Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gravity-> All is Lost-> conclusions

I find it extremely difficult to sleep on airplanes, yet for the past several years have been making lengthy trips to Africa which require me to spend copious hours trapped in my barely-comfortable seat. How to pass the time? Obviously I use the in-flight entertainment; in fact, I plan my use of the entertainment well in advance, taking time to visit the airline's website and determining which films they'll be showing. I then judge which films I absolutely plan to see and which I'll watch if I need to pass the time.

During my trip to Sierra Leone this past month, by the time I reached the middle of the journey (Calgary-> London), I had already watched my top picks from the programming. In the next stage (London-> Lungi) I finished off the other films I considered worthwhile with still hours to spare. Never mind what to watch on my return flights - what would I do to finish this leg?

One of my top picks was last year's hit film Gravity, which you have undoubtedly heard of. It tells the tale of novice astronaut Sandra Bullock who is caught in the path of deadly shrapnel debris which steadily destroys everything orbiting the Earth; Bullock has to rescue herself as her options rapidly diminish.

I didn't finish Gravity on the first flight - I only started the film in the last hour of the trip after deciding that no, even with my earplugs in I could hear that child crying nonstop in the compartment and I couldn't sleep through it so, I might as well try another film. I left the picture with 30 minutes remaining and caught the rest on the 2nd flight. However, I felt a little peeved after seeing the conclusion; the last 30 minutes (the business of Bullock successfully rescuing herself) held absolutely no surprises. The method she's told to use to save herself works and all that running time is simply eaten up going through the motions; the film ends exactly as you'd expect.

Which, isn't a bad thing, I guess. Gravity has nice visuals and at about 90 minutes long with a relentless amount of activity and motion, you're never bored with it. I suppose I expected something special from a movie nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (why I expected something special from the Academy is beyond me). Gravity is storytelling 101 - perfectly solid at communicating it's story, but nothing transcendental, nothing so arresting it pushes at the boundaries of cinema. Heck, this is a movie where - at one point - George Clooney has to point blank tell Bullock what her character's motivation is (you couldn't save your daughter so you escaped to outer space and you need to get over this by saving yourself and returning to Earth) because someone assured Hollywood that Audiences Are Morons. It's a solid movie, but it ain't subtle.

On the other side of the coin, we have last year's All is Lost, aka, "how I spent two of those remaining hours en route to Lungi." I hadn't researched this one in advance - hadn't read any reviews. I saw the lead (Robert Redford), read the premise (man stranded at sea) and went in.

All is Lost is a curious film. It depicts Redford as a man living alone on his boat somewhere in the Indian Ocean; while Redford's asleep, the boat strikes a cargo shipping container which had been (randomly) abandoned on the waters. Redford goes about the business of making repairs, but not all of the damage can be fixed and there's rough waters ahead.

All is Lost runs two hours long. Wait, that's not right, let me try again: All is Lost shambles two hours long. It's a slow, quiet movie (Redford speaks about two times - he has no co-stars). It's practically a silent film - the story is told through images and actions, not dialogue. Gravity is from the school of Noel Coward while All is Lost comes to you via Charles Chaplin*.

Speaking to my friends on the flight, those who sampled the film found it pretty bland. It's definitely not to all tastes, yet I think I kinda like it - it's almost as good a film as Gravity, in it's own way. Both films involve a protagonist caught in a situation beyond their control and constantly readjusting their plan of survival. While Gravity is super-compressed** storytelling where characters tell you what they're thinking about and how their struggle to survive relates to the tragic death of their child, All is Lost is super-decompressed storytelling where everything is ambiguous. They're both ambitious films on a technical level, yet Gravity surely goes down much more smoothly. I'm not normally one to champion decompressed storytelling, but it's almost worth seeing All is Lost for the experience of the movie's final shot. When I described it to my friends (who abandoned the film early) they couldn't believe it. See it for yourself and tell me you didn't smile at the audacity!

*=I still had one hour left before reaching Lungi, so after All is Lost I watched a Chaplin documentary. It seemed appropriate.

**= If the shrapnel debris arrives every 90 minutes as stated in the film and we witness it 3 times, then the movie covers about 4.5 hours in the life of Bullock's character, right? Yet you'd swear only 90 minutes pass because the camera never seems to cut away from her. Solid editing, that.

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