Thursday, November 14, 2013

Force of Gravity / Ender's Lame

The black and lonely reaches of space have long provided the setting of many a famous horror film. Ridley Scott’s Alien pitted man against a terrifying monstrosity of nature in all its chaotic violence, using a buglike menace to make audiences feel the full depth of human weakness against the unknown. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 likewise expounded the terrifying reality of our mortal frailty, but instead of focusing on a war between man and nature, Kubrick wove an intense and credible yarn about technological shortcomings and the propensity for creation to rebel against creator.  Even in video games, storytellers have seized upon the medium of outer space to toy with audience’s greatest fears, with Visceral’s graphic but effective Dead Space series being the outstanding example in its field.  Out of all the space horror stories, though, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is undoubtedly the most plausible, realistic, and visually breathtaking, if not quite the scariest.  There are few genres in cinema that can inflict a greater emotional payload than the “lone man” survival story, and Gravity wields its pathos with a raw, unbridled ferocity, rendering it one of the best films I’ve yet seen in theaters.

The narrative is simple and methodically paced, taking not 10 minutes to introduce each of its 4 or 5 characters (all but two of which are instantly expendable, like Guy from Galaxy Quest) and establish a scene of gentle but uneasy calm before launching into the events so dramatically depicted in the marketing campaign.  An opening text crawl presses that “life in space is Impossible”, not so much to state the obvious as to set up the appropriate mood for the story; at the same time a single musical note climbs to a deafening blast, then cuts to silence with a camera that seems to orbit the earth from the heavens.  Eventually an American space shuttle catches up to this camera, which proceeds to fly around its hull effortlessly and track the activities of the various astronauts working on the Hubble Telescope outside it.  From the start, the film focuses on two individuals: Matt Kowalski, a cool and collected veteran space walker who glories at the magnificent wonders of space without regard to its dangers, and Ryan Stone, a relatively inexperienced “Mission Specialist”, which Hollywood fact-checkers inform me isn’t the same position depicted in the movie as if I care when I really don’t.  The beauty of the earth from their vantage point is striking, and the solitude of space seems utterly peaceful, but this delicate peace cannot sustain itself for long.  When a missile unexpectedly decimates a Russian satellite, Mission Control at Houston reports that deadly showers of debris are flying towards them faster than a speeding bullet.  Needless to say, what ensues is a disaster of incredible proportions which tears the shuttle apart in spectacular detail and dislodges both Stone and Kowalski into the harsh and empty void of space, leaving them with little oxygen, a nearly depleted jet thruster, and a narrow timeframe to reach the closest space station and hitch a ride home.

The camera doesn’t appear to break once during the entire opening sequence even when the action starts to take effect, and the whole film is populated with similarly lengthy and apparently unbroken shots that should be a familiar signature to anyone who’s encountered writer and director Cuaron’s previous work in the well-received apocalyptic drama Children of Men.  I haven’t seen that movie myself and I wasn’t overly impressed by his other, more renowned English-language film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but the direction and cinematography here are truly mesmerizing and sometimes jaw-dropping in their naturalistic effect.  What I expected to be a gimmicky and gratuitous trick like 3D turned out to be a powerful instrument for drawing the audience into the story and making them feel like 1st-person witnesses to real perils and calamities endured by astronauts.  To parrot an oft-repeated trope from the critical community, the camera in Gravity really does represent a kind of 3rd character in this concentrated narrative of survival, imparting to viewers the same sensations of weightlessness, confusion, and overwhelming mortality that the protagonists, specifically Stone, wrestle and overcome with time.  Cuaron’s application of 3D also signifies the first time I would recommend the medium in a motion picture, not so much because I experienced its added effects, having seen it in 2D, but because I felt the prevalent and somewhat distracting weight of its absence.  As opposed to most movies that either thoughtlessly throw a slim handful of random things at the screen or make no effort to justify the ticket surcharge at all, Gravity consistently dangles people and debris in front of the viewer’s eyes throughout the whole 1.5 hour running time to create an immersive and probably dizzying bond with those sitting in the theater.  The movie still looked fabulous in the standard presentation, but I got the impression that I was only receiving half of the storytelling’s impact. Regardless of what format one chooses to watch it in, Gravity should definitely be beheld on the largest screen possible, as it will easily be picking up nominations and likely awards for all the technical aspects of filmmaking, from its cinematography and editing to its phenomenal special effects.

