Was it a disappointing summer for movies? It certainly felt that way. Much of the online chatter from movie critics and fans regarded the disappointing blockbusters. Every film seemed to come with a "Yeah, but" qualifier when talking about it. Yeah, Iron Man 3 was pretty cool, but I didn't like what happened with the villain.
Even the films that generated a huge amount of anticipation — like Man of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness — were box-office successes, but seemed to fizzle out in terms of popularity because of poor word-of-mouth. No summer movie seemed to break through as the must-see, everyone-is-talking-about-it experience that we had, for example, in 2012 with The Avengers.
The problem was that many of these movies felt the same. A prevailing theme this summer seemed to be the vast amount of destruction we saw on screen. Metropolis was laid to waste in the battle between Superman and General Zod. Someone with a grudge against Starfleet Command set off a suicide bomb in San Francisco. Zombies brought on the apocalypse in World War Z. Giant robots and monsters treated major cities like their sandboxes in Pacific Rim.
Perhaps that's why Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity felt so invigorating. The film's setting rises above the fray into space, where there's no sound, where actions take time to complete, where even the simplest movement or task takes considerable thought and effort. Spaceships don't move just from pushing a button and turning a control stick. Time and trajectory need to be factored in. The heroes of the story don't throw punches or fire lasers at their adversaries. They have to dodge circumstances beyond their control. They have to think.
Blockbuster films these days are almost entirely concerned with feats beyond human ability. Computer graphics have come so far that movies can show a superhero lift and throw a car, and it appears believable. Tony Stark builds an Iron Man suit that can wrap around his body in seconds, propel him through the air with boot jets and shoot explosive beams of force from his palms.
Other worlds, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and James Cameron's Pandora, look like places we could easily travel to and walk in. Their inhabitants —such as hobbits, orcs and Na'vi — seem like real people that we could interact with.
Gravity demonstrates what humans are capable of, in terms of physical and mental achievement. So many of us grow up dreaming of becoming astronauts, but the setting that Cuarón creates for his film shows just how taxing such an environment really is and how it takes truly special people to deal with — and more importantly, adapt to — such otherworldly circumstances. George Clooney's Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone aren't superhuman in this story, but their characters seem to represent the peak of our abilities.
That's not to say there isn't considerable spectacle in this movie. It's a special-effects bonanza, depicting the endless darkness of space, the beauty of Earth as viewed 300 miles above our planet, and the weightlessness of zero gravity. Satellites, space shuttles and space stations are torn apart in collisions with each other or rocketing pieces of debris. There aren't cataclysmic explosions with our heroes escaping just before they can be engulfed in flames. But there is utter chaos occurring with rubble slicing through metal, plastic, foam and whatever our space shuttles and satellites are constructed from.
At one point in the film, the world — at least the one immediately surrounding Bullock — seems to be coming apart behind her. Debris is flying everywhere. Large pieces of machinery are breaking from their frame and spinning around. In terms of visuals, it was similar to what we've seen in several recent blockbuster films. Faced with total pandemonium, people run to seek shelter, covering their eyes and ears, attempting to shut out everything they didn't want to and shouldn't see.
That might apply to moviegoers as well, bombarded by 3D visuals, IMAX screens and 100,000 watts of booming Dolby surround sound.
However, what makes Gravity unique is that all of this happens with no sounds of impact. All of that mayhem occurs in silence, because there's no noise in space. As we're told at the beginning of the film — just in case you need to be reminded, since there was all that noise in Star Wars — there's nothing to carry sound out there.
The only thing we hear is Bullock's audio feed, which is hopefully going back to Mission Control in Houston. (By the way, there's a fun nod to another "stranded in space" movie tied to Mission Control in this film. Kudos to you if you catch it before the credits.) The lack of aural bombardment is strangely jarring.
Yet for all the wizardry of Gravity's computer-generated imagery of space, weightlessness, Earth and the many objects that we've sent above the earth in the name of research and exploration — visuals that took Cuarón and his team of animators more than a year to create — the film's best special effect might be Bullock. She absolutely holds this film together and keeps it driving forward.
Another refreshing aspect to this film is that it reminds us that actors matter. These impossibly beautiful people with their ability to become different people, to depict a range of emotions on a snap, and portray their characters in circumstances the average person is often unfamiliar with, are the reason we go to the movies.
Sure, we like seeing stuff get blown up real good and virtual god-like figures showing their power on screen. And it increasingly seems as if filmmakers believe that special effects, rather than big-name (and expensive) actors, are the draw. But it really helps when the figures in these movies are people we want to spend two hours of our lives with, whom we root for to succeed and triumph.
Gravity needs Bullock. (And Clooney, too. Let's not forget ol' George.) We're stuck with her for much of the movie, following along as she tries to escape her terrifying cirucmstances. But if we don't want to see her win, to get to a hopefully happy ending, this film wouldn't pull us in the way that it does.
Early on in the movie's production, Angelina Jolie was rumored to be up for the female lead. Jolie is one of the few legitimate female box-office stars, one who can draw an audience on her name value and presence. Though she surely would've been believable as a kick-ass woman who could conquer her fear, she would've been all wrong for this movie. Bullock shows a vulnerability here, a down-to-Earth (pardon the expression) quality that makes her relatable. Without that, Cuarón's film truly would've lacked something.
Would people have still gone to see Gravity if Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson (or Natalie Portman) had been the leads? Probably, because of the spectacle and perhaps because Cuarón has become a must-see director among hardcore film fans. But as much as I love Downey Jr., this movie wouldn't have drawn a record $55 million at the box office this past weekend without two major stars on the marquee. (And frankly, Johannson and Portman are far too young to be believable as a grieving mother and elite scientist. The character of Ryan Stone needed to go through some rough times in life. That's what spurs her on while marooned in space.)
This is the kind of blockbuster we should go see, and it's gratifying that people responded to with their dollars at the theater. The movie was released in October because it's brainier, more serious fare with presumed Academy Award ambitions. Those sorts of films don't typically hit the multiplex during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Had Warner Bros. dared to try, perhaps it would've been steamrolled by Superman, giant Jaeger robots and Despicable Me 2's minions. That's the time of year when families go to the movies to be entertained and awed by visual spectacle, rather than story.
Along with that big opening weekend, if Gravity shows legs, it will hopefully show Hollywood that we crave some intelligent content, not just mindless action and destruction. And we certainly don't need to be jerked around by directors and screenwriters trying to fool us with needlessly complicated storytelling twists that try to make these movies seem substantial. Gravity's story is very simple. An accident strands people in space, and they try to save themselves. Amazing visual effects aside, what matters in this story are its characters.
Those visual effects are incredible, however. Cuarón shows us something we've never seen before, gets us to feel things we never would have otherwise. He makes the theatrical experience worthwhile. This will still be a good movie seen at home on your TV. The Blu-ray will probably be fun, especially if there's plenty of behind-the-scenes and making-of content. But I can't imagine you would get the same sensation that you would at the theater.
Gravity is the blockbuster movie we deserve, and the one we need.