Steve Jobs: A Play in Three Acts

I came out of Steve Jobs, the movie, feeling more like I’d watched a play than a film.

I still feel that way, six days later. This isn’t a complaint. I love theater. And Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, started out as a playwright; it’s something he’s good at. If theatrical structure is what appeals to him in movies, then that’s the kind of movie he should write, but it leaves the movie feeling strangely uncinematic.

Steve Jobs is a movie in three acts. Yes, I know that screenwriting theory says that every movie has three acts: the first to set up the characters, the setting and the problem; the second to show the characters attempting and failing to resolve the problem; the third to show the resolution. But Steve Jobs doesn’t do that. It really has three acts, where you can almost feel the curtain falling on one act and rising on the next. I wanted to stand up, stretch my legs, run to the restroom, get a cup of coffee — you know, the way you do during intermission at the theater. No such luck.

Each act of Steve Jobs follows the same template. Jobs is about to introduce a new product (the Macintosh, the Next workstation, the iMac). The same people (John Sculley, Steve Wozniak, Andy Hertzberg, Joanne Hoffman, Lisa Brennan-Jobs,  and — in the first two acts — Chrisann Brennan) come up to him and complain, usually about the same things they were complaining about in the previous act. (Note that there’s no historical evidence that these people actually made these complaints at, or even attended, these product introductions; Sorkin is exercising dramatic license here, compressing the events and conflicts of a lifetime into a few short scenes.) Then Jobs steps out on stage and the crowd goes wild. Brief news montages are slotted in where the intermissions belong.

Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen as Steves Jobs and Wozniak

Sorkin finds a dramatic arc here not so much in the product introductions as in Jobs’ evolving relationship with his daughter Lisa. In the first act Jobs refuses to acknowledge that he’s her father, though you see a spark between them when she discovers MacPaint, the Mac’s innovatively mouse-driven graphics program. In the second there’s a growing bond between them, as you see Jobs fretting over his daughter’s fraught relationship with her difficult and erratic mother. In the third…well, watch the film. There’s no great revelation at the end, only a sense that Jobs has made a small emotional journey, but it’s an arc. This arc is no more supported by history than the circus of characters at the product launches. Once again, Sorkin is taking dramatic license. He’s allowed to. He’s a dramatist. (I kid, but I love Sorkin. I’ve watched the West Wing pilot at least six times now and I still cry every time.)

Is it a good movie? Well, it’s largely lacking in the signature flashiness that director Danny Boyle brought to movies like Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. I miss that flashiness. I still get a thrill thinking about the moment in 127 Hours when Boyle spins the camera around James Franco, trapped in a cave and enjoying his few minutes of daily sunshine while Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” plays on the soundtrack. But this is more Sorkin’s movie than Boyle’s, auteurism be damned. (Sorkin is one of two screenwriters who in recent years have stolen the auteurist spotlight from the directors of the films they write. The other is Charlie Kaufman, who eventually turned to directing, something that Sorkin seems to have no interest in.)

Flashy or not, Steve Jobs is still immensely watchable. It’s fascinating without being entirely riveting. Sorkin’s dialog is always listenable, even when you find yourself thinking that it’s more the kind of thing Aaron Sorkin would write than the kind of thing these characters would say. And Michael Fassbender, who doesn’t look much like Jobs but manages a near perfect mimicry of his reedy voice, is one of the most watchable actors currently making films. Throw in terrific supporting performances by Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels, each of them worthy of a Best Supporting Oscar, and the film begins to look like a small wonder of pitch-perfect narrative compression, as efficient a machine as the iPhone. It helps if you followed the events that it depicts in the computer press, but it isn’t essential. Everything that you need to know about them is in Sorkin’s script.

