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My 12 for ’13: Gravity & Good Old-Fashioned Simplicity

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 4…

One of the more interesting aspects of blockbuster cinema over the past decade or so has been the way that bigger movies tend to have become more complicated and ambitious in their storytelling. This isn’t a bad thing, by any measure. The Dark Knight is a plot-driven blockbuster with no shortage of plot complications, reversals and reveals. However, not every blockbuster is as deftly constructed.

There’s been a surge in overly complicated and excessively convoluted blockbusters over the past few years. It’s not enough to have good guys and bad guys and spectacle. There’s a sense that there needs to be more crammed on in there. Double-crosses and triple-crosses, betrayal and redemption, shock reveals and game-changing twists. Bad guys no longer plan to simply destroy the world or kill the good guy, everybody has competing agendas, and big epic blockbusters often struggle to smooth those into a cohesive narrative.

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From this year, for example, Star Trek Into Darkness – while still an exceptionally enjoyable film – suffered from an over-complicated plot and a surplus of villainous motivation. The Wolverine featured a fiercely convoluted middle act where it seemed like half-a-dozen bad guys were all trying to kill our hero for different reasons. G.I. Joe: Retaliation featured an evil plot that was not only brilliantly stupid, it was also unnecessarily convoluted.

Gravity serves to buck the trend, offering something of a sharp contrast to this convoluted storytelling. Gravity is a celebration of old-school visual spectacle, guided through a decidedly old-fashioned plot.

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To describe the storytelling in Gravity as “simplistic” feels like an understatement. The movie’s basic plot and the lead character’s emotional arc are really more like straight lines. The narrative in Gravity goes from a to b to c, with very few surprises thrown in. The plot moves to a fairly consistent beat. There’s some frantic action propelling the lead character on, a little respite to help her collect herself and to allow the audience to catch their breath, followed by another catalyst to push our lead character forward.

Very few cinema goers will be too surprised by how Gravity plays out. Even if they can’t necessarily spot the next complication, the plot progression is quite linear. There’s never any sense that Gravity might lose focus or over-complicate itself. Indeed, Gravity seems quite comfortable with this straightforward storytelling. The movie only seems to stumble a bit when it’s tasked with making the final necessary character leap for the last step of Ryan Stone’s character arc. Then again, it’s quite difficult to portray a character change or epiphany in a film with only one lead character.

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It’s worth stressing that none of this is a problem. Indeed, the movie’s fairly simplistic storytelling feels like a change of pace from the style employed by more modern blockbuster films. There’s a tendency to try to dress up spectacle in convoluted and messy plotting, as if hoping the audience might confuse such haphazard structure with depth or nuance. It’s a frustrating game, as there’s a sense that those sorts of movies might be better if they kept a tighter focus.

So A Good Day to Die Hard sends John McClane to Russia, for some reason. Not because John McClane belongs in Russia, or because the plot has anything to say about John McClane in Russia, but because it’s the best way the script can think to evolve the “Die Hard in/on/around a [blank]” concept. In doing so, however, John McClane moves further from what made him appealing in the first place, and becomes more and more like a superhero without a cape.

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Gravity‘s fairly simple structure and basic narrative means that Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t have to worry too much about hitting the necessary beats. Ryan Stone’s character arc is pretty basic, but at least the film knows what it has to do in order to complete it to satisfaction. Similarly, the movie’s “keep moving forward” plot ensures that the viewers (and the writers) are never too stressed trying to keep the details straight in their head.

Instead, Gravity has the freedom to wallow in its own scale and spectacle. There’s a tendency to dismiss spectacle as a cinematic artform, to argue that it is somehow less important than other storytelling concerns. However, cinema is a visual medium, and so spectacle is inevitably a large part of its unique appeal and strength. Gravity on an IMAX screen is a beautiful demonstration of why cinema is still a potent and valid artform, just as much as any of the other films on this list.

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At the same time, spectacle is just as tough to manage as any other aspect of production. Putting explosions and CGI on the screen is no guarantee of success. If it were, Transformers would be a high water mark of cinematic achievement. Instead, there is just as much technical craft and skill necessary in using spectacle on screen. Cuarón has that level of skill. The movie’s cinematography is stunning; its action sequences are easy to follow; its visuals are breathtaking.

Gravity is unashamedly a spectacle-driven piece of cinema, in the same way that Jurassic Park or Jaws was driven by spectacle. It’s a return to a decidedly old-school approach toward film-making, but it’s executed with incredible confidence and skill.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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2 Responses

  1. Good commentary. Again.

    On this one we basically agree. 😉

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