The depressing Gravity backlash

Feature Simon Brew 17 Jan 2014 - 06:32

Gravity was a massive hit, both at the box office and with critics. And thus, the backlash has begun...

The past month has seen the usual avalanche of end-of-year top ten lists, as the movie industry moves firmly into awards season. We've now had Oscar nominations too, and Gravity has been ensconced in both critics' lists, and award nominations line-ups as well.

As is par for the course with a big successful film though, the backlash has also begun. Yet there seems something particularly disappointing about the amount of ire being aimed in the direction of Alfonso Cuaron's film. That it's become a kicking horse of sorts. To be fair, some weren't impressed with Gravity from the off. It's hard to quarrel with that: if someone doesn't like something, they don't like it.

But not for the first time, it feels as though there's a small section of people who are running Gravity down in part due to the success that it's enjoyed. Worse, that they've changed their mind about the film precisely due to its success.

We've seen this before with art: that when it's a minor success and only known by a few, that it's somehow more precious and better than if it's been devoured by a large audience. There's an argument that part of the original appeal to some of Blade Runner was that it wasn't successful. That it was a movie seen by a few, who subsequently raved about it to a point that more and more people sought it out.

With Gravity though, that didn't happen. Quite the contrary. From the beginning, Gravity shot to the top of the box office, and it stayed there for a long time. As things stand, as it finds itself back in cinemas for a fresh IMAX run, Gravity's box office total stands at $670m. In the US, it took more than Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, Fast & Furious 6 and The Wolverine. Worldwide, it outgrossed Man Of Steel. Its takings were matching, and beating, those of big blockbuster movies. It became that rarest of beasts: a film that critics loved, and people rushed off to see.

But then the magical graph of success versus acclaim comes in. Because it seems in some quarters as though success and recognition poison a reaction to a film. That it's the done thing to go in the other direction, and position yourself against the crowd.

I think Gravity is a far better film than Titanic, but it was interesting to see that sudden re-rushing of love for James Cameron's sodden Oscar-grabber on its 3D re-release the other year. That it seemed as if a by-law somewhere had been lifted, meaning it was okay to like Titanic again. When Titanic was originally released, it was bathing in five star reviews. Post-Oscar success, it was sneered at. Avatar went through a comparable process.

Gravity does have something in common with Titanic, in that it feels like a movie that's very much the product of an utterly uncompromising director. That it's the vision of Alfonso Cuaron, and not a studio executive. It feels as if a focus group has been let nowhere near it.

But it's more than that. Gravity, I'd argue, is a film quite unlike any other we've had on the big screen. How many times did you sit in a cinema in 2013 and felt you were watching a spectacle unlike any other? I lost count how many times I sat watching Gravity wondering how the hell they did it. I don't think I've done that so much since Back To The Future Part II.

But also, I found myself utterly gripped by it. That in 90 minutes, it did more for me that 99% of movies released in 2013. Did it resonate for months afters? Perhaps not, certainly not in the way that the thematically similar All Is Lost did (Robert Redford's Oscar snub tells you everything you need to know really about the Oscars). Yet it's still a powerful, interesting, different piece of cinema. And, beyond that, a staggeringly brilliant spectacle, the likes of which only big screen cinema can deliver. Can you imagine it working in any other format at all and having the same impact?

I'm not in the blind. There's certainly criticism to be aimed at the film, most of which has been targeted at the narrative behind Sandra Bullock's character. And again, for those who never clicked with the film, that's fair enough. Yet it still feels that there's a bunch of people whose mind is being swayed by so many other people rating the movie. That snobbery, rather than genuine opinion, is taking precedence.

We've seen this time and time again of course. It's that by-law: you're not allowed to be artistic and also be widely successful. It's depressing, but predictable. With Gravity, particularly so. I'm always reminded of a critic, whose name I've forgotten, who declared on the radion once that he had gone off Robert Altman's The Player and Short Cuts a little, because he didn't like the late director's subsequent film, Pret A Porter. What kind of rubbish is that? Why not simply give an honest opinion of a film, rather than find some bandwagon to jump aboard?

Gravity is, whether you like it or not, a staggering achievement. It's a piece of bold, beautiful big screen art. And it is art. It has problems, and I suspect the small screen release may well magnify them. But how gratifying is it that a film of such verve and ambition succeeded so much?

For my money, it deserves its place on those top ten lists, and it deserves its award nominations. But more than that: it deserves to at the very least be respected, and hopefully enjoyed, for a long, long time to come.

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