Saturday, October 12, 2013


"Buddy Cops in Space" wouldn't have been as catchy I suppose...
From A. O. Scott's "Between Heaven and Earth":
The script is, at times, weighed down by some heavy screenwriting clichés. Some are minor, like the fuel gauge that reads full until the glass is tapped, causing the arrow to drop. More cringe-inducing is the tragic back story stapled to Stone, a doctor on her first trip into orbit. We would care about her even without the haunting memory of a dead child, who inspires a maudlin monologue and a flight of orchestral bathos in Steven Price’s otherwise canny and haunting score.
A. O. Scott gave this movie a 5 out of 5, made it a "Critic's Pick," and yet, like many who similarly love and recommend the film, admits that the script is full of "screenwriting clichés" and that we would care about the characters even without their backstories.

What does it mean to like a movie but to essentially prefer to see it on mute?

Many of course compare Gravity to other sci-fi epics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, and yet neither of those films are better seen and not heard.  Ripley is a fully fleshed out character who spawned an entire genre of kick-ass female action leads.  Even HAL is a more fleshed out character than Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone (who by the way refers to being a medical doctor and yet is found performing "surgery" on the Hubble Space Station for some reason) or George Clooney's Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (who was just one day from retirement, naturally).  Unlike those sci-fi epics, no one will be quoting Gravity, ever.

In fact, there are several times in the film when it seems like there could have been an interesting character moment, and instead the cliché is opted for, almost as if by necessity.  For example, at the moment when Clooney untethers himself from Bullock so that he can float off into the sunset (again, he was just so damn close to retirement!) and so she can survive, why not have Clooney's one-day-from-retirement-cliché go against type and struggle to survive?  Why not have Bullock's rookie-with-a-sob-story-past go against type and untether Clooney to save herself?  In much the same way that it is ridiculous to have a doctor fixing a telescope in space, and to have an astronaut repeatedly explain to a doctor how oxygen and carbon dioxide work, it is ridiculous how cliché that scene was handled (with Kowalski's line about the sunlight in the Ganges pushing the scene from derivative to almost full-on satire of such grizzled veteran sacrifices).
Wiggum would've been a
welcome addition to Gravity
Financial planner: You haven't set aside any plans for the future.  
Wiggum: Well, you know how it is with cops. I'll be shot three days before retirement. In the business, we call it retirony 
Planner: Well, what if you don't get shot?  
Wiggum: What a terrible thing to say! Oh, look! You made my wife cry!
But what if the cliché is actually the point?  For all of its technical ingenuity and aesthetic grandeur, this movie is still basically an action/adventure movie with cardboard characters moving from one disaster to the next.  Would we enjoy the film as much however if the characters were less cardboard and more real?  Perhaps we have reached a point as consumers of culture that we are desperate not to see compelling and complicated characters overcoming adversity, but rather to see avatars who we can fully invest ourselves into so that we can see ourselves overcoming adversity.  The more bland Clooney and Bullock come across the better: all the more room for your personality to fill the void the boilerplate script left for you.  In much the same way that you might have been staring at the Earth hoping to see your house, or focusing on religious references hoping to pick out your personal belief-system, so too can you make of Stone whatever part of your personality you'd most like to identify with so that you can leave the theater knowing that you too could've made it.

In other words, the most telling line of the movie might have been when Kowalski needled Stone about being named "Ryan," and Stone of course responding that her dad wanted a boy, just as the audience might have been wanting a male hero rather than a female one (the hair cut helps expand the opportunities for identifying with Stone too, as does all the confusion about eye color).

So go see the movie and enjoy watching it, but I have a feeling that your favorite character in the movie might just be you.
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