But we were there to watch a movie, specifically Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Now, I know that there is an understandable human tendency to inflate our own sense of enjoyment of a thing the harder it is to come by. All else being equal, people just generally will say they liked a movie more if they made the effort to drive to the multiplex and ponied up the money for a ticket than if they borrowed someone else’s DVD and watched it at home. And that goes double for me, since I go to the movies so rarely and desperately want to believe that whenever I do, it’s the best possible use of my time. (Or, failing that, the worst.) All to say I may very well be biased, but you guys, Cuarón is a freaking genius, and Gravity is amazing.
It’s impressive as a feat of movie-making, at almost every level, from the camerawork to the sound to the acting to the special effects. It’s astonishingly immersive (seeing it larger-than-life on the big screen always helps in that regard) to the point where my wife and I were discussing at length during the drive back home how it was a movie we felt just as much as we saw or heard it. It’s emotionally harrowing and physically exhausting, with the lines between those experiences extremely hard to distinguish most of the time.
Of course, in this brave new world we live in of contrarianism and democratic self-publication, any time a piece of really gripping entertainment comes along there’s going to be a chorus of people who enjoy it early on and urge everyone else to go enjoy it as well, and then there’s going to be an inevitable backlash of people pointing out that, um, actually, it’s not perfect or anything. And that’s fair, nothing’s perfect. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions and it certainly is frustrating to feel like the one person not taking crazy pills. I’m not so tightly lashed to the Gravity bandwagon that I feel personally affronted if someone else criticizes it, but at the same time, I do feel like there are some people who might have missed the point a little.
A lot of the early buzz for Gravity dwelled on the verisimilitude of the movie’s outer space setting. Of course a lot of that buzz was written by professional movie critics, and then the flick was widely released and physics nerds saw it and began calling out all the scientific inaccuracies up on screen. I happen to be a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson so I checked out some of his tweets and some of them were things I too had noticed (like how Sandra Bullock’s hair never floats weightlessly the way her whole body seems to) and some were things I never would have known (like how some of the satellite orbits depicted are going exactly backwards compared to their real-world analogues). It was all scientifically valid nitpickery.
Somewhere else I read someone (who will remain nameless because they don’t rate a cool webcomic avatar) who was lamenting the shoehorning in of a tragic backstory for Sandra Bullock’s character. It was unnecessary, they claimed, as unnecessary as the deleted scenes from the original theatrical release of Aliens in which Ripley got similar emotional baggage. Cameron ultimately understood that the propulsive plot of the movie was enough to get the audience invested in Ripley’s fate, and Cuarón should have had the same faith in Ryan Stone’s struggle to survive and return safely to Earth.
That’s … slightly less valid. But one thing at a time.
To address the physicists and the astronomers first, I really have no beef with those guys. Most of them have been gracious and essentially acknowledge they are just playing a spot-the-goof parlor game for their own amusement. None of them are saying Gravity actually sucks and everyone is stupid for liking it; they're just showing off their big science brains, and more power to them. The thing is, Cuarón never boasted that he was making a scientifically unimpeachable movie, never dared the engineers of the world to poke holes in his thought experiment. He’s not trying to sell the movie to schools to replace science textbooks, and won’t somebody think of the children? If anybody thought the triumph or failure of Gravity as a piece of narrative art resided in its strictly abiding by realism, they’d be egregiously off-base. But nobody seems to be thinking that.
Now, as far as what is and is not germane to the story that Cuarón is trying to tell, it truly boggles my mind that anyone would think the backstory about Ryan Stone having lost her daughter is extraneous. That is what the movie is all about! It’s not a trifling, throwaway detail trying to wring some cheap sympathy out of the audience in the midst of a standard techno-thriller. It is the key to understanding the film, not as an adventure tale about a space shuttle mission gone wrong, but as a meditation on the grieving process. The entire movie is a metaphor.
Think about it: Ryan is going about her business, doing her job, installing a new whatzit on the Hubble Space Telescope. Then, without warning, there is a terrible accident. She becomes completely unmoored, tumbling blindly through the void. Someone reaches out to her (this would be George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski character) and guides her forward when she is helpless to move herself. She can barely breathe. Just when things seem to be getting better, Matt’s support goes away. She panics. She tries doing what needs to be done, but everything is topsy turvy. Very little makes sense to her (because at this point she’s on the Soyuz and everything’s in Russian). When she runs into an impossible challenge, she seriously contemplates suicide. But she decides she wants to survive and is going to live. Things don’t immediately get better at that point, in fact they get rougher and rougher, but eventually she makes it back to terra firma.