I’m waiting for the stage version, though. Seriously, I’d go see it, even at today’s wildly inflated ticket prices, especially if Fassbender was in it. (If you think the price of movie tickets is bad, it’s because you haven’t been to a Broadway show recently. Pay your 18 bucks for the IMAX theater and be grateful.) Steve Jobs would feel more at home under a proscenium arch than it does on the screen. It’s mostly set in three interchangeable green rooms, which would be easy enough to stage. And a live performance would give it an immediacy that it doesn’t have on film.

Don’t wait for the play before you see the movie, though. It’s worth seeing and I’m sure both Sorkin and Boyle would appreciate it if you watched in the theater. Or at least on Netflix.

Have Yourself a Haunted Little Christmas

Disneyland loves holidays. They commemorate the major ones by, at the very least, sprinkling decorations along Main Street USA. Halloween gets pumpkins and skeletons. And for Christmas there are colored lights on almost everything, sometimes covering an attraction completely. (See Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, below.) A few attractions receive a full Christmas overlay, which is more than just colored lights on the outside. In my last post, I talked about the Christmas overlays for the Jingle (usually Jungle) Cruise, It’s a Small World, and the World of Color. But there’s one attraction where Disney installs an overlay in September that stays in place right through Christmas: the Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion

“Ho Ho Arrrggh!”

The Haunted Mansion gets an overlay based on the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. Because the movie is about both Halloween and Christmas, so is the overlay, mixing scary (and somewhat silly) monsters with Christmas ornaments. All of this is on top of the Haunted Mansion’s usual array of blood-curdling screams, tricky elevators and holographic ghosts.

A haunted ballroom

A haunted ballroom decorated with Christmas ornaments

The best way to get into the Haunted Mansion is to get a FastPass. FastPasses can be purchased by sliding your Disney Passports into a small machine an hour or more before you plan to visit an attraction, in return for which you get these small tickets:

Haunted Mansion Fastpasses

FastPass tickets for the Haunted Mansion attraction

This tells us that our passes are for the Haunted Mansion and can be used between 2:05 and 3:05 p.m. (Your times may vary.) It used to be that Disney was relaxed about the length of the time window you had for using the passes. Alas, they claim to be cracking down. For instance, we couldn’t have used those Fastpasses later than 3:05, though there was a time when you could have. (It was never possible to use the passes earlier than the time stamped on them.) During the magic hour within which the pass is active, you can skip the often lengthy Mansion lines and leap ahead of most of the crowd, getting into the ride in five or ten minutes. If you’ve ever stood in the line for a popular Disneyland ride, you know what a time savings like that is worth.

Once inside the Haunted Mansion, you find yourself in a foyer that turns out to be an elevator, with pictures on the walls and roof that turn into more and more terrifying forms as the elevator goes down.

The Haunted Elevator

Beautiful Christmas images in the Mansion’s elevator entrance…

Monsters in the elevator

…transform into monsters as the elevator descends.

Once you get downstairs, you wind through hallways that lead to the moving cars that carry you through the mansion. And, on the wall, you see images relating to the movie:

Scenes from the Nightmare Before Christmas

Pictures of everything from an innocent snowman to Jack the Pumpkin King playing Santy Claws

Most of what’s fun about the Haunted Mansion are the animatronic horrors you see along your ride and the haunted ballroom filled with holographic ghosts that you can view from the rafters above. Here are some of the photos that Amy and I took on our last visit:

A tentacle with pumpkins?

Is that a tentacle covered with jack o’lanterns or a giant wizard’s hat?

Halloween at Christmas

The town of Halloween discovers Christmas.

Christmas list

Santy’s naughty-or-nice list

Jack as Santy

Jack the Pumpkin King disguised as Santy Claws

Angel skeletons

“Angel skeletons we have heard on high!”

