Akshay Seth: The 'Gravity' of the film industry's situation

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published October 11, 2013

Full disclosure: I have something of a reputation among friends for being the guy that likes to speak in extremes. After my first-ever screening of “Paranormal Activity,” I blurted something vaguely along the lines of, “They should stop making horror movies because this just won everything.” I’ve probably called four or five different releases in the last year alone the best things ever made (“Spring Breakers” was pretty good though), and I have a penchant for yelling at people who aren’t on the same page (“You haven’t seen xxxx yet? Why are you even here?”). But when all’s said and done, what do my friends know? They’re all insane.

Now that you’ve had this brief glimpse into my soul, let’s talk about “Gravity.” A lot of people have been calling it the best movie released in a very long time, for sure the most gripping 90 minutes of cinema produced all year. Some have gone as far as saying they’ll never see another film like it in their lifetimes. To put it lightly, the world has collectively lost its shit and boarded a massive Hubble Telescope-sized bandwagon to space.

Coming from the dude who loves speaking in extremes, all of these people might be right, but if there’s something I’ve learned looking at an ungodly number of yearly top 10 lists, it’s that when it comes to sifting through movie releases and holding up The One that’s supposed to be the common denominator, there’s no verifiable certainty. The only verifiable certainty here is that “Gravity” is a game changer.

I use the term game changer for two simple reasons. One: Studios in Los Angeles that have seen the film but aren’t actively trying to replicate, or at least mimic, what director Alfonso Cuarón has accomplished are at risk of being left behind. Two: Every movie that will now be set in space, or for that matter any free-floating environment, is going to be compared to “Gravity.” Simply put, the bar has been raised. Technology was invented to make this experience possible.

The film is beautifully composed, a visual marvel that will stand the test of time and shepherd in a new age of cinema that bends the line between CGI and live-action photography. I could talk at length about how every frame in this masterpiece took Cuarón months to plan out and execute as things inevitably went wrong, forcing him to improvise and as a result, innovate on the spot. But the reason this film will remain in our consciousness months, maybe even years, down the line is only half related to how jaw-droppingly stunning it is.

The opening tracking shot, nearly 20 minutes in length, hits you with its silence. We start with a simple message: “Life in space is impossible,” yet that silence, punctuated by breathy intakes of oxygen by astronauts, is what reaffirms the alienness of the setting. We’re in space — in every sense of the word, a forefront of human accomplishment, an endpoint of all we’ve achieved. But with the vast emptiness carrying through in every sequence, Cuarón makes it a metaphorical beginning for our protagonist.

Dr. Ryan Stone, played to perfection by Sandra Bullock, is nervous, broken from the get-go, and this movie quickly transforms into her quest to leave behind a life defined by the loss of her daughter. She’s the only complex personality in a script enlivened by the most rehashed character types and tropes since talkies came into fashion in the 1930s. George Clooney’s character is fun, but nothing new. In the form of an accurate generalization, he’s, in essence, portraying the really nice uncle that tells awesome stories and gets along with anyone listening. In a less extraordinary setting, it would never work.

Think about it: The whole notion of metaphorical rebirth, a theme that begins to tie together the entire movie, is old, but the films that manage to keep it relevant, like “Gravity,” almost always have a less-than-sedate treatment of setting. In “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks’s character, marooned alone on a deserted island, wills himself to rise above isolation. But the larger hurdle becomes coming to terms with the fact that the woman he loves has moved on. His circumstances teach him to let go, and by the end of the film, he’s truly reborn. None of it would have been effective had it not been for the sense of remoteness the movie envelops us in during the first and second act.

“Gravity” excels because it similarly closes that gap between emotion and vision. Never before has a film so effectively magnified a human story under layers of intriguing sci-fi disconnect. It’s a perfect marriage between seeing and feeling.

A lot of the people I spoke with before watching “Gravity” said it’s the best thing to hit theaters since “Inception.” At their core, both movies try to resolve human conflicts we’ve been examining for centuries: “Inception” tackles confronting regrets while “Gravity” looks at an evolving personality. Both movies are tied together by their grandness, and it’s this grandness that lets the pathos resonate. Neither film is perfect, but both reaffirm the ubiquity of the personal conflicts we confront on a daily basis.

Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece is an extension of that ubiquity, and a film that easily makes its mark in Akshay’s Five Fave Flicks (AFFF). If you haven’t seen it yet, take solace in the fact that Fall Break has arrived. Why are you even here?