Deservedly cleaning up at the Academy Awards and elsewhere, Gravity is a correctly praised film. Its compelling heart-pounding narrative drive is as relentless as the tone of the film is comfortingly sweet. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and in IMAX 3D and nowhere else. I loved the movie a lot and get pissed by those who dismiss it and/or snub its real-life inspirations.
And yet. I can’t help but feel that this is not Cuarón’s best film, in an all-around-kind of way. If Gravity is some kind of enraged dementor hovering in to deliver the death kiss, then my patronus here is definitely Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. Or as I like to call it: a more watchable, better written, more complex and multi-layered film than Gravity in (almost!) every single way.
To paraphrase John Cleese speaking in a documentary on the making of The Holy Grail, the problem with filmmakers is they’re overly concerned with the medium of film. Paradoxical? Not really. Cleese was arguing for a kind of minimalism which he enjoyed on the Monty Python television show, which was replaced by meticulous attention to detail in the cinema incarnations of the show. The simple version of his argument is this: who cares how good the fog looks! Was the joke funny?
Now, if Cleese (and me) had it our way, most TV shows and movies would likely have the production value of a Monty Python sketch or a 1970s episode of Doctor Who. Because the more plain and bare (cheap?) the cinematography is, the more accurately the story can be judged. Or, to migrate a Han Solo sentence into a different context: hokey camera tricks and snobby lighting are no match for a good story at your side.
So, is there no truth in the beauty of filmmaking itself? A film like Gravity—one with totally flat characters who posses downright convenient storytelling traits—should really only be judged on its merits as piece of cinema art; a marvel of how the sights and sounds and immersive properties can engage us on a visceral level. Or at least this assessment of Gravity seems to be the dominant thinking for how to correctly love the film. Everyone knows Gravity isn’t a great script, but that’s not the point, right?
Well, visual science fiction has a long history of having totally shitty production values which can and should be overlooked in favor of great stories. There’s a reason why Star Trek and Doctor Who have remained stuck in the culture for as long as they have, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the realism of their camera work or the total immersion in “another world” à la Avatar. A reductive way to respond to the argument I’m presenting is that the world has a place for all of this stuff, and that Gravity isn’t “supposed” to be a “serious science fiction movie.” But, I’d argue that it’s this same kind of permissive thinking that allowed the Star Trek franchise to be hijacked into a (very entertaining!) mindless and totally illiterate shadow of its former intelligence. To say something is good “as a film” leaves out the fact that the characters, dialogue, and conception of the story are part of the process of making a film. The actual filming is, duh, super-important, but it’s just context.
And if you were to put the script of Gravity in another context, say an old episode of The Outer Limits or something, no one would really care that much about it. Again, I can hear some of you (and maybe even part of me) scream “That’s not the point!! Don’t you get it! It’s about a sensory experience! Leave the crappy dialogue alone!” And for the most part, I do agree with that statement, but it bothers me because this filmmaker—Alfonso Cuarón—has made other films with great dialogue and more memorable characters than this one. I won’t bother boring you with how great Y Tu Mamá También is, but it’s sufficient to say that it’s nearly perfect. But what about the third Harry Potter film? Why did Alfonso Cuarón not get praised by the mainstream movie-appreciators for this one? I think we all know the answer. It’s a fantasy film, which is part of a series, and there weren’t any famous actors in it. Plus, magic and wizards can’t win that kind of mainstream praise, right? (Wait. What about Return of the King?)
Let’s be really unfair here. Ready? Good. All the characters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are more interesting than the people in Gravity. The performances are all more nuanced. The characters go through changes, and the changes come from within themselves, not entirely from outside conflict. Hermione Granger doesn’t gain strength or perspective from a male character, she’s fine on her own. The solutions to the various conflicts require not only bravery, but also ingenuity. The fantasy concepts are both complex and easy to understand. The relative goodness or badness of all the characters is muddy, grey, and not always what you want it to be. Most of all (assuming you hadn’t read the book) it’s unpredictable and exciting.
What about Gravity? It can’t win over Harry Potter Tres on any of those counts. Not one. Its totally predictable. The characters are all from generic stock, their choices are generic, and the solutions to the conflicts—though presented well—aren’t that dynamic in terms of actually having everyone do different stuff as the movie goes on. Is it fair to say Prisoner of Azkaban better because it’s a more diverse and dynamic film? Probably not. Intentional minimalism can win every single time. I mean nobody thinks Sharknado is better than Waiting for Godot. But, if we want to get into the big time praise that big movies deserve, Gravity—despite its visual effects—isn’t near as good of a movie as the fantastically directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Apparently, in terms of character conception and development, Cuarón didn’t learn as much from J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves as he could have. Gravity doesn’t suck, but it is a little cliché on paper. Both films are solid, but Prisoner of Azkaban is so much better on paper it’s not even funny.
And guess what? Prisoner of Azkaban is a visually impressive movie, too.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com. His patronus is either Owen Wilson or Miranda July. He loved Gravity and particularly liked it when George Clooney called his name.