After the ride, we dined at the Pizza Port restaurant in Tomorrowland, then went back to Main Street and watched the park’s imagineers light the Sleeping Beauty Castle, gateway to Fantasyland:

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle with Christmas lights turned on

We did some other things, like visit Crush the turtle (from Finding Nemo) and draw pictures of characters from Disney cartoons at the Animation Academy in California Adventure, but I’ll devote entire blog posts to those things later on in our second Year of Living Disney. By then, Christmas will probably be over, though Disneyland Resort will continue its holiday celebration right up through January 6, when we may go back to get one last glimpse of the Christmas overlays before they go away. We’ll see.

Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Age of Multidimensional Media

It wasn’t until I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the last six episodes of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I realized just how radical an experiment Marvel Studios is performing with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies and TV shows.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

S.H.I.E.L.D. goes down in flames.

I’m a huge fan of serial TV shows. The broadcast networks have traditionally objected to them because they don’t rerun well and are hard for viewers to catch up with if they haven’t been watching from the beginning, but it’s gotten to the point where, if a show doesn’t have a serious serial continuity, I don’t have any interest in watching it. It turns out that the formula developed many decades ago on radio for soap operas is, in fact, ideal for showcasing what makes television in many ways superior to movies — i.e., the long-term ability to develop characters, relationships and situations such that the whole of a television series becomes greater than any of its individual episodes. But what Marvel Studios is doing with the MCU is even better than serial television. They’ve taken the concept of serial content in a series — of movies, of TV shows — and made it three or even four dimensional. They’re effectively doing something that I’ve only seen done before in one medium: comic books.

Let me back up for a moment. Marvel Studios is the Hollywood wing of Marvel Entertainment Group, which also publishes the Marvel line of comics. That’s the line where, back in the early 1960s, writer/editor Stan Lee and a few artists, primarily Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created what have become some of the most popular superheroes ever to don spandex unitards. The difference is that, in the 60s, their popularity was isolated to comic books and a few animated television shows. Today their popularity has expanded to movies and live-action television (though one character, the Incredible Hulk, achieved live-action TV success as far back as the late 1970s).

Marvel Studios was initially created in 1996 as a clearing house for licensing movie and TV rights to those heroes and, though it did a remarkably good job of attracting buyers, those buyers did an even better job of making money from Marvel-owned properties. Sony parlayed the Amazing Spider-Man into an ongoing series of summer blockbusters and Twentieth Century Fox has created what is, if anything, an even more popular series of movies out of the X-Men and their most popular solo member, Wolverine. (The Hulk, who was initially licensed by Universal, has had a somewhat more checkered cinematic history, and The Fantastic Four, while they turned a profit for Fox, generally proved to be a critical embarrassment in movie form. Fox is scheduled to reboot that series in summer 2015.)

In 2004, Marvel Studios realized that if other companies were making this much money off their characters, they could make even more money, or at least keep a larger percentage of the profits, if they made the movies themselves. They would also have more control over what was done with their characters and concepts. Over the next few years they quietly reacquired the rights to superheroes who either hadn’t done well for other studios (the Hulk) or had never even been given their own films (Iron Man). In 2008 Marvel Studios surprised everyone, or at least critics, by releasing a remarkably good film based on the latter character, who had mostly been a second-string superhero in the comic book world, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as alcoholic billionaire and arms merchant Tony Stark, who escapes from Afghan terrorists and a potentially heart-stopping load of shrapnel in his chest by building a supersuit that not only keeps his heart beating but lets him slug bad guys like the Hulk and fly through the air like Superman.

The real surprise, though, comes at the end of the film, mostly after the credits, when Stark is recruited by Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson and then Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to become part of the Avengers Initiative, a superhero collective being assembled (a pun that old Avengers fans will get) by Marvel’s superspy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. The same basic coda was appended, in one way or another, to the next three films in what Marvel Studios was now calling the MCU: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). (I’ve skipped Iron Man 2 (2010), a film for which this now predictable coda would have been redundant.) While each of these movies was basically standalone or the launching point for a series, it was becoming clear that they were also part of a larger whole. This whole, which eventually became known as Phase One, culminated in Marvel’s The Avengers, the highest-grossing movie of 2012 and the point at which it became clearest that all of these films were taking place in a shared universe, something that had only been hinted at up until then. This shared universe concept is common in superhero comics and has resulted in continuities so tangled that you pretty much need Wikipedia to sort them out, but it has only occasionally been used in films, so occasionally that I’m having trouble thinking of examples. (It’s more common in television, where character crossovers between shows and spinoffs from hit shows were almost a requirement in the 70s and 80s and still occasionally occur, with the interconnections between the Law and Order and CSI shows in the late 2000s probably being the most recent examples, unless the NCIS shows are doing something similar.)

