There are three levels on which most movies are at least trying to work – the voyeuristic, the vicarious, and the visceral. (See Boorstin, Making Movies Work. If you’ve taken Rob Johnston’s Theology and Film class, you are likely very familiar with this book). The voyeuristic level appeals to an audiences desire to see something interesting or remarkable. The vicarious level appeals to an audiences desire to identify with the characters in a film whether the audience likes those characters or not. The visceral level appeals to an audiences desire to feel something, so that whether or not we care about characters, we can still feel fear or excitement or surprise or sadness.
Extremely effective films work on all three levels. Think of Toy Story. We are voyeuristically engrossed in the toys’ world, we vicariously care very much about Woody and Buzz’s plight and see in them our own struggles with identity and vocation, and we are viscerally afraid of Sid’s malevolence and thrilled when Woody and Buzz escape. Extremely effective films are rare.
Very effective films work on at least two of these three levels. Think of Jurassic Park. Voyeuristically, seeing dinosaurs brought back to life is fascinating. We’d watch that film just to see the brachiosaur bend down and take a mouthful of tree branch from Alan Grant’s hand. Watching Jurassic Park is also a terrifically visceral experience. When the t-rex roars, your bones shake both from the sonic vibrations and from fright. Jurassic Park‘s characters aren’t particularly endearing though. Had any of the ones who survive been taken out by a velociraptor, we likely wouldn’t have cared for more than a moment.
Interesting films tend to work on only one level. Blade Runner is notable primarily for its production design. It’s a voyeuristically satisfying experience to journey into Lawrence Paull and David Snyder’s meticulously designed and endlessly fascinating future Los Angeles even if the characters are opaque and the pacing is languid. Taken, on the other hand, is viscerally thrilling, packed from beginning to end with propulsive action. It’s an enjoyable cinematic “ride” even if its characters and world are only a step above stock. Many of my favorite films to watch again and again are merely interesting, because they so excel at one of these three levels.
Forgettable films don’t work on any level. I would give you an example, but none come to mind.
Gravity is a very effective film. In fact, because it appeals on two levels (the voyeuristic and visceral) so excellently, it is almost an extremely effective film. Gravity only has marginal vicarious appeal. The film’s characters are well enough drawn that unless you’re especially enlivened by character-driven films, you probably won’t notice how simple Gravity‘s very few but very important characters are,. They are simply drawn nonetheless.
Voyeuristically, Gravity uses realistic sound design and immersive cinematography to take you inside the world of an astronaut floating around and vying for her life in outer space. The sounds you hear are only the sounds that she would hear. For example, when she wields an automatic ratchet to unattach her spacecraft from an offending cable, we hear the hum of the ratchet as it would sound reverberating through her spacesuit not how it would sound in your garage. When shrapnel tears through a nearby space station, we hear nothing, because devoid of air pressure, no sound would be transmitted to the astronaut.
Gravity‘s long tracking shots (something director Cuaron is famous for) are made even longer through the use of digital effects. Cuaron and cinematographer Lubezki (of Terrance Malick fame) mask cuts by drifting the camera off the actors and onto a bit of CGI spaceship or CGI Earth and then back onto the actors creating the illusion of a single take. This effect is enhanced by the film’s use of 3D (a phrase I never thought I’d write), and the cumulative effect is to create a “complete” environment that feels real and explorable. I constantly found myself trying to lean to the side to peer around objects. The spatial relationships between objects feel real.
Gravity‘s visceral appeal is even stronger than its voyeuristic. The film rockets from one crisis to another at a pace that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark seem stately. This is accomplished by the presence of a literal countdown clock, a paucity of life-in-space’s most necessary resources – air and fuel – and the principals of Newtonian physics – what goes around in orbit comes around again and again and again. All combined, the audience is left more breathless than the astronauts.
Thematically, Gravity is shallower than an astronaut’s breathing in an oxygen-depleted space suit. The film is about capital “L” Life and capital “D” Death, and the almost primeval struggle between the two. Outer space, where the distance between everything and nothing is often no more than a couple of centimeters, is a particularly good location for that kind of struggle.
It is hard not to ask only the Big Questions as the “infinite expanse,” as a friend termed it, hovers threateningly over the infinitesimally small, strikingly vulnerable realm of life that is Earth. I can forgive thin characters when the space between them and death is even thinner. If I was that close to my own demise, I’d problem get pretty simple too. The movie’s weakest moments are the ones where a veneer of complexity is splashed on our heroine. The movie doesn’t need it (even if the pay-off is decent).
The movie’s own answer to its central question – “Why bother living when death is so imminent and inescapable?” – is best summed up, I think, by two moments of inexpressible beauty that come in the movie’s darkest moments – the reported majesty of “the sunlight on the Ganges” and the appearance of the Aurora Borealis. “Keep living,” I heard Gravity saying, “because life can be so beautiful. Once you give up, its gone.”
I remember the darkest moment of my life. I felt abandoned by God, foolish for my faith, and utterly alone in the terrible experience of it all. Then a couple of friends invited me over for breakfast. They served me scrambled eggs, toast and OJ, gave ear to my lament, and prayed for me before I left. It was a very small thing, but it was a little bit of love in my loneliest time, and a little bit of love goes a long way when you’re hovering over the “infinite expanse.” Like the aluminum foil skin of a craft built for outer space, sometimes it’s all you need. That food, those ears, and that prayer were a reminder that I wasn’t alone, that my faith wasn’t ill-founded, and that even if God was absent from my immediate experience, God was there in that juice and toast.
LIfe’s Big Moments aren’t nuanced. They’re visceral. They have to be felt, not explained. I encourage you to go experience Gravity. See it on the biggest screen you can find in 3D, and go with people you love. It’s a cinematic experience you won’t soon forget.