Sunday, October 13, 2013

“Gravity” – There’s a reason why it’s called science fiction.

What is it that makes most critics lambast directors like Michael Bay and fawn all over directors like Alfonso Cuaron? More specifically, what makes these critics want to pick up torches and pitchforks over a movie like Armageddon and collectively orgasm over a movie like Gravity? For those of you who have always been confused about critics’ responses to movies, let me shed a little light on that subject.

To begin with, most main-stream critics have at least some education in film studies, if not full-blown college degrees in film. One way you can usually tell who these critics are is that they love to use lots of large words and/or lots of film words. Wesley Morris over on Grantland is a great example of someone using as many big words as possible to make his reviews sound more sophisticated. Every time I read one of his reviews, I shake my head and laugh because (a) Grantland is hosted by ESPN, meaning (b) its readership is largely made up of sports fans, thus (c) most of them probably don’t understand most of those words or even know how to pronounce them. More importantly, using words like exposition and chauvinism in a review of G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the height of unintentional comedy. It’s a movie based on toy action figures and aimed at young boys; I’m pretty sure concepts like chauvinism were roughly a billion miles from any brain involved in that movie.

Another way you can spot them is by their constant references to films, directors, and actors that are overrated, unknown to all but fourteen humans, or referenced so often they’ve become clichés (if you want examples: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The 400 Blows, The Godfather, respectively). This is similar to the people you meet at parties who brag about everything and everyone they’ve done or met, name-dropping as much as possible to convince you of their superiority and status as an expert. This is probably the biggest reason why most movie review comment boards are filled with people telling critics various ways to go have sex with themselves.

Finally, these “experts” can be spotted by their praise of the technical aspects of films, including the various performances of the cast, but rarely explaining why those things are good or bad, just that they are. Maybe the average reader doesn’t care about the explanation, but then, like those big film words, why bring them up? Why is the lighting in one scene so important? What’s the significance of the color contrast in the costuming? What makes Angelina Jolie’s performances so good and Keanu Reeves’ performances so bad? Conversely, they tend to not know jack about certain subjects, but try to talk about it anyway. Claudia Puig of USA Today mistook a C-130 for a fighter jet in her review of Olympus Has Fallen. In his review of Gravity, Morris mistakes the Hubble Space Telescope for a space station. When all of that is put together, it’s easy to see where the term “film snob” comes from and why most critics are labeled as such.

Whether or not you think I’m a film snob is up to you, but I’d like to think I’m not. First, the closest thing I have to a film education is that my wife has a BA in film. If you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you know that I rarely get into technical stuff mostly because I don’t care to and I’m betting you don’t either, but also because I don’t have the proper education to do it justice (read my review of Cloud Atlas for a good example of this). Second, my top ten movies list includes Independence Day and Starship Troopers. Enough said. Most importantly, I care about story and character development above all else. For me, the point of making any movie is to tell a story, and technical superiority in a film should serve only to propel the story forward. There is no excuse for lazy writing, which is why a lot of my reviews get down on a lot of movies; even ones that I thought were okay. With the exception of the folks over at Ruthless Reviews, most critics treat the story as a byproduct of the filmmaking process when the truth is the story and its characters are what matters most. To me, everything else is just window dressing.

Gravity seems to be a convergence all of those things. The vast majority of critics liked the movie (97% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 96/100 positive rating on Metacritic) and audiences forked over enough money to give it the largest grossing opening weekend in October ever. The reviews all gush over the visual aspects of the film, yet go into no detail about what makes them so extraordinary other than to say “Space. Rad.” Only one of them (that I saw at least) even bothered to mention the opening sequence being a several-minute, single-shot cut. This is worth mentioning because the average action movie cut is less than two seconds and the level of difficulty for a single cut of that length is off the charts, even with the help of CGI layovers. They ignore the bad science and head scratching details for the same reasons of gushing over “how real it looks.” In Puig’s review, she states “Every detail seems meticulously researched, from distant shots of a glimmering Earth to sounds heard only from inside space suits. Computer-generated imagery, animation and live action are seamlessly blended” (we’ll come back to this quote in a minute) acting as if Cuaron was working miracles on a budget far less than the actual $100 million budget. Cuaron, is talked about as if he is a household name along the lines of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, but if you asked any random moviegoer to name a movie he’s done you’d only get a bunch of blank stares. And, if you like word-of-the-day toilet paper, here’s a sentence from Morris’ review: “The thematic minimalism deserves maximum projection.” Touchdown!

(Obligatory Spoiler warning. Houston – we have a Spoiler warning.)

