Oct 18

“Gravity” and Other Films Sharing Themes of Solitude and Peril

By now everyone’s probably heard of the Sandra Bullock/George Clooney danger-in-space flick Gravity. Tom Long, Detroit News, calls it “‘Castaway’ in outer space.” Likewise, Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com, also compares it to Cast Awaybut also to such other films as 127 Hours and the new All Is Lost.

In those three films, respectively, Tom Hanks is marooned on an island, James Franco is a mountain climber trapped under a boulder, and Robert Redford is alone on a damaged yacht in a violent storm.

Previews of All is Lost, in addition, remind me of Life of Pi, in which a young shipwreck survivor, now in a small lifeboat, battles the elements alongside several wild animals.

All have relatively high consumer rankings. On IMDB, they get the following scores out of a possible 10 (and it’s rare that a movie gets a 9 or above).

  • All Is Lost is rated 7.2.
  • Cast Away and 127 Hours are both over 7.5.
  • Life of Pi 8.1.
  • Gravity‘s currently got an 8.7.

What do all these movies have in common?

Solitude amid life-threatening circumstances.

For some, solitude is scary no matter what the circumstances—so, all the more scary when you think you might die. For others, solitude is a desirable state. But if you think you’re going to die without the chance to communicate with anyone, what’s the likelihood it’s still desirable?

What’s the burning issue in each of these films?

Will he/she survive? Also, what keeps people going in the face of overwhelming peril, and why do some persevere while others give up?

As stated by Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com:

If anyone asks me what ‘Gravity’ is about, I’ll tell them it’s a tense adventure about a space mission gone wrong, but once they’ve seen and absorbed the movie, they’ll know the truth. The root word of ‘Gravity’ is ‘grave.’ That’s an adjective meaning weighty or glum or substantial, but it’s also a noun: the location where we’ll all end up in time. The film is about that moment when you suffered misfortune that seemed unendurable and believed all hope was lost and that you might as well curl up and die, and then you didn’t. Why did you decide to keep going? It’s is a mystery as great as any in physics or astronomy, and one we’ve all grappled with, and transcended.

What do we feel while waiting to find out what happens?

High anxiety.

In reviewing Captain Phillips, based on the true story of a U.S. ship hijacked by Somali pirates, Lee Jutton opines about the new wave of “the cinema of anxiety” (Just Press Play).

It feels as though as long as there have been movies, there has also been the debate about which is the more important category for a movie to fall into: art or entertainment? One can argue that the perfect film should be an equal mix of both. However, it seems as though there is a third category forcing its way [into] pop culture discussion: anxiety….The escapism provided by an outing to the theater has been marginalized by the kind of moviemaking that can barely be enjoyed as entertainment, because one cannot relax enough while watching it to do so.

Selected Reviews 

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “Gravity is an extraordinary force to be reckoned with, a majestic, innovative, heart-pounding spectacle imbued with poetry and profundity.”

David Denby, New Yorker: “Gravity is not a film of ideas, like Kubrick’s techno-mystical 2001, but it’s an overwhelming physical experience — a challenge to the senses that engages every kind of dread.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.”

Dec 06

“The Descendants”: Husband/Father Faces Sudden Loss

I recently saw the new and highly praised/hyped movie The Descendants, a comedy/drama by director Alexander Payne. In a nutshell, Matt King (George Clooney), who’s been an emotionally distant husband and father, is suddenly forced to deal with grief and betrayal issues when his wife suffers a horrible accident.

The following are excerpts from the critics about the handling of the grief process in The Descendants:

  • Bill GoodykoontzArizona Republic: “…captures the complexity of emotional reactions that grief stirs.”
  • Josh BellLas Vegas Weekly: “Grief feels overly pleasant…”
  • Ann HornadayWashington Post: “A tough, tender, observant, exquisitely nuanced portrait of mixed emotions at their most confounding and profound…”
  • Rex ReedNew York Observer: “…I found the film’s moments of pathos every bit as unconvincing as the bigger picture of a man who learns late-life redemption through guilt, and I found Mr. Clooney’s tears and sentimentality especially clumsy.”
  • Dana Stevens, Slate: “This is a movie that wants to confront painful truths about love, loss, and grief, yet there’s a curious emotional brittleness about it. The script seems to operate in only two affective modes—deadpan absurdism and heart-tugging melodrama—and every time it switches gears, the grinding is audible.”

As for me, one of the two main things I liked about this film was the feeling that the family’s grief responses were complicated and often realistically so. And the other was the acting of Clooney and the two young women portraying his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller.

However, I think the biggest failing was a certain lack of depth. Why, for example, has Matt been so emotionally unavailable?

As for the comedy/drama aspect, for me the film seemed much more “drama” than “comedy,” as most attempts at humor fell flat.

In sum, it’s a tragic story—and although I appreciated its theme and apparent intents, I just wish I’d been more moved by it. As does Richard Corliss, who states in his review for Time:

Watching this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel about a man facing family crises in the modern Eden of Hawaii, I wanted The Descendants‘ elevated sentiments to wash over me, inundate me in its lapping warmth, like the restorative waters on a Kauai beach. I’m a notorious softie, and I found things to like about the film…but I remained untouched. I must have been wearing my wet suit.

See it and see what you feel—or think.