised to the skies like this one has, where everyone is out to prove that the movie isn’t at good as you think it is. When a movie has been so wildly championed, we find ourselves wanting to take it down any way we can — saying, “Well, it’s not that great.” Gravity might not be the perfect film, but we’re living in a moment when an original idea opened number-one at the box office. Gravity is a science fiction film with a nearly 50-year-old female lead at a time when we’re told audiences a) are too stupid to see “smart movies” and b) don’t want to see older women in film.
This is all for a movie that many thought would never get made, one that has already become a cultural phenomenon and a reminder that the cinematic experience has a bright future. Gravity will long continue to be discussed, argued about and trolled — by those who find it lacking and those who think it could change the way we make movies. If that isn’t perfection, I’ll take what I can get.
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