Marvel’s The Avengers took elements and characters, some of them quite minor, from all of the previous films and threw them together into one big superhero soup. Marvel had been doing this in the Avengers comic books since 1963 and comic books in general had been doing this at least since DC Comics launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 back in 1940. Having such a series-jumping chronology in the movies was remarkable but it didn’t become extraordinary until it made the leap to television in the fall of 2013 with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a direct spin-off from Marvel’s The Avengers.

I’ve talked before about how I had great hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also about my frustration that it was taking its sweet time about realizing them. The reason why it was taking so long finally became apparent with the 17th episode, “Turn Turn Turn”: The show’s writers had been waiting for the second Captain America movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to come out.

Just as Captain America: The First Avenger had been, quite unexpectedly, the best movie of Phase One, Winter Soldier was the best movie so far of Phase Two and possibly the best MCU movie yet, better even than Marvel’s The Avengers. (To be fair, Joss Whedon was handed a nearly impossible task in writing and directing The Avengers. He had to balance at least half a dozen major characters, four of whom had film series of their own — or maybe three, the underperforming Hulk having apparently been phased out after Phase One — and all of whom had to be given roughly equal screen time and importance to the plot. Not surprisingly, the standout was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, borrowed from the Thor films, who chewed the scenery with charmingly vengeful gusto as the movie’s villain. More surprisingly, the other standout was Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who I’m pretty sure first hit the screen in Iron Man 2, with her clever backhanded method of interrogating villains by making them think they’re interrogating her.)

Winter Soldier ends with — stop here if you’re one of the few MCU fans on earth who still don’t know what happens — the near total disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D., which turns out to have been riddled since World War II with sleeper agents from their sworn enemies, the Nazi carryover organization Hydra. The movie ends with Captain America more or less triumphant but S.H.I.E.L.D. in shambles and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury erroneously believed to be dead. And that’s where it impacted the TV show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the absence of S.H.I.E.L.D. had become a program without a premise and that suited it beautifully. After floundering all season in search of a theme, it had finally found one: a team of agents without an agency trying to defeat the enemy that had stolen it out from under them.

Turn Turn Turn

Things fall apart and S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes very centered.

For the final seven episodes of the season, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the best thing on television — yes, even better than Game of Thrones, which is straining admirably not to start plodding toward its climax the way George R.R. Martin’s books are doing. Agent Coulson’s team developed personality along with purpose. They fought against one another — Agent Ward turned out to be one of the sleeper agents — as well as against other agencies and ended up as a team of self-described vigilantes. The final episode resolves all this a bit too neatly, or at least too quickly, but it leaves some interesting plot threads dangling and the hint that at least one of those threads is going to generate the premise for the second Avengers film, which will terminate Phase Two in 2015.

It’s the way that the MCU continuity has not only jumped back and forth between movies but the way (and the speed) with which it has jumped between movies and TV (and apparently back again) that makes it revolutionary. (There was only a four-day lag between the opening of Winter Soldier and the introduction of its aftereffects into the show.) It would still be possible for a newcomer to jump into the multidimensional network of the MCU without being completely confused, but that window is rapidly closing and I would expect that, by some point in Phase Three, figuring out not only the plot but the interconnections between films, characters and TV shows (with yet another MCU television series, Agent Carter, debuting during S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s midseason hiatus in the 2014-2015 season) might become nearly impossible for a newbie.

