Feeling the Pull of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity”

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I knew Gravity was something special when my Facebook wall exploded with awe-struck mini-critiques from my friends (especially my Baby Boomer friends) the night the movie opened. Alfonso Cuarón’s meditation on life and death in space went on to enjoy the highest-grossing opening October weekend of any movie and an amazing 98-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (the kind of overwhelming critical approval that is generally reserved for Pixar’s best movies, such as Toy Story 3).

Within two weekends, Gravity has racked up $123 million in the United States and (for once) has given audiences a reason to shell out more money to see a 3D film. And before all is said and done, Gravity may very well rescue the science fiction genre from the clutches of the young male audience. Here are three major lessons of Gravity‘s success (warning: plot spoilers ahead):

Audiences Reward Risk Taking

Americans are equal opportunity movie goers: we’ll turn out in droves for Adam Sandler, schlock, but we’ll also reward ambitious movies that take risks and challenge us, too.  Gravity does a number of things that challenge our expectations of the sci-fi genre.  It’s not action packed. The entire movie takes place in essentially one location. One of the major stars dies early, and the other spends most of her time contemplating her own death. There is no fist-pumping rescue scene to provide an emotional payoff.

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According to Cuarón, studios pressured him to “pump up the action value, like having an enemy, like a missile strike,” and to develop a love interest for the Sandra Bullock character. Instead, Cuarón delivered an experience that evokes David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia: a movie that trusts its audiences to appreciate the power of a compelling and exceedingly visual story; and a movie “where you rely on character,” as Cuarón noted recently. Audiences have responded, as have critics, who have hailed the movie’s “spectacular simplicity.”

Sci-Fi Doesn’t Need to Cater to Fan Boys

Gravity has challenged conventional wisdom that science fiction films are the province of the young male moviegoer. Forty-six percent of its audience consists of women, and 59 percent of the movie’s fan base comes from people 35 years and older. The diverse nature of Gravity‘s audience can be attributed to both the casting and the mature nature of the story. For starters, Gravity really isn’t a conventional science fiction movie fueled by action. It’s a meditation on mortality and, in Cuarón’s words, a metaphor for rebirth. The movie’s themes cover pretty serious territory, especially the inevitability of death, which resonates more with an older audience.

The casting of Bullock and Clooney has been crucial to reaching a broadly defined fan base. Cuarón caught criticism for casting Sandra Bullock in the lead for a genre dominated by fan boys, but Sandra Bullock’s films tend to appeal to a wide range of audiences in both age and gender.

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Her success in movies like The Heat has reminded Hollywood of the power and size of the female movie-going market. And the casting of the 52-year-old Clooney certainly helps explain the movie’s appeal to an older audience (as well as to women if a recent U.K. study is any indication).

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To be sure, Hollywood will continue to make Sci-Fi and action movies that court the young male moviegoer, such as the Star Trek reboot. I don’t see Hollywood changing its focus in that regard. But Gravity suggests room for another type of Sci-Fi movie catering to a broader audience.

We Want Big-Screen Immersion — If You Do It Right

About 80 percent of Gravity’s opening weekend sales came from 3D showings, and 20 percent from the super-sized IMAX screen format. Gravity is not a victory for 3D, though — it’s an endorsement for 3D done the right way.

By and large, 3D has been failing to capture the imagination of moviegoers. Cuarón blames moviemakers who are creating a mediocre viewing experience by shooting 3D movies improperly. By contrast, Cuarón says Gravity was designed for 3D and shot in 3D as opposed to being converted to the 3D format as an afterthought. Consequently, 3D is a core element of the movie’s story, not an ornament. For instance, in a scene crucial to the plot’s development, debris from an exploding Russian satellite hurls toward the astronauts. The 3D technology makes it possible for the viewer to share the point of view of the astronauts and their sense of helplessness. 3D also enhances the vastness of both space and Earth, which adds to the emotional complexity of the movie. The astronauts are both awed and frightened by their surroundings. The viewer is, too.

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This distinction between 3D as ornament versus essential storytelling tool cannot be overstated. As Gary Susman of Rolling Stone magazine notes, Gravity and Avatar are two rare examples of where 3D “is essential to the storytelling and not just a superfluous bell-and-whistle meant to sell higher-priced tickets.” Well, audiences are rebelling, as 3D movie sales have been plunging. The message seems clear: if you’re going to ask moviegoers to pay more (and wear cheesy eyeglasses), you had better provide more. Gravity is one of the few movies that delivers.

Will Gravity Stick?

Whether Gravity‘s success has any long-lasting impact on movie making remains to be seen. Rolling Stone‘s Gary Susman questions whether Gravity will raise the bar for 3D. As he writes, “In the short run, however, Gravity‘s success will just mean a lot more movies with retrofitted 3D” because studios will ignore Cuarón’s appeal for quality 3D movie making and overlook the fact that audiences are rewarding compelling movies that employ 3D in their storytelling approach versus movies that use 3D as a gimmick.

I agree with Susman. Gravity cost $80 million and required four and a half years to make. Cuarón says shooting in 3D consumed about three and a half of those years. Hollywood lacks the patience and agility to bankroll many films requiring so much time and expense. As the Baby Boomer population becomes more sizable and affluent, though, I expect Hollywood to develop more scripts and rethink genres ranging from action to sci-fi for older audiences.  In 2012, for instance, a movie like Skyfall became a massive hit (and critical success) by re-imagining the James Bond thriller for a Baby Boomer audience through its themes and incorporation of classic Bond icons (like Bond’s Aston Martin). And in 2013, World War Z made a Baby Boomer friendly film through the casting of 49-year-old Brad Pitt in the lead — and has grossed $540 million globally so far while earning generally favorable reviews (although nothing approaching the reception of Gravity and Skyfall).

It sounds prosaic to say this, but the numbers don’t lie: make the movies good. We’ll reward them.

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