Whether its two stars will receive any prizes for their involvement remains an entirely different question, one I’m inclined to answer negatively, not because Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play their parts poorly by any measure but simply because their characters probably aren’t as complex or demanding as many others we’ll see this year.  Clooney deftly imbues Kowalksi with all the sardonic pluck and larger-than-life egotism that his roles always possess; in other words, he’s basically playing the same on-screen persona that you either love or hate by this point, but he does succeed at easing the viewer’s fears as well as Stone’s through humor and his ever upbeat demeanor, which is an admirable feat.  Bullock likewise gives a great performance as Stone, perfectly exhibiting the heroine’s fierce contest between strength and terror, resolve and despair, and making such forces genuinely palpable.  In the end though, despite a couple of backstory twists that surface early on in the film, she’s really just playing a physically and emotionally weak woman who faces death head on and majestically emerges as a resilient and godlike titan. As with The Blind Side, the theme is triumphant, the character inspiring, and Bullock’s performance exceptional, but critics have rather overblown just how worthy the role is to merit a reward.

Still, the acting is just as superb as any of the visual elements, and if I were to identify a single major flaw in this survival thriller it would only be that it’s a survival thriller.  The intrinsic pitfall that any director aiming to tell a survival story faces is his audience’s subconscious foreknowledge that at least someone in the narrative is going to survive.  Since Gravity whittles the list of possible survivors down to two within the very first scene, the film sacrifices a lot of the suspense that it might otherwise have sustained if the story had more players and gave less certainty as to who would make it out alive.  While the catastrophic events captured on screen are certainly thrilling and intense, they’re not truly suspenseful due to the predictable obligations of the plot.  Riddle me this: if the movie’s only a half-hour in and the main character appears to be imperiled, is she really imperiled?

Nevertheless, this is a totally non-unique complaint that only slightly detracts from the equally beautiful, horrifying, and pulse-pounding experience of watching Gravity.  A heroic and mythical story that almost seems too simple at face value, it can be appreciated, discussed, and interpreted on a literal and a metaphorical level, symbolizing both the abject dangers of life beyond our world and the journey of a soul from spiritual ambivalence to humility and faith in a higher being than man.  So long as Hollywood keeps churning out movies like this, I’ll continue to gravitate towards my theater.

Grade rating: Mass * Acceleration = A-

Sub-note: I see that there has been a small degree of controversy revolving around the filmmakers’ decision to garb 40-something Sandra Bullock in a form-fitting tank top and shorts instead of a more realistic, spacefarer’s diaper, while the decision of those filmmakers behind We’re The Millers to (un)dress 40-something Jennifer Anniston in something even smaller has been unilaterally ignored or applauded by the same sowers of said controversy.  Such critics need to get a replacement pair of eyeballs.

