‘Gravity’ is one of those rare movie moments when it’s apparent from the beginning that the images on the screen are unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed before. The 17 minute opening shot is breathtaking and the 72 minutes that follow are just as beautiful. Solid acting keeps us tethered to the characters instead of drifting off into the infinite eye-gasm surrounding them. ‘Gravity’ is basically ‘Life of Pi’ set in space, and unfortunately the two films Oscar paths may be just as similar.
Alfonso Cauron creates a completely foreign world for the audience even though space is something that we see every day. His vision is so realistic that a reporter asked him what it was like to film in space. ‘Gravity’ is Cauron’s tour de force. Shortly after the film’s release, the internet exploded when Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson tweeted a few inaccuracies in the film. So much so that a few days later he felt he needed to write an open letter on Facebook praising the hundreds of things the film did get right. The point is that if it takes an astrophysicist to find a mistake in your film, you’re doing a pretty darn good job. Perhaps too good of a job.
The problem with constructing a visual masterpiece is that the imagery can’t be ignored. It needs its screen time as much as the actors. You can’t expose viewers to a completely new environment without taking the time to explain to them just what in the hell they’re looking at. This is the inevitable curse of such immersive creativity and also the reason such films usually run at least 2 hours. ‘Gravity’ is only 91 minutes.
When looking back at the Academy Award nominees, the pattern gets clearer. This comparison doesn’t include every movie with a ton of visual effects, but those films whose worlds could not exist without the use of visual effects.
In the last 40 years, out of 218 best picture nominees, only 11 films meet these criteria: Star Wars, Apollo 13, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Avatar, Inception, District 9, Hugo, Life of Pi.
‘Titanic’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ were the only two to go home with the best picture Oscar. Their respective run times were 194 minutes and 201 minutes. ‘Gravity’ is over 100 minutes shorter than either, which doesn’t allow much time for character and plot development. They tried to cram in as much backstory and exposition as they could, but it often felt heavy-handed.
To win best picture, a film needs a firm balance between spectacle and narrative, especially when considering the sentiments of the Academy Award voters. Remember that ‘Shakespeare in Love’ beat out ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for best picture. Also, in the last 40 years only two best picture winners, ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’, had a clear-cut female lead protagonist. Oscar voters love emotion, but apparently only from men.
All this being said, ‘Gravity’ is definitely a strong contender for the award season, but chances are that its Oscar fate will follow in the steps of ‘Life of Pi’. Barring upset it should win for visual effects, cinematography, sound mixing & editing, and it’s very possible that Cuaron could pull an Ang Lee and leave with the best director award. Though, oddly enough, it’s unlikely that ‘Gravity’ contains the emotional gravitas to ensure a best picture Academy Award.