It’s when Matt is towing her to the International Space Station that Ryan explains how her young daughter fell and hit her head and died, just a “stupid accident”. The storm of space debris that repeatedly threatens Ryan’s life is also an accidental outcome, but that connection is anything but an accident. For cheap sympathy, Ryan’s daughter could have died of cystic fibrosis, or in a school shooting, or any number of ways that were either non-sudden or provided a third party to blame. Instead it’s an explicit connection, underlining the idea that grieving the death of a loved can feel as disorienting and isolating as being an astronaut adrift, weightless and untethered.
It’s a beautiful metaphor, and that (I presume to posit) is what Cuarón is really after in the movie. With masterful use of camera angles and movement and shot composition, the audience physically, viscerally feels everything Ryan Stone is feeling, all the vertigo and panic and claustrophobia, every single jarring impact, basically each conceivable mental symptom of grief, literalized in the narrative. And yet the movie ends with a message of hope. Ryan survives. At the end of the film she is literally back on her feet on solid ground. Grief is not an experience people want to go through, and some people are ultimately undone by it. But it can and does end. Life goes on.
So, Gravity is art, a $100 million attempt to grapple with this aspect of human existence, and to temporarily bring the audience into it. If the film had cheesy special effects, or blatant violations of a child’s understanding of physical cause and effect, then it would fail in the attempt. It has to be close enough for suspension of disbelief to allow for gut-level identification. If Cuarón deemed various things “close enough” to being scientifically accurate, and erred on the side of what served the art rather than the science, I can’t fault him for that. But make no mistake, nothing is shoehorned into the movie.
Funny enough, thinking about this helped me put a finger on a troubling aspect of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, even before watching this weeks’s episode, the series’ third. And then, in a coincidence I would not dare invent but can't bear to pass up acknowledging, last night's installment of S.H.I.E.L.D. was all about gravity, too! Specifically it was about a (fictional and unapologetically absurd) element called gravitonium which could create gravitational disturbances capable of upending tractor trailers or sinking an island and killing everyone on it.
(A character named Dr. Franklin Hall was a major part of the plot as well, and that is in fact the civilian alter ego of Avengers-opponent Graviton, whom I had previously suggested be incorporated into the MCU. As if gravitonium was not enough of a giveaway that they were building up to Graviton, the bumper at episode’s end showed a hand, presumably Hall’s, reaching out from the lethal element core in the S.H.I.E.L.D. holding facility. I’m geeked about this, but sadly the casting of Dr. Hall does close off one of my proposed avenues of entry for Christopher Lee. Back to the drawing board.)
My wife said that she liked the third episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. best so far, and that’s a good sign if we’re going to continue making it appointment television (which, let’s be honest, we totally are, if for no other reason than I am stubborn). The characters are coming along and the plots can therefore do things more meaningfully, because the audience has expectations about the characters that can be played with accordingly. But what I’ve come to realize is that S.H.I.E.L.D. is pretty much metaphor-free.
Not only is that a problem, it’s a singularly disappointing one considering the show’s Whedon pedigree. Buffy the Vampire Slayer will probably always stand as Joss’s masterpiece, and if you talk to anyone who’s a big fan of the series about what’s so great about it, assuming they’re not simply nursing a major crush on one or more cast members, the signature appeal is that it’s really a show about the rites of passage of adolescence and young adulthood, with everything filtered through supernatural metaphors. The consensus as to the moment where Buffy (the series) goes from “this is cute and amusing” to “HOLY CRAP” points to season two (spoilers again, for a 16 year old season of tv!), where starcrossed Buffy the slayer and Angel the vampire do the deed, and that triggers a magical curse which stipulates Angel will have a soul (and be tortured by a conscience) only until he experiences a moment of pure happiness. The lovemaking entails (at least one) such a moment, away goes Angel’s soul, and he becomes the murder-happy Big Bad for the rest of the season. It’s a killer (ha-ha) plot twist, but it works so well because of the underlying metaphor of girl meets boy, girl gives it up to boy, boy acts like a jerk after he got what he wanted and breaks girl’s heart. And to varying degrees, the rest of Buffy was all like that. Everything teenagers might struggle with or be afraid of was manifested in monsters and demons to be fought and destroyed. Buffy had experiences no one else in the real world ever would, which was entertaining on one level, but the stories being told were really about things everyone could relate to, which was satisfying on another level.
S.H.I.E.L.D. right now is operating on one superficial level only. I’ve been trying to figure out what experimental superhuman enhancements or Nazi-designed death rays or electro-activated gravitational disruptors are supposed to symbolize, and I’ve come up with nothing. The death ray is cool and all, but it is what it is for plot purposes only, a weapon that can be activated remotely to punch a hole in the side of the plane so that the climax of the episode can take place in a plane with a hole blown in the side of it. As someone who loves a good high concept, I’m not entirely opposed to that kind of storytelling. I’ve just been spoiled by, and become highly aware of, other, richer ways of going about it.