Trailer Reviews
The Counselor – Between Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator, Ridley Scott has built a mostly successful filmography (until he sacrilegiously defiled his own sci-fi legend with Prometheus), but this just looks like ultraviolent cow dung headed by a mostly mediocre cast.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa – Stupid name aside, this looks like an awesome premise for some straight-to-DVD, slapstick poppycock.  But it’s not a straight-to-DVD movie, and the preview wasn’t that funny.
Grudge Match – Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky returns to the boxing ring for a 6th time, only this time he isn’t technically playing Rocky, he looks twenty years older, and he’s fighting alongside Robert De Niro, who also looks twenty years older than he did in... never mind – he was never an action hero in his youth.  We’ve obviously seen this before, albeit without the admittedly funny mockery of hiring boxers to motion-capture themselves for 21st century video games.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Complex – Adapted from a series of books I hadn’t read or even heard of up to this point by the recently deceased thriller legend Tom Clancy, this appears to be loaded with shaky camera, but the trailer does climax with an awesome scene of a van ramming off a tall bridge, Inception-style.  The cast led by Chris Pine and Keira Knightley has a decent track record and the direction of Kenneth Branagh, who has brought us such Shakespearean masterpieces as Henry V and As You Like It on top of popular blockbusters like Thor, leaves me more optimistic about this than I would ordinarily be.
August: Osage Country – Ah, The Lumineers’ ‘Stubborn Love’.  The quintessential sappy movie trailer song.  Stay home and listen to it 20 times instead of giving more money to Meryl Streep for a movie that has ridiculous dialogue.  (Grandma talking to a teenage girl) “You’re so big!  LOOK at your BOOBS.  Last time I saw you you looked like a little boy.”
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug – The most outstanding thing about this preview was how unnatural it looked in 2D.  The CG animation and New Zealand landscapes look spectacular but simultaneously weird without the 3rd dimension to complete the illusion that Middle Earth is dancing in front of my eyes.  Anyway, it’s clear by this point that Peter Jackson took way too many liberties with Tolkien’s book to stretch this unexpected journey over three parts.  Even if Legolas does court some other elf in one of Tolkien’s supplementary LOTR short stories, I fail to comprehend how that sideplot and many others are remotely tied to The Hobbit’s narrative crux, viz. Bilbo’s adventure there and back again.
The Monuments Men – Why George Clooney chooses to pursue a career in writing and directing movies instead of just making commercials for the Democrat National Committee continues to baffle me, as every one of his projects so far (Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides Of March) has been little more than a vehicle to propagate his frankly asinine views on American government.  To quote Clooney himself, “Freedom of speech means you have to let the idiots speak, and that’s the unfortunate thing... This guy clearly wanted to create problems... but the simple truth is that in order to make [democracy] work, the idiots get to have their say, too. And that’s unfortunate.”  Allegedly based on a true story about preservationists who try to protect historical documents, monuments, and artwork from the Nazis in the infernal chaos of WWII, Monuments Men doesn’t seem to have to most riveting or heroic subject matter but is graciously less politically charged at face value, even with the presence of Matt “Everyone should contribute more support for public schools except I, who will continue sending my daughters to expensive private schools” Damon.  At least there’s Bill Murray to compensate for these two idiots, and John Goodman is returning to play the same smartalecky guy that John Goodman always plays.

And it is here that I must defer to The Author’s Files first (real) guest writer, my good brother Phil M. Komen Tory, who will be giving us the run-down on the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, because he wasn't smart enough to heed my boycott.

Overcrowded, multilayered, concept artsy – why don't we see more Star Wars-y posters like this?

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.  I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.  And then, in that very moment when I love them–”
“You beat them.”

Such are the words of Andrew (Ender) Wiggin to his sister Valentine.  Ender Wiggin is a third child in a society where couples are limited to have only two children – incidentally this information is not actually given in the movie despite several allusions to the fact.  He is a social outcast, a situation that is only worsened by the fact that he is also one of Earth’s brightest adolescents and is enrolled in a school that trains children for a future military career.  When Ender’s monitor – a device that allows his teachers to see through his eyes and hear his thoughts, thus aiding them in their evaluation process – is removed, he is tormented by both older children at his school and his older brother at home.  As Ender soon learns, however, this was a merely his final test before entering battle school, where he begins his military training, which takes place in the form of zero gravity battles between the different “armies” of students.  Here he is tormented further by jealous students, and Ender learns that a teacher by the name of Colonel Hyrum Graff is isolating him so as to bring out his full skill and potential.  Graff also introduces Ender to the mind game, a video game designed to mirror the players emotions and feelings, thus aiding the teachers in their evaluation of the cadets.  To reveal much more would be to spoil the entire film for you and so I shall say no more concerning the plot of the movie (not that it’s really worth seeing).