This is clearly a studio executive’s nightmare and precisely the reason that broadcast television has fought — in vain, fortunately — against serial TV shows. If the audience doesn’t buy in early, it becomes extremely difficult to buy in late. But the way in which we watch television and movies is changing. We don’t necessarily catch TV shows while they’re on the air, the way we used to in the long-ago 20th century. We DVR them or buy the DVD sets or we get them On Demand or we binge watch them off Netflix or Amazon Prime Streaming. If we’re really desperate we resort to certain Internet back channels, which I’ll leave unnamed, to get our hands on content. The producers of Breaking Bad credited Netflix (and probably some of those back channels) with the show’s abrupt surge of viewership in its two-part final season, with viewers who had finally gotten word about how good the show was rapidly catching up through all-day streaming sessions.

My friend Sean Tucker thinks Marvel Studios is using the MCU to position themselves for a brand new media world and I think he’s right. Now that widescreen TVs with Internet connections have come to dominate the living room, the age of genuine on-demand viewing, which we’ve been promised since at least the 1980s, has arrived at last and I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the cable-TV companies die out altogether. (Unfortunately, they also own much of the Internet infrastructure and until that de facto monopoly is taken away, the true age of multidimensional media is going to be postponed — but I doubt for very long.)

Very soon now, we’ll be watching television and movies in the way people have long read comic books — picking up back issues and reading new ones in whatever order necessary to follow tangled continuities or just indulge sudden whims. To some extent, we’re already there — Amy is downstairs now binge-watching the entire seven years of West Wing on Netflix, something I did a few years ago myself — and I think we’ll need the original thinking of companies like Marvel Studios, which is taking continuity concepts from comic books and repurposing them for higher-budget visual media, to provide content that fits the new way we view what soap opera fans have long referred to as “our stories.” The multidimensional interconnections provided by the MCU may be the perfect model for a world in which TV and movies are only distinguishable by the size of the screens we watch them on — and much of the time not even by that.

I, for one, am thrilled to see the new era arrive. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

 

Oscar Nominations 2013: The Perfect Year

Yes, it’s Oscar time once again. I’ve written my Oscar summation for five years in a row on another Web site, though this is only the second year I’ve written it up in my blog. I’m listing the films below in ascending order of preference (i.e., from weakest to strongest). These opinions are very much my own and I doubt that they reflect anyone else’s, not the critics’ and probably not the Oscar voters’ either. Needless to say, the numbered paragraphs that follow are full of **SPOILERS**.

The 86th Academy Awards

The 86th Annual Academy Awards

First, though, I have to say that the quality of the movies this year was extraordinarily high. There wasn’t a bad movie nominated, just very good ones and stunning ones. For each of the nine films I could check the following off on my mental checklist: terrific performances? (check) intelligent script? (check) beautifully filmed? (check?) emotional impact? (check) Thus, I’ve been left fretting for several weeks over what order I was going to put them in, especially in the upper ranks. Since they all met the above criteria, I had to come up with yet another criterion to judge them by and the one I’ve come up with is one I call grippingness, by which I mean that the movie needed to have held me in an iron grip while I was watching it. I find that this is a surprisingly rare quality in a movie. At some point during a film, I usually find myself glancing at my watch or wondering whether I can gracefully slip out to the men’s room. But there were three movies this year where neither of those things ever happened and I’ve given those movies the top three spots. Others are free to judge using other criteria. That one’s mine (though you can borrow it if you like).

9. Dallas Buyers Club

Although the story was fairly routine, this film deserves its nomination because of impressive performances by Matthew  McConaughey and Jared Leto, either of whom could have pushed their roles over the top but neither ever did. They both found an amazing balance between overplaying and underplaying. Otherwise the movie was the weakest of the lot, but those performances kept it from being truly weak.

