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.

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Trailer Scenes: Why the Parts of Some Movies Are Greater than the Whole

In some comment thread I was reading recently about Joss Whedon’s movie version of The Avengers, a commenter pointed out that some scenes in the film looked like they came straight out of a Transformers film. I nodded in happy agreement, because despite my deep love for Whedon’s writing, directing and producing, I long ago noticed that The Avengers looked much more like a Michael Bay movie than anything I’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, full of fights, explosions and action sequences, each of which probably cost more to make than all 14-episodes of Firefly. And then the commenter added, “But I guess such trailer scenes are necessary when you’re making a blockbuster.”

The Avengers poster

Trailer Scenes Assemble!

Trailer scenes! What a perfect phrase for summing up everything, or at least a large fraction of everything, that’s wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies today.

Anybody who’s spent much time watching film trailers (and now that you can find them on YouTube, I’ve become more addicted to trailer watching than I am to TV watching, though not quite as addicted as I am to video games) has doubtlessly noticed that in 90 percent of cases the trailer is better, often much better, than the movie it’s flacking. And in zero percent of cases is a movie ever better than its trailer; the best you can hope for is that it will be equally good. One reason for this, of course, is that the trailer is shorter than the film and the trailer editor has the luxury of selecting all the best scenes and leaving out the junk. Another reason is that trailer editors have gotten really good at exploiting the post-production mechanics of filmmaking — editing, fades, pacing, sound effects, music — to create a mini-movie with its own dramatic arc, from the slow rising action at the beginning to the larger-than-life climax to the final punchline button (often after the title of the film has been shown) that leaves the audience laughing.

But it had never occurred to me until I saw that term “trailer scenes” that some directors are putting scenes in movies not because they really belong there but because they’ll look so mindbogglingly good in the trailer. God, I must have been dense not to think of that.

In fact, this explains something I started noticing many months ago, which is that when I surf past a movie on cable that I found only mediocre in the theater, I’ll often find myself riveted by it in a way that I wasn’t when I watched the whole thing from the beginning. That’s because I’ve skipped over all the boring filler that was used to string the trailer scenes together and jumped into one of those moments that was intended all along to work better on its own than when weighed down by lousy exposition, improbable premises, weak dialog and padding designed to make the movie long enough to justify its ticket price. I’ve stumbled right into the middle of a trailer scene.

Indeed, I’m starting to suspect that some movies are nothing but trailer scenes strung together by hastily written bubble-gum scenes, a phrase I just invented because they resemble pieces of bubble gum that have been chewed so many times that they now have the adhesive property to hold the trailer scenes together while simultaneously being elastic enough to stretch to whatever length is required to keep the trailer scenes safely distant from one another. (Trailer scenes are expensive to make, so you need some long, cheap scenes to hold them together.)

A perfect example of this kind of movie is Prometheus, which I happened across last night while we were trying out the new cable box that our cable company sent us. I was sorely disappointed in Prometheus when I saw its theatrical release. Much of it was barely coherent. (The name Damon Lindelof in the writing credits should have been a tip-off, as any viewers of the later seasons of Lost should know.) Yet when I saw that immense horseshoe-shaped spaceship rise out of the mountain, crash land, and improbably roll over Charlize Theron (who, unlike Noomi Rapace, didn’t have the sense to run in a direction perpendicular to the line along which the spaceship was rolling), I couldn’t look away. No, it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first time I saw it, but now I didn’t have to sit through the monotonous, nonsensical setup. I could just enjoy the coolness of this…trailer scene.

I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when I surfed across The Dark Knight Rises. That’s a better film, but it’s still full of bloated bubble gum scenes and ominous, throbbing Hans Zimmer music. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the music Zimmer does for Nolan, but it gives a false sense of dramatic credibility to scenes that don’t really deserve it.) The Dark Knight Rises had seemed to go on forever in the theater, but watching chunks of it on cable was fun. I was making my own trailer while cable surfing, skipping to other channels when the slow scenes came on, skipping back to Dark Knight Rises to catch the neat stuff.

Some movies just aren’t meant to be watched whole. As much as I love Joss Whedon, The Avengers is one of them. It’s another movie that should be cable surfed, but only for the best scenes (which in this case aren’t the weirdly Michael Bay-ish action scenes — the movie’s real trailer scenes — but for the cute character interaction bits that come in between the trailer scenes, because that’s the sort of thing Whedon does best). Watching SHIELD headquarters rise out of the water and zoom away on helicopter blades — okay, that’s still pretty exciting. Whedon can do a great trailer scene when he puts his mind to it, which is why Marvel/Disney is having him do the next Avengers film too. I just wish he weren’t devoting so much of his talent to this sort of action movie lately (and I’m really looking forward to the Whedon-produced Agents of SHIELD on ABC this fall, where Whedon hands the showrunning duties over to his brother Jed and a couple of other writers), because TV shows and movies about interesting human beings and the relationships between them are still what he does best.

Not all movies that have great trailer scenes are bad movies. Occasionally you hit a truly inspired one. Inception, by the same director who gave us the bloated Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), was a dazzling Rubik’s cube of a film, a fascinating puzzle for the viewer that grows better through repeated viewings and that also happens to have a lot of great trailer scenes that actually are an integral part of the story. That’s a rare and amazing thing, yes, but it’s nice to know that it can actually happen.

Poster for Gravity

Gravity: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Another movie with amazing trailer scenes that I think is going to pay off in the theater is Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming Gravity. I say this not only because films like Children of Men have led me to trust Cuarón as a director, one who can both capture character moments and rise to stunning technical challenges, but because it’s already started getting excited notices from film festivals. Yes, it has some eye-popping trailer scenes, but I think they’re merely going to be the hook that draws the viewer into a movie that stands on its own merits, not just the merits of whatever would-be movie director edits its trailer scenes together.