Before I tear this film apart digital limb by digital limb, I shall focus on one of the few positive aspects of the film, mainly Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford’s acting.  Asa Butterfield does a superb job as Ender, communicating through his expression what mere words cannot.  He also manages to convey surprising amounts of emotion even through his formal, monotone speech.  I was shocked witnessing Butterfield express Ender’s brutal instinct in several different scenes.  Harrison Ford too deserves a sizeable acknowledgement for his part in the film as the strict and heartless Colonel Graff, coming across as uncaring and impatient.  Everyone else, however, is boring, one-dimensional, and utterly devoid of any purpose in the film except to be there.  Ben Kingsley does a decent job as Mazer Rackham, who unfortunately is about as interesting as dirt.  Abigail Breslin does an acceptable job as Valentine, who is equally boring, if not more so, than Mazer.  Viola Davis plays Major Anderson, who acts like your regular damsel in distress despite her rank.  I’m not sure whether I was supposed to think of Petra as a helpless, young girl, a tough battle school veteran, or Ender’s girlfriend.  Bean is an obnoxious twelve year old with an extremely annoying voice – which upon further reflection is shockingly comparable to Justin Bieber’s, not a pretty thought.  And Bonzo, Peter, and Stilson are your stereotypical bullies, although this is more the fault of the writers than of the actors themselves.

Gavin Hood and his crew took what’s probably one of the best books I’ve read and turned it into a poorly executed mishmash of zero gravity battles, pretty CGI scenery, and boring, one-dimensional characters.  While Gavin Hood manages to stick the story in the first ten minutes of the film, Ender’s time at battle school is practically indecipherable from the book, mashing various battles and characters together and erasing certain characters entirely as well as chopping out half the book.  On a similar note, Ender’s brother, Peter, might as well have been written out of the script entirely. He appears in one scene, in which he is portrayed one-dimensionally as an evil bully who lives but to torment his brother, a picture very dissimilar to the book’s representation.  I was very disappointed to learn that Major Anderson had been cast as a girl… or perhaps it was an allusion to a much darker truth… Gavin Hood also turned the mind game, which in the book had been a metaphorical parallel to Ender’s emotional and moral development, into a half-explained precognition to a later scene in the film. Indeed, almost everything in this movie is left unexplained.  Gavin Hood attempts to fit too much into this one hour and forty-five minute film, and as a result, fails to finish most of what he starts.  For example, Ender is referred to as a “Third” as well as several comments that “stopping the buggers was what he was born to do”, and yet never is it explained that couples are permitted only two children in Ender’s time.  Hood also completely writes out chapters eight and nine.  Another pitfall of the short run time is that no one message is properly conveyed.  While Hood hints at several different themes, whether it be friendship, duty, or the internal struggle between good and evil, none is fully expressed and can only be discerned upon extensive reflection.

The visuals too fell short of my expectations from a film with a hundred and ten million dollar budget.  The spaceship designs for both the humans and buggers are uncreative and unoriginal.  The small, awesome bugger, ah, I mean “Formic”, ships that you see flitting around through the air in the trailer look like tiny Millennium Falcons in reality.  And those large ones? Well, they just look like the Decepticon invasion ships from Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  The human ships are hardly better.  The large, fighter carriers look like they could come right out of a Halo game, and the fighters themselves look no different from your everyday fighter jet.  The bugger planet is boring and consists entirely of dead wasteland and pointy obsidian rock formations.  The mind game’s graphics are shameful, almost insulting when compared to the highly detailed games of today, and the buggers, when finally revealed in the flesh, are sadly disappointing.  And all the poor graphics are reinforced by the simple cinematography and boring presentation of the film.

If you have yet to see the disaster that is Ender’s Game, I beg you to read the book instead and spend your time and money elsewhere.  This illiterate atrocity is not worthy of your interest or attention.  Gavin Hood ought to be exiled from the movie industry for his contemptible direction and screenplay.

Score: 4/10

Note: Phil M. Komen Tory now maintains his own blog at Opinionated under the pseudonym MiddleDude.  Not my suggestion.

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