Sometimes, a pair of seemingly disparate films can have more in common than it would appear on the surface. Sometimes, recent history repeats itself in interesting ways.
So it is with two films that each dominated at the past two Academy Awards ceremonies, despite falling short of the ultimate Best Picture prize. They are both epic tales of survival anchored by powerful solitary performances and brought to life by the magical storytelling abilities of two virtuoso filmmakers. One lost out to an epic campaign of supposed Oscar injustice, while the other was up against a harrowing tale of life in slavery that could not be ignored, but the skills of these two directors could not be ignored by the Academy.
Once again, it's time to dive into the Reel Rumbles ring, with Gravity vs. Life of Pi.
Round One: Story
Cast off and alone, the survivor of a horrifying disaster clings desperately to life, at the utter mercy of their hostile environment. Oddly, this description fits both of these films, despite their completely different trappings.
In Life of Pi, Piscine (a.k.a. "Pi") Patel (Suraj Sharma) is journeying from India to Canada with his family and the animals from the zoo he grew up in when a vicious storm strikes and sinks their freighter. Pi finds himself the sole human survivor, adrift on a life boat with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Very soon, of course, only Pi and Richard Parker remain, and Pi struggles through innumerable days lost at sea to keep them both alive.
In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first orbital mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and his space shuttle crew when disaster strikes. A deadly debris field from a recently-destroyed Russian satellite obliterates the shuttle, leaving Stone and Kowalski cut off, tethered only to each other, and running out of oxygen. Their only hope of getting home is to somehow reach a (relatively) nearby orbiting station and its escape pod.
Both stories provide harrowing tales of survival, culminating in a rousing reaffirmation of life. Round one is a draw.
Round Two: Script
Gravityis an original story from the film's director, Alfonso Cuarón, and his son, Jónas. While ostensibly their primary focus is on Bullock's lead character, Dr. Stone, her personal story takes a bit of a back seat to the film's remarkable visuals and heart-pounding action. Stone is a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission, and as she trades quips with astronaut Kowalski, we learn that she has turned to the depths of space to escape her lonely existence back on Earth.
As evident as Stone's pain is, though, we don't get a lot of details. Her name is Ryan simply because her "dad wanted a boy". Sometimes, she just gets in the car and drives, so she can avoid thinking about he recent loss of her young daughter. All these bits, coming to fruition between quips from Clooney's Kowalski and intense moments of panic as all hell breaks loose in orbit, paint a sufficient yet incomplete portrait of the woman the audience shares a harrowing ride with. It's a treat to see genuine emotion coming to life in such a visual effects-laden film, but much more of the credit for this is due to Bullock's spot-on performance than any richness of the Cuaróns' script.
By contrast, Life of Pi has much more depth to draw on, based as it is on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Yann Martel. Rather than hijacking the film for themselves, the visual effects in director Ang Lee's opus serve only to enhance and enrich the tale of the hero, Pi Patel.
The tale is framed by scenes of an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) relating his remarkable tale of survival to a writer (Rafe Spall) who has come to hear a story that will "make him believe in God". Whether or not the audience comes to believe in any higher power or not is irrelevant; it is still a powerful tale of the indomitable human spirit, as Pi's experiences during 200+ days at sea challenge his faith, his convictions, and his willingness to survive.
Gravity nails "heart-pounding" at nearly every turn. The fact that it also touches genuine emotion is a treat, but as far as its script goes, it's all fantastic setup, and a little shy on the payoff; without the visuals, it's nothing. Life of Pi, however, manages to run the entire gamut of human emotion, never missing a beat.
Advantage: Life of Pi.
Round Three: Performances
It's not all that often that a remarkable movie such as these is anchored by a single performance. Sure, there are other players in Gravityand Life of Pi, but all of them (even George Clooney) are totally secondary to the solitary principal players.
Other characters make an impression in Life of Pi, particularly the older Pi (Khan), who relates the story; an ill-tempered cook (Gérard Depardieu); and Pi's stern but loving father (Adil Hussain). Yet Khan is merely another part of the same central character, and the movie really rests on the shoulders of Suraj Sharma, who was chosen by director Lee from among thousands of young men to audition for the part. Sharma's immersion in the role is impressive, and he bears the weight of the entire film admirably on his newcomer's shoulders.
Even superstar George Clooney takes a back seat to the tour-de-force efforts of Sandra Bullock in Gravity. His amiable Kowalski provides a valuable anchor for Bullock's Stone to cling to early in the film, but Bullock's performance is the one that draws us in, that makes us care and root for the heroine to survive.