8. Nebraska

Alexander Payne continues to be quirky and inventive. He never comes close to making the same movie twice or anywhere in the vicinity of making a movie that looks like anybody else’s. I was touched by the way Payne used Nebraska as a symbol for finding a reason to go on living and by the way he resolves the seemingly unresolvable dilemma the movie sets up. I also liked the relentless honesty with which he portrayed ordinary people, but felt that sometimes it was almost too relentless and too honest. I can only watch people THIS ordinary for so long before I lose interest, which probably explains why I nodded off briefly in the middle of the film.

7. American Hustle

Great cast, clever plot, and probably the most thoroughly honest performance I’ve ever seen from Christian Bale, by which I mean that I never once felt that he was acting. (I almost always feel like Bale is acting. He tries too hard. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but this performance felt beautifully effortless and I applaud him for it.) Otherwise, the movie didn’t quite click for me, but it had some great moments and wasn’t boring, even if it was never gripping either.

6. Her

As improbable as its plot is, I found this movie quite charming in the way that it examined how male-female (and probably male-male/female-female) relationships often fall apart because one partner grows and the other doesn’t. That it examined this through the prism of artificial intelligence didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it gave the audience exactly the distance it needed to see human relationships the way they really are — almost always imperfect. And I loved the way Amy Adams left her vanity behind and let herself look like a normal human being for a change instead of the adorable goddess she usually plays. I think I preferred her this way. And both Amy (my Amy) and I loved the film’s depiction of future Los Angeles (where Disney Hall seems to have become Disney Mall).

5. 12 Years a Slave

Slavery is such an important subject that every generation needs to be reminded what an atrocity it was. Roots did that for my generation. 12 Years a Slave does that quite powerfully for another generation. In fact, its depiction of slavery is so powerful that it becomes grueling, which I think may give some of the audience members an excuse to distance themselves from the subject matter. Still, I applaud it for the unflinching way it depicts a shameful era that still leaves its mark on American society and also for bringing back one of my favorite actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor, after several years where I never seemed to see him in anything. Michael Fassbender was appropriately hateful as the slave owner.

4. Philomena

I had no idea what this movie was about when it began or even where it was headed as the plot unfolded, but by the end I was startled by the emotional effect it had on me. Even though I’m not a Catholic, this movie’s indictment of the church and what it did to people through much of the 20th Century has the ring of truth to it. When it ended I was actually angry. I think I still am. I’d also mention that Judi Dench gives an amazing performance, but that pretty much goes without saying. She gives amazing performances in James Bond movies, for God’s sake!

3. Captain Phillips

This is where the gripping films start. Within minutes of its opening scenes this movie had its hooks into me. Critics were effusive over Paul Greengrass’s direction of The Bourne Ultimatum a few years ago, but I found that movie not so much gripping as frenetic and disorienting. Here, though, Greengrass gets it precisely right and once this movie is into the action and suspense it doesn’t let up for nearly two thrilling hours. The final hour in particular took my breath away. Tom Hanks’ understated performance, which finally burst into well-earned histrionics at the end, was the perfect complement to the movie’s intensity and I finished watching it wrung almost dry of emotion. But perhaps the movie’s greatest strength was [**SERIOUS SPOILER**] that I wasn’t quite sure who Hanks was sobbing for in his final scene: himself, his family or the men who had taken him hostage, men who were every bit as much victims as he was and whose blood, splattered across his chest during the Navy SEAL assault, was mistaken by the Naval doctor for his own. Honestly, I think it was all of those, and that’s what gave the ending its extreme emotional power.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

I’ve seen complaints that this movie ran too long. Really? It felt like about 90 minutes to me, not three hours. This was Scorsese at his finest and most rivetingly watchable, something I’d given up hope that I’d ever see him be again. (Sorry, folks, because I know a lot of people love it, but I thought that The Departed was meh by Scorsese standards.) This movie was a whirlwind ride through a world of fascinatingly despicable (and excellently cast) characters who were such a freak show of greed-driven amorality and excess that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The storytelling crackled and not one shot was wasted or one scene on screen for too long, for which kudos definitely go not only to Scorsese but to his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. This film could have run an additional three hours and it still wouldn’t have been too long. Honestly, I wish it had. Watching Scorsese work at this level is like watching a master musician at work. The craftsmanship is so seamless that it doesn’t even show; it just is. I’d love to see this win the Oscar.

