Why Gravity's Success At The Oscars Would Be A Travesty

In the wake of the film's success at the BAFTAs, Sam Parker argues why Gravity is not a worthy Oscar winner, and why this year's choice for Best Picture actually matters

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There is a moment, about a third of the way into Gravity, when George Clooney’s character is forced to confront one of the most horrifying deaths in cinema history. Floating unprotected in space, after almost reaching the safety of their shuttle, his astronaut has to let go in order for his co-pilot, Dr. Ryan Stone, to make it.

Even the fate of Dr. Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the closest comparison, isn’t nearly as bad: Hal sends him hurtling – frantic as a drowning animal – into space, but cuts his oxygen supply quickly. He dies within seconds.

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Matt Kowalski’s fate is different. He drifts off gently, forced to slowly suffocate in the infinite, unfurling nothingness, the loneliest man in the history of mankind. It should have been one of the great, gut-wrenching onscreen deaths, one that haunts a new generation of movie goers and bonds them to the medium forever.

But unlike Kubrick’s moment of sci-fi horror, it wasn’t. Not even close.

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Clooney’s character, smooth-talking and unflappable from the start – basically Danny Ocean with an astrophysics degree – floats off without a flicker of fear. His final words are implausibly focused on pacifying Sanda Bullock’s character, rather than conveying the slightest glimmer of apprehension. As he turns on his beloved country music and saunters off, you can almost see the martini glass dangling from his space glove.

Kowalski is one of those one-dimensional, all-American totems of self-sacrifice and heroism that belongs in summer blockbusters. His death has remarkably little emotional resonance, given the specifics – but then why should it? He’s a dramatic device, not a real person.

Which is why it would be travesty if, in this year of all years, Gravity wins Best Picture at the Oscars in March. More than that: it would be one of the worst injustices in the history of the awards.

The odds-on favourite is still Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave – which won Best Film at last night’s BAFTAs, but lost out to Gravity in the Best Directer category – but savvy commentators know Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D space epic could yet fulfil its initial predictions and take the biggest prize of all.

It wouldn’t be the first time a crowd-pleasing movie beat a superior, though less accessible rival to Best Picture. An obvious example is 1977, when Rocky took the gong ahead of Taxi Driver.

Scorcese’s masterful but bleak film did decent business, but Stallone’s Rocky, with its crowd-pleasing character and happy ending, was the box office smash. Similarly in 2013, Gravity was the 7th highest grossing movie – the highest nominated in the Best Picture category – while 12 Years, a far more upsetting experience than even Travis Bickel’s odyssey, sat in 70th.

In Hollywood, no one will be surprised to learn, money talks. Often when Oscars voters are split on who to put as their number 1 choice at the ballot, their number 2 pick goes to the ‘consensus film’ – the safest choice in terms of critical and commercial success. It’s a tendency that can swing the final result.

But what a terrible thing it would be if that happened. The biggest argument for a Gravity victory is that it is ‘event’ cinema, the film that, in the midst of TV’s golden age, made going on a trip to the pictures an ‘experience’ again. No wonder Gravity was applauded by the film industry itself - in reasserting the potential the big screen holds that the small screen does not, it must resemble something like a life raft.

But really, beyond marvelling at the floating debris from behind your 3D goggles, what is there new to ‘experience’ watching Gravity?

Even after Kowalski floats off to oblivion, taking most of the film’s cringe-inducing dialogue with him, the screenplay only marginally improves. Bullock makes a good fist of it, but thereon in Gravity is a jarring clash between art house pretentions and blockbuster imperatives.

The clunky and distracting symbolism – the fetal floating in the space ship, the emergence from the primeval swamp of the final scene – feel like they’re from a different film to Dr. Stone ‘overcoming’ her grief about her dead child, the completion of her requisite ‘emotional journey’ (as if escaping certain death in space isn’t ‘journey’ enough).

You can almost see the awkward compromise that took place between Cuarón – the man who gave us Y Tu Mamá También and Children Of Men – and Warner Bros., who no doubt saw the words ‘3D’ and ‘space epic’, smelled the money and pushed for two bankable A-list stars in the first place.

What’s more, with the film industry struggling overall but enjoying its critically strongest 12 months for a long time, the competition for Best Picture between Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and to a lesser extent, Her and American Hustle – feels like a symbolic one, that could lay down an important marker for filmmakers to come.

On 2 March, we’ll get some indication of where Hollywood is heading. What will the academy value more: the brilliance of writers and actors, or special effect teams? Visual impact, or emotional impact? Character and plot, or yet more empty explosions in the sky?

Gravity is a film you marvel at for an hour after you leave the cinema. It's an impressive technical feat. But I doubt that many people will be enjoying it 10, 5 or even 2 years from now, when its main contender will still be challenging hearts and changing minds. Let’s hope this time, the favourite wins.