This week's column by Ctein
This fall I saw two movies that were conceptually so similar that they could share the same description. Both were, for the most part, successful, and I can recommend them both. The ways in which they approached their subject, though, were different enough, artistically speaking, to make for an interesting compare-and-contrast.
Both were suspense movies, and for that reason this review is going to be entirely "meta." I hate having a suspense movie ruined by knowing details of the plot before I'm supposed to. Consequently, I am going to tiptoe very carefully around all the plot details. I request that you be equally circumspect in your comments. Assume that even the least spoiler or reveal will be redacted by Mike's mallet. Okay? We're good? Let's continue.
Both directors are from south of the border (Mexico and Ecuador respectively). Both movies are about how astronauts deal with having a space mission go seriously wrong; both focus on people, not technology, while making serious, and mostly successful, attempts to be as scientifically accurate as possible. Both got praise from serious critics.
The first movie is one you may never have heard of, due to its limited release. Happily, it's a movie that should play quite well on the small screen.
Europa Report by Sebastián Cordero has an ensemble cast with no big-name actors. It's a cinematic version of an investigative report on the mission failure of the first crewed spacecraft to visit Europa. It is a suspense mystery, related in a nonlinear fashion. The movie opens with a technical failure midway through the voyage, and part of the puzzle is just what that failure was. The movie unfolds from there to what happened before and afterwards, from several viewpoints—record footage from the mission, extensive statements by the pilot on what went wrong, and the reactions of the project manager and staff back on earth. The story unfolds in real (if nonlinear) time, spanning two years.
It really does play like a real world space mission gone awry. Europa Report resonates with the Columbia investigation, the Challenger report, and, if you're old enough to remember, the Apollo 13 postmortem. The movie takes place after the fact; the suspense and the mystery derive from the viewer being in much the same position as the investigators. You don't know the totality of what has happened; you have to assemble the pieces and develop a coherent whole picture.
For anyone with any affinity for the space program, it's an extraordinarily moving movie, due to the technical and human realism. When the project manager expresses her anguish at not knowing what has gone wrong, it brings you to tears.
Two flaws keep the movie from being entirely successful. The lesser is that the initial technical failure turns out to have a completely implausible explanation. Non-technical viewers won't catch it, but for a movie that is attempting verisimilitude, it's, well, lame. That particular failure mode simply never, ever would happen on a real mission. That wouldn't matter, except it's the very first mystery you're presented with and so it demands a believable answer.
More seriously, the movie becomes predictable. Once you discern the pattern (most viewers will), you know that when the astronauts behave in certain ways, there will be certain consequences. It's not like a bad teenage horror movie where they stupidly split up to explore the haunted house, with inevitable carnage. The characters in this movie have very sensible and believable reasons for doing everything they're doing. But when the consequences become predictable, there goes a lot of the suspense.
Still, I recommend it. It's rare to see intelligent, accurate space drama. I doubt it will pick up any awards, because pictures this low-key rarely do, but it is a very good movie. Fortunately it will play very well on a small screen, since you'll likely not get to see it in a theatre.
The second movie is, of course, Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón. Instead of being a suspense mystery, this is a suspense thriller, one that demands the biggest, clearest screen you can see it on. I saw it in IMAX 3D; I've never felt any other movie needed that.
Instead of an ensemble cast, 99.9% of Gravity involves just two major stars. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are at the very top of their forms. It is all about them. This is, in my opinion, where one of the few weaknesses shows up in the movie. The movie drops us right into the thrill ride with hardly any foreplay. I think the movie would do much better with just ten more minutes of character development at the beginning. These are characters you're supposed to genuinely care about. Clooney and Bullock are amazingly good, but I think that's asking a bit too much from the very weak character development the audience is given in the few minutes before things go all roller-coastery. It worked for me, but I know some viewers who just couldn't engage with the actors.
But so long as you can, you're off and running. The script is excellent and the dialogue is realistic and believable, carried by exceptionally capable actors who know that the entire movie is riding on just them. There should be a couple of Academy award nominations coming.
I feel obliged to point to the most evident technical inaccuracy in the movie, because this movie also strives for extreme verisimilitude. Fortunately, it's an inaccuracy you can entirely ignore, as it's just a plot device, not a central mystery as in Europa Report. The orbital mechanics in the movie aren't real. You'd think that would be a big deal for a movie set in Earth orbit, but it's not! The friend who recommended Gravity to me is a genuine rocket scientist working for SpaceX. It didn't bother him; it didn't bother me. Don't let it bother you.
This wasn't done out of ignorance; the technical advisors knew how to do the orbital mechanics correctly. The problem is that if the orbital mechanics were done correctly, the events of the movie would take place over months or more, as they do in Europa Report. That becomes an entirely different movie, especially when the point of the movie is about two characters and how they deal with adversity and each other.
One last observation. I'm pretty well convinced that Cuarón worked with two different endpoints in mind. The movie as shown plays great. But I'll bet anything that he also considered ending the movie after the last bit of spoken dialogue. That works, too!
That's it for this time. Next week I'll be reviewing the new Apple iPad Air.
The Ctein show plays on TOP's big screen on Wednesdays.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Spencer H.: "I'm glad someone else watched Europa Report. I have always really been into astronauts and space, and this was a very rare movie that really got it right in the believability department. I did find that the 'found footage' documentary style was most likely the most successful and well done I had ever seen. At times I was almost buying it, really getting invested in the whole thing. I agree with you 100% on the issues with the movie, but in the end, it was still very fun, and one of the better 'hard science fiction' movies made in a long time."
Stephanie Luke: "I've seen both of these movies—one in glorious 3D and one through Netflix on my computer screen—being a fan of space stories and special effects. I enjoyed both immensely.Your reaction to them was very similar to mine. I only had one little carp about Gravity. Sandra Bullock, though a lovely woman, is, after all, over 40, and no one can have skin that perfectly smooth and flawless without liberal application of Photoshop (or some similar software). I'm a huge fan of Photoshop—as anyone knows who has ever seen my photographs—and 'making the world more perfect one image at a time' is my dearly held motto, but it was so unreal in an otherwise very realistic-seeming film."
Ed Hawco (partial comment): "Regarding the character development, I wonder if the lack of it was a deliberate choice based on the idea that we, the viewers, are supposed to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters and to wonder how we would feel and what we would do. You could argue that any good piece of fiction uses this device, but in this case I think it was more deliberate than usual."
John Robison: "Well, I guess we are all different. I happened, and I mean 'happened' to see Europa Report. I was waiting for the glue to dry on a 4x5 plywood box camera and looking through Netflix when I came upon it. It is so hard to make fiction look like authentic reporting and this just did not seem to me like something real. Besides Apollo 13 (and yes, it had its inaccuracies) the last film that felt real to me was Good Night and Good Luck. When a movie is filmed so as to look like reportage then the bar is very high."
Rob Reiter: "Saw Europa Report at home and Gravity in 3D IMAX and I agree completely with your comments on both. It's like you read my mind. Should I be concerned?"
Mike replies: Ctein cannot actually read minds. On the other hand, he knew I was going to say that.