1. Gravity

I’ve debated for weeks over whether I’d put this at the top of the list and I’m finally giving in, if only because Alfonso Cuarón’s movie was so innovative, such a purely cinematic experience, and so startling to watch that he had to invent new methods of moving the camera just to pull it off, which I don’t think can be said of any other movie this year. At heart I’m a science geek and watching the way this movie’s characters were sucked in by the unforgiving inflexibility of Newtonian physics was one of the finest experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, because I felt like I was sucked right in with them (and that wasn’t just because of the 3D and the IMAX). Gripping doesn’t even begin to describe this story. Cuarón made an attempt to give the movie a human element, involving Sandra Bullock’s character’s inability to decide whether life was worth living after the death of her daughter, but in the end that story was lost in the terrifying magnificence of the events she was caught up in. I have to wonder if that wasn’t, perhaps unconsciously, Cuarón’s point: that we are so small and weak compared to the power and immensity of the stars, the earth and, well, gravity that we go on living despite the fact that the universe doesn’t really care if we live or die. In the end, we can only stand in awe of the laws of physics and find the meaning of life inside these tiny specks of matter we call “ourselves” and this tiny lump of rock called Earth.

FOOTNOTE: I think the Best Picture award will go to 12 Years a Slave, because of the importance of the subject matter. And I wouldn’t mind that either. But I think both American Hustle and Gravity have a chance. The first I wouldn’t be so thrilled with; the second I’d be ecstatic over.

To Build a Fire in Space: Gravity

There’s a certain kind of story that I’ve always loved, though you don’t see it very often. It’s usually short, tightly written and breathtakingly intense. It’s the one where someone is doing routine work in an extremely hazardous environment, where if one thing goes wrong it will be an utter catastrophe. But the person doing the work doesn’t worry about this, because the work is routine, they’ve done it many times before, and they know exactly what to do in order to avoid disaster. The only problem would be if the unexpected occurs and it never does.

And then the unexpected occurs.

Gravity poster

Don’t let go. Really. Don’t!

Everything that follows occurs with inexorable and terrifying logic, and the protagonists find themselves fighting desperately against what seems like their inevitable doom, leaving the reader or viewer barely able to breathe because the tension is so great. I first encountered this kind of story when I was in eighth grade and discovered Jack London’s stunning “To Build a Fire,” which you can read at that link. If you’ve never read it before and have an hour on your hands, I advise that you drop everything right now and go read it. (It’s only a short story.) I promise that after the first few pages you won’t be able to stop. The inimical environment London sets the story in is the Yukon, where it’s 50 degrees below zero and your spit turns to solid ice before it can reach the ground. The protagonist is simply taking a walk through the woods to a logging camp. He doesn’t expect anything to go wrong. And when…well, read the story to find out.

You don’t see this kind of story very often because it isn’t easy to create. It has to be worked out by the author with deep knowledge of the details of the environment in which it takes place. The author has to understand the logic, the physics, of the situation and know exactly what will happen if they go awry. But when done well, this is one of the most horrifying stories an author can tell.

The movie Gravity is also that story.

