Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

In my opinion, the key to making special effects convincing onscreen is designing the effect to look somewhere between real and unreal. When the audience can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, they will believe it. This is what happened to me during Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Since Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón takes his love of the long take and brings it to new levels. I couldn’t figure out how these long shots were accomplished.  The camera floats freely around the astronauts in space in long takes, occasionally shifting from third person perspective to first person. The camera loops, twirls, corkscrews around space, completely forgoing the human sense of up and down. It looked like the cameraman was really floating around with the actors. I knew that wasn’t possible. But eventually I tapped out and let the movie spectacle just wash over me.

As science fiction thematically explores the extreme potential of mankind, awe is an important component to every science fiction story. I was in sheer awe through the entirety of Gravity. Firstly, outer space and the beauty of Earth from a distance awed me. Then there was the solemn beauty of witnessing the space stations being decimated in space. I began to marvel at the destruction and momentarily thought deep thoughts. It was as if for a second I was watching waves wash ashore on a beach while reading J. Krishnamurti. Finally, I was awed by the fragility of human life. After all, all astronauts are just little fishes trying to survive out of their own habitat. The experience was otherworldly, self-reflective and dangerous all at the same time.

I walked into Gravity mistakenly thinking it was a George Clooney vehicle. To my surprise, it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Sandra Bullock has always had a natural personable quality onscreen. Whether it was pining for her crush to awaken from a coma in While You Were Sleeping or driving a bus that’s primed to explode in Speed, she’s always able to draw the audience into her plight with vulnerability. Bullock’s characters never feel above the audience. Often this quality of hers get overlooked from having to play cheerful funny characters in romantic comedies.

In Gravity, that quality is used to its full extent. We watch as she struggles to survive a series of obstacles. Her performance is as immersive as the special effects. She draws you in completely into her plight. I wish more depth were given to her character. By the beginning of the third act, the film starts to run low on its spectacle and it came to the moment where more character was needed for a bigger statement. Gravity elected to stay with its spectacle and jetted for the finish line. It had a good ending, but it was missing that final thematic punch that answers, “What is this story ultimately about?” and “Why am I watching this?”

And for that, Gravity is a great gem and one exhilarating thrill ride. I am even happy that it was a great role for Sandra Bullock. I just do not know if the thrills will be as compelling on subsequent viewings. So in the end, it is not a masterpiece, but very awesome nonetheless.

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Pacific Rim by Guillermo del Toro – 100th post!

Pacific Rim by Guillermo Del Toro

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

The fights are the main attraction. You either go along with that premise or not, there’s no two ways about it. In reality, it’s probably more resourceful to bomb these giant monsters or shoot them with a very big cannon, instead of making giant robots to punch them to death. But where’s the fun in that? Suffice to say, the fights are a tense visceral experience and the scale of everything delivers an epic sense of awe. They do everything to up the ante and surprise the audience. Special moves are only used in climatic moments and there’s just something about a giant robot using a boat as a bat that’s just hilarious and jaw-dropping. These fights run very dangerously to the cinematic equivalent of watching somebody play a video game. That’s why I like the drifting mind meld concept, because it solves that problem by it properly adding both physical and emotional conflict to the pilots controlling the Jaegars as well. It focuses to how well these pilots are controlling the Jaegars as opposed to how the Jaegars are fighting the Kaijus.

The fights are shot somewhat tightly but for a very good reason. Shooting the fights close holds the tension and injects the sense of jeopardy and stake into every exchange in the fight choreography. I imagine if the fights were covered entirely in long wide shots, it would lose that sense of scale and the fights would look silly. That said, I had no problem following what’s going on because emotionally it felt right to be watching them that way. And personally, it was doubly fun that the film was set in Hong Kong.

There’s been a common complaint that the characters lacked development, I disagree.  Basically these people all have baggage and they have to band together as a team or fall apart. The film spends time building arcs for its ensemble cast, and it’s sufficient to justify the epic robot monster fights. That’s it, so I don’t understand that complaint. Adding neat little quirks or oddball idiosyncrasies to these characters would have been overkill.

The dialogue is one of the film’s weaker portions. However, depending on how well each actor was able to milk the lines, I was still able to have fun with it. I couldn’t stop cackling at Charlie Day’s fast-paced high-pitched deliveries, who rises above being “Dr. Exposition” and balances the film with comic relief. Day’s exchange with the rival math-based scientist played by Burn Gorman is essentially a cartoon-level quarrel equivalent to Daffy Duck arguing with Bugs Bunny. The math Gorman’s scientist applies is is grade-school at best. Ron Perlman facetiously entertains in flying colors as the Kaiju body parts black marketer Hannibal Chau, the most asshole character name ever created. Idris Elba also adds significant weight as the team leader. So for me, the side characters take the cake from the Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi storyline, which was played very straight for story purposes.

Guillermo del Toro is aware of current big-budget blockbuster tropes and differentiates himself from those trends in Pacific Rim. There are no homage or geek references to distract or alienate the audience. Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako character is not sexualized or filmed through a salivating male gaze; she is a real human character with a story and treated as such. The film doesn’t play like a military recruitment advertisement nor has any blatant nationalistic or jingoistic intentions. Perhaps one of my favorite things about Pacific Rim is it tonally divorces itself from post-9/11 sentimentality. The world has its own distinct fictional reality, where destruction is not linked by evoking imagery, memories or emotions from September 11th. Civilians evacuate from buildings, hide in shelters and the streets are clear for the Jaegers to bash the Kaijus. Most importantly, del Toro never dwells heavily on despair or hopelessness and the audience can enjoy the city-wide destruction guilt-free. All those things counted together, Pacific Rim is truly a breath of fresh air amidst current blockbuster aesthetics and a film made with the most earnest intentions.

Without an A-list star, a love story or a recognizable established franchise (i.e. Godzilla or Transformers) , it’s not hard to see why Pacific Rim didn’t score at the box office. As Snakes On A Plane proved at its theatrical release, the geek fan base doesn’t represent much of the core population. The geeks merely are just the most vocal. Perhaps other parts of the demographic are alienated just by the material itself, despite that del Toro is aiming to entertain everybody. If there’s one underdog movie people should give a chance to this summer, let it be Pacific Rim. It’s a passionate earnest film made by a director that loves the material and wants to deliver good clean fun with a positive message for everybody. His attention to every little detail exudes his excitement for the material; that passion rubbed off on me and elevated my enjoyment.  It’s the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this summer. Guillermo del Toro, give me a hug!