The big story of the weekend—cinematically speaking—was Gravity‘s surprising, and record breaking, take at the US box office. Even optimistic pundits were predicting something in the $35 million range, which would have been a win for all concerned, but the $55 million it ended up with puts it into a whole other league. It’s now the biggest October opening in history, and with an extremely rare Friday-to-Saturday bump, indicates that the stellar word of mouth is spreading like wildfire, making this one of those zeitgeist-y film experiences that propels certain movies to phenomenon-status. And I, for one, am absolutely thrilled about it.
1. It’s really good.
There was a time not so long ago, when blockbusters were allowed to be smart, ambitious, and beautifully crafted (The Godfather, Jaws, Back to the Future), instead of the over-familiar lowest-common denominator spectacles we mostly get today (Iron Man 3, Fast 6, etc.). It’s a refreshing reminder of the oft-ignored saying: "Quality is the best business model," and a message to Hollywood that they should pay more attention to it.
2. It’s an original property.
Of the eight films that have crossed $200 million this year, not a single one is a fresh idea. Instead we got sequels, prequels, superheroes, re-boots, animated sequels, and one book adaptation—giving creedence to the film industry’s fear of bankrolling anything that isn’t "branded." So when audiences vote for something original, they dismantle the lie that we don’t want new stories.
3. It’s original sci-fi.
This year alone, we saw Tom Cruise bomb with Oblivion, Will Smith bomb with After Earth, and Matt Damon bomb with Elysium —heralding the death of "original" sci-fi projects. (The fact that none of them were good movies seems to be irrelevant.) Gravity reverses that trend, in a big way.
4. It’s a director’s vision.
Alfonso Cuarón is an undisputed auteur, who has been obsessively, lovingly crafting this movie for eight years, inventing new technologies in order to do so. It’s the rare, expensive studio movie that hasn’t been compromised by meddling executives into a bland, globally digestible product – but that feels like an actual work of art – (albeit, a globally digestible one).
5. It proves that reviews matter.
Before the reviews came out, this was considered one of the riskiest studio projects of the year, but the deafening critical enthusiasm since its Venice premiere has been essential in Gravity‘s marketing campaign. And while critics still can’t deter the masses from the biggest franchise-protected turds, it’s good to know they can still champion some gems toward this kind of box office success, and that the disempowerment of the film critic has perhaps been prematurely claimed.
6. It’s about a female protagonist.
When Cuarón first presented his script to studios, they wanted to re-write the lead role for a male lead, arguing that stories about women can’t bring in all four audience "quadrants." So again, a poisonous Hollywood lie dismantled.
7. It’s about a female protagonist over 40.
Good roles for actresses are hard to find in Hollywood (see above). Good roles for women over 40? Almost non-existent. Mothers and ex-wives, if they’re lucky, but for most actresses, the window of opportunity closes as the next round of starlets comes through the door.
8. It’s about a female protagonist who is not defined by a man, or her quest for one.
The lead character’s arc is a personal journey of self-actualization and re-birth, that has nothing to do with being completed by some romantic ideal. And that’s a genuinely empowering notion to voice in our culture right now.
9. It cements a middle-aged actress as one of the most consistent box office stars today.
After four movies in a row opening above $30 million—across all genres, none of them sequels—Sandra Bullock is beating the boys’ club at their own game, and is the first actress in a long time to gain that kind of clout, without being tied down to any one genre.
10. It adds to George Clooney’s clout, which means more good movies.
George Clooney believes there is an audience for intelligent, adult entertainment, and every time he has a hit, can use his status to help more great directors make great movies.
11. It rewards Warner Brother’s director-nurturing philosophy.
Warner Brothers has a reputation as the "director’s" studio, because of the relationships it likes to develop with quality directors, over many years. Just compare the movies on every other studio’s slate this year, and then look at the ones on WB’s: Gravity, Prisoners, Pacific Rim, The Great Gatsby, The Conjuring. Like them or not, no other studio so consistently supports directorial visions on such large budgets, and if they did, we’d have a lot more interesting movies filling our multiplexes.
12. It will inspire a generation of new film-makers.
The film-making is so exquisitely realized, jaw-dropping, and impossible to ignore—that, like Star Wars or The Matrix—pop sensations that utilized a real knowledge of film history and tropes with ground-breaking new technology. I have no doubt it will be ground zero for thousands of future film students, fascinated by…
13. The use of long, elaborate takes.
At a time when audiences are more ADD than ever, checking their phones and unable to surrender to an experience, and movies cater to that with ever more frenetic action and chaotic editing—the long, fluid single takes that make up Gravity are a welcome return to the kind of patient, beautifully crafted film-making that takes the time to orient us in the action, and pulls us into its world and its characters with real elegance and skill—resulting in a far more immersive experience as a result.
14. More people will check out Children of Men.
Alfonso Cuarón’s last movie was a masterpiece—one of the last big, bold, daring studio sci-fi movies to come out before the current fear-based, risk averse climate—and a fascinating stepping stone in his experimentation with long, uninterrupted takes. Unfortunately, not a lot of people saw it, though it’s gained a strong cult following in the years since.
15. It means Alfonso Cuarón gets to make whatever he wants next.
Like Christopher Nolan, who used his post-Batman clout to make Inception, this means Cuarón can keep playing on a large canvas, on his own terms, and that’s great news for the rest of us. Even if his next movie flops, we’ll get at least one more insanely ambitious, un-compromised movie to look forward to.
16. It uses 3-D as a storytelling tool, not a gimmick.
Since Avatar changed the landscape four years ago, it’s now a global profit imperative that all big studio movies be in 3-D, regardless of whether it enhances the story, or whether the style or subject matter fits. So it’s nice to watch one where the 3-D is essential, and wondrous, rather than just charging you extra for a headache.
17. The obstacles are technical, not human.
No villains, no fistfights, no guns, no vengeance, just good old-fashioned problem solving and courage-finding. Quick, think of another big, thrilling movie you can say that about…
18. It creates renewed interest in space exploration.
It’s a strange coincidence that Gravity opened the same week that NASA had most of its funding cut, and though it ultimately may not change that, it’s good to be reminded of how space exploration once bound us as a species, with a sense of limitless possibility and wonder at our place in the universe.
19. It makes us appreciate our planet.
From the opening shot of Earth spinning slowly below the astronauts, much of Gravity‘s awe is directed at the beauty of our planet, and the longing to return to it. Not to any one country, or continent, but to the one home that binds us all.
20. It’s a film for everyone, in a good way.
There is literally no one I would not recommend this movie to. It’s thrilling, moving, life-affirming, and restores wonder and awe to the cinematic experience. I’m not saying it’s perfect—as I’ve said before, it’s a thrill ride first and foremost, not the cerebral existential meditation some might have hoped for—but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt like we could all, regardless of class, nationality, or age, rally around one movie of such undisputed quality, that satisfies in such a fundamental way. And I’m very, very grateful it made it through all the stupid, fear-based Hollywood "wisdoms" above, to sold-out theaters and the acclaim it rightly deserves.