Gravity is “To Build a Fire” in space and proceeds with exactly the kind of terrifying logic that London’s story does, except that the brilliant Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón has done London two better: He’s set the story in an even more inimical environment — the orbital space a few hundred miles above earth’s surface — and he’s depicted it visually. This is a story that must have been incredibly difficult to depict visually, as evidenced by the fact that Cuarón and his son Jonás (who co-wrote the screenplay) took four and a half years to make it. The film takes place almost entirely in space, starting at the fictional space shuttle Explorer,  and given Cuarón’s penchant for lengthy, unedited tracking shots — the opening scene continues for a full 13 minutes without a single cut but with a lot of camera movement — required the development of brand new filmmaking technologies to make many of its sequences possible. And yet, as you watch it, you never sense the hard work taking place behind the scenes. You feel like you’re really there in space with the characters (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, with a few briefly glimpsed bit players and the voice of an unseen Ed Harris at Mission Control in Houston), especially if you see it in IMAX 3D (and this is one of the very few films that absolutely begs to be seen in IMAX 3D, though the experience is so intense that it probably works pretty well in normal, flat widescreen mode too if you absolutely have to see it that way).

Gravity is only 91 minutes long, because it has to be short. Stretching it out further than that would have destroyed its intensity and ruined Cuarón’s tight storytelling. It’s a cliche to refer to an exciting movie as a roller coaster ride, but in this case the comparison is remarkably apt. A roller coaster is an almost purely ballistic device — the only mechanical portion is the slow ride up to the top of that first hill — acting precisely according to two physical factors: gravity, which pulls the coaster back down that first hill, and inertia, the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, which keeps the coaster moving once it finishes that first drop. Ironically, given its title, this film is more about inertia than it’s about gravity and much of its horror and excitement comes from watching Bullock and Clooney struggling to escape inertia’s merciless grip, which keeps them in relentless motion just as it keeps a roller coaster in motion. But roller coasters are carefully designed so that inertia keeps you moving to all the right places; the inertia that’s acting on Bullock and Clooney has gone terribly wrong. If you’ve ever been in a car that’s gone into a high-speed skid on wet or icy pavement, you know what inertia feels like when it goes wrong. You can think of this movie as a 91-minute high-speed skid on very slick ice — and if that sounds boring, you’ve never lost control of your car.

The soundtrack for Gravity is on Spotify. Do a search for “Steven Price” (the composer and sound designer for the film) and it will appear in the dropdown list. Listening to it won’t spoil anything about the movie, but it will convey its heart-pounding relentlessness. And yet, as great as this score is, Gravity is also very much about silence — the profound silence of vacuum, where there’s no medium to carry sound. When the film opened with a silent panning shot of the earth’s surface as seen from 220 miles up (where the shuttle astronauts are making modifications to the Hubble telescope) I was afraid even to chew my popcorn because I didn’t want to interrupt that haunting silence. But when the action started and Price’s score kicked in, I completely forgot I had popcorn in my mouth. (I think I swallowed it; it’s hard to remember.)

A few articles have pointed out some technical errors in the film’s scientific premise, but the errors don’t matter, because the Cuaróns, father and son, along with the stunningly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have achieved something far more important than accuracy — realism. The last time I remember a movie about outer space feeling this real was 2001: A Space Odyssey, where director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke also captured that haunting sense of the silence and terror of space. But the Cuarons have an additional 45 years worth of filmmaking technology at their disposal, much of which they’ve invented themselves, and they’re going for a very different sort of film here, much more in the tradition of “To Build a Fire.” (Seriously. You should click on that link and read it.)

There appear to be some major films coming up for the holiday season — Aren’t there always? — but right now Gravity has my vote for Best Movie and it’s hard to imagine anything better coming along. A special nod should go to Sandra Bullock, who is the heart and soul of this film, a woman who brings humanity to the relentless forces of inertia, who fights through the entire film to put the lie to the words Cuarón places on screen at the beginning: “Life in space is impossible.” She brings warmth and humanity to the cold equations of physics and she deserves an Oscar far more for this film than she did for the dreadful 2009 film The Blind Side. Her performance in this film will be remembered much longer than that one will — and this is a movie that’s going to be remembered for a long time indeed.