I happened upon Gravity on HBO this evening, somewhere around the 30-minute mark. George Clooney was already dead (right?) and the terrified Sandra Bullock was tumbling head over heels and going “aahh! aahh!” For some reason I watched the remaining two-thirds. The fact that this technically impressive thrill ride managed to get serious traction for the Best Picture Oscar is even more of a head-scratcher now than it was earlier this year. Now more than ever it’s clear this was essentially a high-tech perils-of-Pauline movie. It dazzled by virtue of the first-rate VFX, and that’s what classed it up and made it seem so special to the easily impressed. I will always respect the exacting, highly skilled efforts of director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, both of whom won Oscars, but their real masterwork was Children of Men…c’mon.

Now that things have calmed down and we’re less than two months from the start of a new season we need to admit for the record that Gravity became a highly favored Best Picture nominee because it was expertly sold and hyped as something it really wasn’t at the end of the day — i.e., a movie that had a soul. I just watched it and I’m telling you that it’s just about gears and levers and buttons that were pushed exactly the right way. And a good portion of the Academy wanted to bypass (or more precisely had decided to ignore) 12 Years A Slave to give this thing a Best Picture Oscar because the tech stuff was so cool?

“Running a mere 91 minutes, Gravity is a tightly constructed, threat-heavy survival saga,” I wrote eleven months ago. “One hair-raising ‘oh, shit!’ thing happens after another…crash, bang, boom, clank. But honestly? I’d be lying if I said I felt genuinely immersed in the reality of the story and the inner life of the characters in the same way I did with Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien or Children of Men. I was 100% aware at all times that the ‘uh-oh’ stuff is happening to Bullock and Clooney because an $80 million dollar sci-fi thriller requires wowser visceral excitement or the under-30 ADD types will get bored.

“This is the reality of big-time filmmaking today. 2001: A Space Odyssey could not and would not be funded by a major studio today. Breathtaking visuals and loud, high-impact action whammies have to happen, period. That or your typical Shanghai viewer will start texting.”