Gravity

This summer was a disappointing time for films. Thankfully award season has started. From now until the end of the year is our best chance for movies that hit that sweet spot of artistic integrity and entertainment value.

Most people seem to think Gravity is the epitome of that. Naturally, I disagree.

Let me start by saying I was reallyreallyreallyreally excited for this movie. I love space. I grew up reading books about NASA and the space program. I love space movies. I’m a real sucker for them. I’ll enjoy the space stuff even if there’s not a great movie surrounding it.

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I can say that Gravity is the best sci-fi of the year. It’s not inane and stupid like Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s not “just for fun” like Pacific Rim. And it isn’t preachy like Elysium.

So how is it, actually?

It’s very, very, very pretty. Look at that space! Space! Space!

The movie is an absolute marvel of visual effects and cinematography. The “camera” takes full advantage of the freedom provided by a zero-gravity environment. This leads to some lengthy free-flowing shots including the thirteen minute opening shot. Very impressive stuff.

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Also impressive is the sound design. I love it when there’s no sound in space, but so few movies respect this basic scientific fact. Gravity cleverly maintains scientific accuracy here. It’s only completely silent a few times. Elsewhere, the silence of space is covered by radio chatter, breathing noises, the muffled sounds of objects contacting the astronauts’ suits, and an effective score. Fair enough.

I willingly saw this movie in 3D.

That never happens.

I’ve been an avowed 3D hater for years now, but I read in all the reviews that it was worthwhile so I gave it a shot. I worried during the previews that I’d made a huge mistake. For example, the preview for The Hobbit gave me a headache. It was way over the top. And maybe it was because my eyes adjusted or maybe the effect was more subtle in Gravity but I was actually fine with it. I would be interested to see the movie again in good ol’ 2D just for comparison, but I don’t regret seeing the 3D version at all.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts who become stranded in space. The acting is good as you would expect from these two though I wonder if it might have been less distracting to have had lesser-known actors filling the space suits.

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George Clooney is playing George Clooney. He’s charming and fun to watch. He’s also a hugely comforting presence in a very frightening situation. That both helps and harms the film. Bullock is the real star here. I’ve heard lots of people rave about her acting here and I find no fault in it, but it didn’t blow me away either. I never stopped seeing her as an actress in a movie.

I think the problem was the writing. In terms of dialogue – there’s not much of it, but there are things that really bothered me. Bullock’s Dr. Stone gets a bit of backstory that I didn’t connect with at all. It came off as a desperate attempt to get the audience to care about her. The film didn’t need that. I would feel sorry for my worst enemy if they were drifting alone in space. That is a completely terrifying thought.

The other distracting “problem” is the scientific accuracy. It’s really, really good in most places, but there are some egregious deviations from reality that, depending on how much you know about physics and space travel, may really pull you out of the movie.

Director Alfonzo Cuarón has freely admitted Gravity is not about being scientifically accurate. Some concessions needed to be made in order to tell the story. Okay, that’s fine. But there’s really not much of a story to tell. It’s a very basic survival story and that’s fine. But for me it isn’t a happy medium. I would have personally preferred either more science or more story.

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For whatever reason, the film never really pulled me in. It is gorgeous to look at but felt distant from it most of the time. There were only a couple times I felt frightened or concerned. It didn’t ask me to invest much and I didn’t get much out of it. It was a fun ride. But it was just a ride.

Nevertheless, Gravity is absolutely worth seeing and I’m glad it’s done as well as it has at the box office. But for me it simply isn’t the transcendent experience I was led to expect and that other people are apparently having. In terms of effects and cinematography it breaks new ground, but it falls short of inspiring my imagination like other science fiction of the past.

The Star Wars Prequels: looking on the bright side

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C’mon. You know this is cool.

Yesterday, a good friend of mine made me aware of this article: Watching the Star Wars Prequels on Mute: An Experiment.

Much has been said about the Star Wars prequels. Most of it negative. The internet loves talking about how awful they are, how much they missed the mark, how the writing’s no good, and what the heck was George Lucas thinking anyway?

Actually, I’m more annoyed with how Lucas has altered the old films than by the prequels themselves. It always seemed apparent to me that he was really trying even if he was also really failing.

Or did he fail after all?

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The drama! The horror!

This post looks at Star Wars as visual art. By watching the movies on mute you take away the terrible dialogue and the awkward delivery of said dialogue. Remove the ham-handed scripts and these films become all about the imagery and what that communicates.

Film has so many aspects to it and not all filmmakers are great at wielding every element. For some, their strength lies in writing, plotting, and working with actors. George Lucas is infamously bad at all of those things. But the man has proven himself to be a master of visuals.

We can debate his focus on innovation over proper storytelling, sure. Did he go too far with GCI? Absolutely. Did it make the films terrible? No. It gave them a different aesthetic. We may like it or hate it, but I can’t deny that there’s a certain power in the visuals of Star Wars – even in the prequels.

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It might not look real, but there’s certain fantastic quality to this shot

Like a lot of Millennials, I saw the original trilogy growing up. I watched them on VHS for the first time in the mid 90s and then saw the special edition re-releases in theaters. I was absolutely psyched when Phantom Menace came out.

I was also nine years old so I enjoyed it and thought it was good.

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Remember these, guys?

After the prequels ended in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith, I started hearing the negative talk about the movies. As I listened to the criticism and my artistic and critical sensibilities grew and matured, I began to turn on the prequels as well. I saw them as terrible movies made by a man who had lost his way.

But I could never hate them. I could never bring myself to actually dislike watching them. They were still Star Wars to me – even if a sloppy, less-than-perfect Star Wars.

Reading this article reminded me why there’s definitely still some artistic merit to these movies. There are legitimate reasons to not write them off completely and to enjoy them for what they do well.

I’m probably not going to try the exercise of watching Star Wars on mute myself. I don’t really have the time for that. But by reading this post, I have gained a bit more of an appreciation for movies that I dearly wish had turned out better. It even helped me regain some respect for George Lucas. Despite what he’s done to the films in re-releases, the man is still a visionary and he’s gotten an immense amount of hatred for something that doesn’t really make an eternal difference to anyone.

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Now if J.J. Abrams makes a bad Star Wars movie…

Just don’t, J.J.

Just don’t.