So, again why are Gravity and Cuaron being tauted as Oscar shoo-ins, while Bay and Armageddon continue to be treated as punchlines? Armageddon was a well-constructed and entertaining film, blending action, comic relief, tension, and visual effects with pseudoscience and the scary space threat of the day (asteroids hitting Earth). Gravity is a well-constructed and entertaining film, blending action, tension, and visual effects with pseudoscience and the scary space threat of the day (runaway domino effect of satellite collisions destroying all satellites). Based on that, they’re essentially the same quality of movie. The difference is that the critics seem to think that Gravity was a hair’s breadth from a documentary while Armageddon was a cartoon. Allow me to go a little space-nerd on you as I explain.

Cuaron admitted in an interview that certain liberties were taken with science and reality in the interest of story. Great – I can accept that. However, the film snobs ignored Cuaron’s statement as evidenced by Puig’s quote from above. Sure, there was a tremendous amount of detail in the visuals of the space shuttle, the Hubble, and the space station, but we have troves of pictures of those objects, not to mention detailed schematics. It only should have surprising if they hadn’t gotten those things right and, again, $100 million budget. The critics also loved how they “got the astronaut’s movements right.” While that is true for most of the movie, there are two scenes in particular that contradict that statement. In one scene, Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) uses a fire extinguisher to maneuver through space (well, it’s possible at least) and in the second, Commander Kowalski (George Clooney) is hanging on to Stone’s hand as if he is falling off a cliff. Seriously – in space. As he and Stone are trying to grab on to the space station as they fly by, Stone gets tangled in some ropes and snatches Kowalski in the nick of time. When they go taut, instead of recoiling back in the opposite direction, he continues to pull on her. This might not have been so egregious had other scenes in the film played out the same, but the other scenes always depicted the recoil. So what the hell happened there (hint: standard action movie cliché)?

Besides that, my real complaint is in lazy writing decisions for the sake of visuals that easily could have been avoided without taking away from the film. First, Cuaron insisted on using the correct names for everything in the film – Hubble, International Space Station (ISS), Soyuz, etc. – but made up a name for the shuttle (Explorer). Why not just pick a real shuttle name? Second, the conflict occurs because the Russians decide to shoot down one of their own satellites, creating a debris field that destroys the shuttle, the Hubble, the ISS, and “all of the communications satellites.” Making the Russians the villains and not just having two satellites accidentally collide (an actual concern) is just lame and another standard action movie cliché. Setting that aside, the entire premise is flawed because all of those things orbit at different altitudes above the Earth and different orbital planes, so the chain reaction would have taken years, if ever at all. Even if they were in the same orbital plane, the ISS is around 230 miles, Hubble is around 350 miles, most Low Earth Orbit satellites are between 600 and 800 miles and a very large portion of communication satellites are around 22,200 miles. By putting real names to the things in the movie, Cuaron introduced plot holes that could literally be measured in miles. That problem could have been solved by, wait for it, different names. And that’s not even the only problem created by those names. After rescuing Stone after the initial disaster, Kowalski flies them from the Hubble to the ISS (120 miles) using only a jet-pack that didn’t even have a full fuel tank. And just because Cuaron wanted to include every action cliché possible, Stone’s oxygen is down to 6% percent when they begin the journey. By the time they would have made it to the space station, they both would have been long dead, if not Stone at the very least. Third, Stone is able to remove her space suit in a matter of seconds (normally a one hour job at minimum) and is wearing nothing but a tanktop and skintight boy-shorts underneath specifically so he can show her wearing next to nothing. Attention to detail, really? Not even the most fantastical of space movies dressed their astronauts so lightly.

I don’t want you to think I’m picking on just Morris and Puig and their reviews. Here’s what Owen Gleiberman wrote for Entertainment Weekly – “Gravity is an awesome technological daydream of a movie, one that might be classified as science fiction, except that it isn’t a futuristic fantasy.” He continues, “At the beginning we hear radio burbles of talk between the astronauts and Houston, and then, almost imperceptibly, a spacecraft drifts into view from the right side of the screen – it’s a U.S. shuttle, and the astronauts are walking outside of it, attempting to repair a problem on the ship. You’ll surely be reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, because what Cuaron echos from Kubrick’s great film…” Aside from the fact that 2001 is most decidedly not a great film (the book was written after the movie because nobody understood what the hell they had just watched), he manages to reference an overrated movie, use large words unnecessarily, and mistakes basic facts about the movie – all while praising it for technical achievements without explaining what makes those achievements notable. And just so we’re clear – it absolutely is science fiction and fantasy.

After all of this, I want to stress that I actually did enjoy Gravity and thought it was a good, but not great film. While some of my criticism is directed at Cuaron’s screenplay, my real problem is with the way the critics have displayed their film-snobbishness by raving in their reviews, proclaiming Gravity as the inevitable best-picture Oscar winner, even gushing over Cuaron’s use of 3-D (which remains as useless in this film as in any other film). If a movie as flawed as Gravity gets nominated for best picture for simply having great visuals, then Michael Bay is owed one hell of an apology.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back, plus your 3-D surcharge. The visuals are great, but for $100 million and all of NASA’s photos, they should be.

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