Gravity had all the elements of being a masterpiece. It had mind-blowing special effects, an interesting story line, tons of action–packed sequences and great cinematography. Yet for some reason, a lot of people came away from the movie feeling underwhelmed. I know that for me, personally, the movie–in spite of its beautiful visuals and amazing technical wizardry–fell flat.
What was it about the movie that left me feeling this way? In thinking about the question, I was suddenly reminded of the movie, Blindness (2008). Why Blindness? Because it occurred to me that Alfonso Cuarón was trying to do what that movie accomplished. But where Blindness succeeded, Gravity failed.
To explain what I mean I have to talk about my experience having watched Blindness. But warning, there is a major twist to the movie, so if you haven’t seen it and are interested in watching it, don’t read any further.
**** Warning: spoilers to Blindness ahead. ****
Blindness is about a mysterious pandemic that causes everyone in the world to go blind. No one knows what it is, how it’s spread or where it came from. It just happens. In the earliest phases of the pandemic, the afflicted are dumped into quarantine. However, because the outside world is afraid of catching the disease, the victims are left to fend for themselves inside quarantine without any nurses, doctors or assistants.
The protagonist (played by Julianne Moore) is immune to the mystery disease. But when her husband goes blind and is assigned to quarantine, she pretends to go blind, too, so she can join him there. The movie then becomes about her experiences living in quarantine, which is little more than an asylum.
Sounds intriguing, yes? But then Blindness plays out like some weird, surreal Lord of the Flies/post-apocalypse scenario, except with blind people instead of mutants or zombies. Eventually, as it becomes evident to the inmates in quarantine that they’ve been abandoned, it turns into an every man for himself situation. Eventually, quarantine splits into two factions, with sociopaths on one side and everyone else on the other. Before long, the sociopaths start to attack the other side, and at one point, they even go so far as to coordinate and successfully pull off a mass rape against the female inmates. (Remember: everyone is blind. Everyone–the attackers and the victims. Blind, blind, blind.)
As if that isn’t outlandish enough for you, Moore’s character lives in terror of being found out that she’s sighted because she’s afraid of what the sociopaths might do to her. So she becomes mindful of not doing anything that might give away that she’s sighted.
If that had you rolling your eyes, then you can understand how I felt as I watched Blindness. After awhile, I just fumed, “This has got to be the dumbest, most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.” As the film progressed, I also became incredibly confused as to where it was headed. Once inside quarantine, Blindness became just one endless long sequence of conditions deteriorating, with no signs of resolution or even a hint at any kind of commentary whatsoever.
I actually considered switching the movie off at some point but, as frustrated as I was, I kept watching it because I was curious to see how it would end and if there would be an actual point to all this.
Finally, after what seemed like ages inside quarantine, Blindness suddenly shifts gears. In the last act, the protagonist escapes the asylum with the friends she made there. As she guides them through the streets, there’s mayhem everywhere they go. There are blind people scavenging for food like wild dogs; there’s garbage all over the street; everything’s deserted. It’s all just a mess. It’s clear that civilization as we know it is over because everyone in the entire world is blind. It’ll only be a matter of time before starvation sets in and the human race dies off.
The protagonist gets everyone to a hotel room where they can take a nice, hot shower, sleep and live like human beings again. Then, all of a sudden, (WARNING: SPOILERS!) one of the blind gets their vision back. Then another person gets their vision back. Then another and another and another. So, as it turned out, the virus–which had looked permanent–had been temporary the entire time.
Now keep in mind that up until that point, I had dismissed Blindness as pure and utter nonsense. But as soon as everyone began getting their vision back, I was practically bawling–not only because I was happy for the characters but because I was so relieved that civilization wasn’t going to end after all. I also found myself suddenly appreciating my vision in a way I had never done before. Literally, my first reaction was, “I can’t believe how much I’ve taken my sight for granted.”
It didn’t make sense that I’d have this reaction, given how negative my feelings about Blindness had been throughout the entire film. But there was a hidden genius to the movie that didn’t become evident until the major twist.
You see, although I had rejected its premise on an intellectual level, the movie had me completely hooked on an emotional level. So, when the movie finally ended, I went from thinking, “Oh, this is the most ridiculous, far-fetched thing I have ever seen,” to feeling, “Thank God this horrible, depressing post-apocalyptic nightmare is finally over! And thank God we have sight!”
Then my mind finally got the point of the film, that it was about immersing people in the hellish scenario of what it would be like if the human race lost an ability that we all take for granted. It didn’t matter whether or not this scenario made sense on an intellectual level. What mattered was that the scenario had to feel real enough for the audience to experience it on a visceral level, sort of like how an actual nightmare doesn’t actually have to make sense to scare the crap out of you.
This now brings me to Gravity.
On the surface, it looks like Gravity was meant to be some kind of special effects extravaganza and cerebral movie in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I think its intent was to do something similar to Blindness. It wanted to immerse audiences in the emotional horror of being weightless in space, so that in that very last scene–when we see Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, finally landing on Earth–we feel an immediate sense of relief and realize how much we take gravity for granted.
Now, I can never say for sure what the real intention behind the movie was. But my gut feeling is that this is what Gravity was trying to do and that if it was, it didn’t work at all.
The biggest reason why is how the movie played out as soon as the collision happens and Ryan Stone has to find a way to get back down to earth. If you noticed, from that moment on, everything becomes a case of Murphy’s Law. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong. First one bad thing happens. Then another bad thing happens. Then another bad thing happens. Then another bad thing happens. And each bad thing that happens winds up being worse than the last thing that happens.
On one hand, this makes for very exciting viewing. On the other hand, it’s also very exhausting and even frustrating to watch. I know that sounds odd, but when movies have too many scenes of things going wrong without giving viewers a breather, it can be an emotionally draining experience.
Even Alfonso Cuarón was aware of this issue, which is why there is that one scene of Stone sitting in a capsule talking to herself. And it works. For a few brief moments, we get a nice little break from all the action. But then when Stone leaves the capsule, the movie continues to make the same mistake. It just keeps relentlessly throwing obstacles in her way, even right to the very end when she lands in water and has to fight her way out of the capsule to keep from drowning.
This issue, I think, is what sunk the film. It immersed audiences in the wrong type of experience. Instead of being made to feel what it’s like to be in a life and death situation without gravity, audiences were immersed in the emotionally exhausting and exceedingly frustrating experience of watching Ryan Stone constantly having to fight her way out of jams. As a consequence, Gravity’s aim–to get us to develop a newfound appreciation for gravity–was completely lost on moviegoers.