Sharma's performance in Life of Pi works extremely well, but it is only one aspect of the film that does. Bullock's amazing turn as Stone, meanwhile, overcomes the shortcomings of the script to bring us to truly root for Stone, and it actually proves equally as compelling as the visual effects. For that impressive feat, Bullock single-handedly pulls Gravity ahead of the competition in this round.
Round Four: Direction
How does a film win Best Picture at the Oscars without winning Best Director? After all, the director is the person ultimately responsible for every single thing that appears in every single frame of their film.
It actually happens nearly 25% of the time, with Ang Lee's and Alfonso Cuarón's wins being the 22nd and 23rd times in Oscar's 86-year history that the Best Picture/Director vote has been split. When the director is so inseparable from his film, the split Director/Picture vote becomes a way for the Academy to honor two films as the "best", rather than just one. In these most recent cases, it seems apparent that the Academy sided with the directors who pulled off a technically-daunting, "How did they do that?" feat of virtuoso filmmaking.
Alfonso Cuarón and his team created a myriad of new technologies and set the visual-effects bar ahead by light-years when they crafted Gravity. Filming Sandra Bullock alone on rotating rigs practically within a shoebox, and marrying the shots of her with impeccable visual effects was no simple feat. Add to this Cuarón's signature long takes (the first shot of Gravity lasts a whopping 17 minutes before a cut...or about 18% of the film's total run time!), and the fact that he manages to keep up an almost unrelenting pace, and Gravity was truly an experience to behold, particularly on the massive 3D screen for which it was intended.
Ultimately, the Academy awarded Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, and how could it not? Hard-hitting historical dramas are right up Oscar's alley. Yet Cuarón's skill could not be denied; not when he turned in a work of such extraordinary technical skill that every director in Hollywood must still be a little jealous.
What Ang Lee was able to accomplish visually with Life of Pi is no less miraculous than Cuarón's achievements with Gravity. There are times when Pi becomes almost a visual poetry, by turns exhilarating and surreal, beautiful and terrifying. To stop and think that half of the film involved a single actor on a lifeboat in a massive water tank, acting against animals who just weren't there, is a bit staggering.
Ang Lee had been in this position before, taking home a Best Director Oscar, despite the fact that his film Brokeback Mountainlost Best Picture to Crash. When Argotook Best Picture over Life of Pi, it took full advantage of the fact that Ben Affleck being left out of the Best Director category was considered one of the biggest snubs in recent Oscar history. The Academy sought to right this injustice by bestowing Argo with Best Picture (and choosing a film in which, probably not coincidentally, Hollywood itself plays a decidedly heroic role), but with Affleck out of the running, it was easy to honor Life of Pi with an Oscar for its brilliant director. It was, after all, the most ambitious of all nine Best Picture nominees.
The truth is, both of these artists truly deserved the Oscars they were awarded, because both achieved feats of filmmaking that not many other directors could equal. Round four is a draw.
And the Winner Is...
This pair represents the one movie I am most glad I saw in the theater vs. the one movie I am most sorry I missed in the theater. However, even though I experienced them in different ways, for me, the choice is clear.
Gravity is a spectacle, pure and simple. Yet the tale is highly observational: The audience is witnessing a cataclysmic event, and is barely afforded the time to truly connect with the film's protagonist. The movie loses something vital when viewed outside of its intended arena: a 3D theater. Gravity is still a titanic film, but the weaknesses in the script become more apparent when the visceral experience is stripped away.
Life of Pi, by contrast, still looks beautiful in 2D, and the story - rather than just the experience - is far more absorbing. It thrills with the visuals, but makes a stronger emotional connection.
These are two of the finest films of the 2010s so far, both entirely deserving of their accolades, but the winner here is Life of Pi.
Gravity vs. Life of Pi: By the Numbers
It is interesting to note that Gravity and Life of Pi garnered the same Academy Awards, one year apart. Gravity took home a few extra technical awards, but both films earned exactly the same four major Oscars - Directing, Cinematography, Visual Effects and Score - while falling short of Best Picture.
Here's a breakdown of how the films stacked up to each other at the Oscars, the box office, and on Flickchart:
An avid Flickcharter since 2009, Nigel is a self-described fanboy whose Top 20 is dominated by the likes of Indiana Jones, Frodo Baggins and Marty McFly. Nigel is the Canadian arm of the Flickchart Blog, but try not to hold that against him. You can find him on Flickchart as johnmason.