When I first saw GRAVITY, I saw it in 2D. Or as it’s better known, NOT in 3D. I was told by friends who enjoyed the film and knew that I was not a big fan of the usual 3D experience, that GRAVITY need not be seen in 3D, that it would work just as well without it. Being that they never saw the film in 2D, there was no way they could have understood what a vapid experience GRAVITY would be for me in 2D.
Since that time, I’ve been told again and again by other fans of the film that the 3D experience of GRAVITY is essential; that the film cannot be separated from the experience. The film was made to be seen on a big screen in 3D and any lesser experience is not a proper reflection on the film or the filmmakers.
They were right.
Watching GRAVITY in 3D was a completely different experience. Shots that seemed pointless, gimmicky and empty in 2D, came alive in 3D and suddenly Cuarón’s visual choices made sense, they were effective. I felt a deep sense of vertigo watching the film in 3D that was barely even hinted at in 2D. Wow. I sat there thinking to myself, “Maybe I was wrong…”
Let me go back for a moment and explain why I don’t usually respond well to 3D. What happens is this: I find myself so caught up in the 3D experience that it takes me much longer to actually get into the story; I find myself far less attentive to the narrative and characters, dialogue comes and goes, I catch bits and pieces, but my brain is too busy processing the three-dimensional experience. The same was true with GRAVITY. I was so taken with the feeling of being in outer space, that most of what they were doing and saying slipped past me. Thankfully, having already seen the film in 2D, I already knew. In 2D, I followed the plot, the dialogue, relied on the characters to take me on my journey. And the truth of the matter is, for me, the story and characters in GRAVITY are not strong enough to carry this film. The 3D is. But only to a point. By the halfway mark, after the initial “Wow” factor had worn off, I realized that I was still left with the same poorly-written, empty experience that had been the 2D journey. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ageless observation has never been displayed more poignantly and aggressively than in GRAVITY:
”Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing.” –Gillo Pontecorvo
GRAVITY is the most effective use of 3D I have ever seen, seconded only by Wim Wenders’ PINA. The difference here is that PINA is about something. GRAVITY, on the other hand, seems to have nothing to say, nothing else to offer BUT the 3D. Why can’t we use this amazing technology to create an experience that is satisfying as a whole? Instead, critics and audiences are tricked into thinking they are seeing an incredible film when they are, in fact, seeing an incredible and creative use of an advanced 3D technology. But at the end of the day, Cuarón’s status as a storyteller remains diminished. With the exception of A LITTLE PRINCESS, Cuarón, for me, has proven to be a director who leaves me feeling empty, oftentimes gypped. There’s a lot of impressive camerawork in terms of long-takes and well-choreographed shots, but what lies beneath those shots and takes is nothing more than thin air. Lift the top off and the air just dissipates into nothingness. Gillo was right. In the case of GRAVITY, the amazing 3D hides an emptiness that just keeps getting bigger.
Oddly, in most Cuarón films, there is a moment toward the end when, despite my growing feeling of disappointment, he sets up what I believe to be the most perfect and daring ending. Almost as if the entire structure of the film were tailor-made for this moment, this conclusion. And as I watch it unfold, I think to myself that if the film ends now, if it ends this way, it will make up for all the other “lesser” moments that had been disappointing me so much. In fact, it may allow those seemingly lesser moments to now reveal themselves as having intent, perhaps even a poignancy that simply requires patience and trust in the filmmaker. But Cuarón takes these moments, builds them to the penultimate edge… Then tosses them away.
Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, CHILDREN OF MEN, these films have amazing potential endings that are set up to leave the audience with questions, to allow them to be active participants, to give them something of value to take with them after the film has ended, to create a lasting and provocative experience. But Cuarón, time and again, dangles these potentially great cinematic moments in front of us, only to snatch them away and give in to what seems to be a fear-based response (Spoiler Alert: Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: she acted this way cause she knew she was dying of cancer. CHILDREN OF MEN: Yes, there is a ship after all).
GRAVITY reeks of fear to me. (More Spoilers) When Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, gives her final speech — that over-written, over-produced Hollywood moment when films feel the need to have their heroes spell out everything in verbal terms — Cuarón STILL manages to create a moment that, if he’d allowed himself, would have left the audience with something to genuinely chew on. After proclaiming to the universe (with a seriously bombastic score to back her) that there are only two ways this can go: either Stone will find herself at home tonight with one hell of a story to tell, OR she’ll burn up in the atmosphere and that, either way, it’s gonna be one hell of a ride… Cuarón had an amazing opportunity to leave us, the audience, out in space as Ryan Stone quickly descended toward Earth in a fiery ball. Does she make it? What do you think? It seems pointless and dissatisfying to me to have Stone pose the question only to have it answered 30 seconds later! Had Cuarón taken the opportunity he himself set up, he would have created an experience that actually had something of value to offer us; he would have allowed us to be introspective, to do exactly what a film like this — a film about human beings moving through the vastness and cold of space with their home far below, so close and yet so out of reach — should do: make us think, make us feel, make us ask questions of ourselves, of our experiences as human beings living on a planet out in the middle of… what, exactly? Instead, Cuarón takes us back to Earth, he doesn’t leave us in space, he doesn’t leave us with one single, solitary question, he asks NOTHING of us as an audience and brings the roller-coaster safely back to Earth so that we can all step off and go back to our lives unscathed, unchanged. Sure, we get to watch Stone crawl out of the primordial goo, like ancient ancestors before her, to a world that has lost its connection to satellite technology, but this is a tepid replacement for the gift that almost was.
For me, the entire film feels like a lesson in not taking risks. The 3D experience is so convincing, so effective, that one gets the sense that the George Clooney character, Matt Kowalski , is there, not so much to keep Sandra Bullock from panicking, but to keep the audience from panicking. Nothing fazes him. He’s fun and happy, listens to cowboy music and is always debonair and charming. He’ll take care of us, ease us through this harrowing cinematic 3D experience. Thank god Cuarón finally takes Kowalski away. Of course, he goes — not just willingly — but cracking jokes, listening to music and admiring the view. Why, this isn’t so scary or existentially frightening after all… But wait… Cuarón suddenly brings Kowalski back again in what is one of the most obvious and unnecessary bits of writing I’ve witnessed in ages. I was so happy to have gotten rid of this character who stood between me and an actual experience, an actual emotion. Alas… From this point forward, the story descends with frightening rapidity into predictable, overwrought simplicity. Unimaginative writing slides headlong into pablum and not even the amazing 3D can hide the vacuity that is the story and characters of GRAVITY.