"Life in space is impossible." Ditto that when it comes to life as a 1970s Formula 1 racer. At least, anything resembling an ordinary life is impossible. As rarefied as they were, such guys wore their deathwishes like badges of honor, as they were incapable of doing anything else. This way of life stands in weird defiance to that of spacewalking astronauts - people who willingly participate in the ultra high stakes practice of leaving the planet temporarily, with the good faith that nothing will go wrong. Of course, if it didn't, we'd have a different number one movie in America (two weeks running and counting).
That movie is filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón's long awaited return to the cinema, Gravity. And it's a darn good one. The movie that warrants the inclusion of the racecar drivers is Ron Howard's 1970s Formula 1 drama-feud, Rush. It's not to bad, either. Rush, having opened only a few weeks prior to Gravity, may not appear to invite much in the way of comparison with the newer film, but having just seen both films within a day of one another, I have a few thoughts and even some parallels to share....
Gravity opens with the statement I opened this piece with, "Life in space is impossible". In keeping then, it begins with inevitable death before becoming a survival struggle. Rush, meanwhile, plays upon its main characters' anti-survival instinct with death always looming very nearby. In Rush, the drivers' need to deliberately place themselves in mortal danger informs us of whom these isolated racers are. Rush is based upon real people who really did race and really did sport bad 1970s hair. (Along with their deathwish badges of honor, one actually wore a patch reading "Sex: Breakfast of Champions". The patches in Gravity are considerably less interesting NASA-esque logos and American flags.)
No one in Gravity is real (not that it matters), although isolation is also a huge factor in that movie. Gravity presumably takes place in the recent past, when the Americans were still launching space shuttles. Its disaster comes early, before the film's first shot is passed. (That first shot runs impressively well over twelve minutes, maybe longer.) Rush makes us wait for the inevitable disaster, and for those unfamiliar with the characters' history, we can only guess who will be befallen. As a result, both films feature distressing full-on shots of horrible bodily mutilation.
The casting methods of the two films couldn't be more different, yet both wound up with the proper actors for accomplishing their cinematic bottom line goals. Howard brazenly stocked his film with unknowns and lesser-knowns, the biggest star on screen being the guy who played Thor in The Avengers
. Chris Hemsworth is James Hunt, and Daniel Brühl is Niki Lauda - 1976 Formula 1 superstars whose arch rivalry fueled their need for championship speed. Blasting along questionable tracks at untold velocities in cars that were considered by many to be "bombs on wheels" was something they couldn't not do, and in Rush
, there are no famous superstar actors subconsciously dissuading viewers from buying into any of it. The fact that these are real life subjects is helped by the relative non-fame of those playing them.
Cuarón, by contrast, goes the route Hitchcock did in North by Northwest
, casting extremely famous and widely liked movie stars, and then promptly tossing them out of their comfort zones. This enables the screenwriters (the director and his son Jonas) to let the characters remain non-developed, as the whole point is not astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski hopelessly marooned in space, but Sandra Bullock and George Clooney hopelessly marooned in space. After all, even people who'd never see a George Clooney movie are all too aware of who George Clooney is. Like dapper Cary Grant trying to dodge a machine gun crop duster in the middle of nowhere, it works. It's an old fashioned notion, and yes, a cheat that relies completely on being properly applied in all departments and at all phases, but this time, Cuarón succeeds. Also, if you by chance are in the distinct minority of those who don't care for Bullock and Clooney, the human universality of the nature of the depicted peril will reel you in anyhow.
Rush is disjointed and fragmentary. It's also rated R, as the famously milquetoast filmmaker Ron Howard gets his cinematic hands dirty so to speak - and does a far more natural job of it than Robert Zemeckis did last year with his jacked-up sex/drugs/rock n' redemption tale, Flight. Howard's directorial style is unrecognizable as his own (and I mean that in a good way), as he forsakes cinema language anchors like consistent screen direction and not crossing "the line". Instead, he commandeers the aesthetic of latter day Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino), with dashes of Any Given Sunday era Oliver Stone for good measure. Like never before, he's interested in over-saturation of color, rhythmic editing, and film grain. In a scene when hothead racer James Hunt's handler must tell him some bad business news, it plays like a poor film student set loose with all the equipment for the first time. On the flip side, the race scenes are beyond exhilarating. Somewhere amid all the satisfying engine roaring and tire noise, Hans Zimmer has a magnificent score.
But not as good as the score of Gravity. Steven Price's musical score for Gravity is amazing. For that matter, all the music, both source and score, work perfectly. This is in keeping with the whole of the film, rife with wondrously dizzying zero-G visuals that actually induce mild vertigo immediately following an IMAX 3D screening. (Trust me on that). Taut storytelling and an ace performance by Sandra Bullock keep Gravity more than afloat, what with its unrelenting depth and continuous, spinny drifty shots.
At this point, however, I have to disagree with critic Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, who stated that with Gravity, Cuarón is defying conventional film language, and stepping into a whole other realm of visual storytelling. While part of me appreciates the hyperbole brought forth by his enthusiasm, Gravity is actually the Citizen Kane of space-bound potboilers: A film that gathers all the technical and artistic achievement that came prior, and uses them to its own full potential, and flawlessly. In fact, the only thing really wrong with Gravity is that there's nothing wrong with it. It's an antiseptic thrill ride that elevates the typical one-dimensional movie character to great heights.
, on the other hand, wears its sloppiness and daring proudly, as Ron Howard is refreshingly never afraid to risk driving into the wall and crashing. (Perhaps this harkens back to his earliest directing work, in the Roger Corman car-crash cheapie Grand Theft Auto
.) His newfound Tony Scott-esque aesthetic certainly reflects his characters' fractured inner lives, but it's more than that. Although Rush
is probably just barely less digitally tinkered with than Gravity
, it maintains the illusion of earthy period texture and unhinged machismo. When it comes to the visuals of Gravity
, the only people who really know how they achieved what they achieved are the technicians who achieved them. With Rush
, one forgets the movie-movie concoction of it all, and freely zips along from race to race.
Ultimately - and completely by design, it must be said - Gravity fulfills its brilliant thrill ride, getting in and out in a commendably economical ninety-one minutes. There's no room or need for letdown in that hour and a half, although the fact that the movie completes its business so thoroughly, so completely leaves us with nothing to chew on after the fact. And for a big budget marvel so prominently featuring the Earth and the universe and science and even glimpses of religious iconography, this lack of cine-cud is a kind of disappointment. Rush, on the other hand, leaves us with two memorable characters and many questions about their outcomes, lifestyles, and decisions. It's a little too long, and Howard gets a little buzzed on his newfound visual freedoms, but for days following, I found myself thinking about Rush far more than Gravity, which in my mind hurled back to the planet in a nice tidy bow.
So, is Rush secretly the better film? Don't be silly. But, in all its reach, acceleration, and faults, it might just be the more interesting one.