Originally posted on Vérité October 14th, 2013: http://www.veritefilmmag.com/
Moderate spoilers ahead
The text at the start of Gravity tells us that “life in space is impossible”. By the film’s end, there’s the understanding that this statement of common knowledge means something else. Living in the void is impossible. Not living your life is unsustainable. It’s a valid point to make, but Gravity is such a blunt instrument that it spells out its purpose before we’ve even seen anything onscreen. Alfonso Cuarón’s innovative, auteurist rendering of the infinite, attempts to marry the accessibility of effects-driven survival stories with more thought provoking themes, but for all its painstaking craft, breathless spectacle and armrest-gripping action sequences, Gravity falls flat because the visceral nature of the film is undone by piss-poor content.
The basic plot is smartly pared down to its essentials with a clear conflict and goal established from the outset. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space shuttle mission accompanied by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran on his final spacewalk. While making repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, the astronauts get word from Mission Control that a storm of debris caused by a destroyed satellite is headed their way. Caught in the debris before they can abort the mission, space rubble smashes into their shuttle, slingshotting them into untethered space.
As a cinematic thrill ride, Gravity doesn’t need to be particularly well-written, especially with such confident composition . There are countless films that exist on a more stylistic level, where layered story and character are not relied upon to convey meaning, but the slim content that’s on offer here is never better than bad. This becomes harder to ignore, given how Cuarón clearly wants this film to work hand-in-hand on two levels; one of immersive experience through technical innovation, and one of metaphor.
This story of an impossible crisis in the existential space of the negative, is really about the rebirth of a woman. It aims for simplicity, and a message everyone can connect with, but Cuarón and his co-writer son Jonás, aren’t smart about writing simple. Clunky exposition, broad strokes, stiff dialogue, and a total lack of nuance results in an overt metaphor so transparent as to be rendered ineffective and at times laughable.
Rooting a spectacle-driven project in humanism is a wonderful idea, something that should be explored much further and tested more often. Sadly, Cuarón’s execution of ideas pales in comparison with his immaculate visuals. Stone’s character arc can be effectively summed up as ‘The Crudely Depicted Rebirth of a Grieving Mother’. Bullock does what she can, but while her fear is palpable, her emotional trajectory and obligatory tragic backstory aren’t authentically felt.
The astounding realisation of space, with Earth as a breathtaking but unreachable backdrop, makes the bulky story stand out all the more, widening the black chasm between the film’s strengths and weaknesses, instead of swallowing them whole. Visually it’s hard to fault; the spatial depth conveyed in this world of nothing and everything feels appropriately weightless, real, unstrained, and often awe-inspiring. Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezski use the camera in mostly long takes, floating in and out and around the characters. Cuts seemingly don’t exist in zero gravity, and while the long take technique becomes overwrought after a while, the construction of that ten-minute opening shot alone is a triumph unto itself. On an aural level, Steven Price’s bombastic score mostly works too. Never letting the audience go, it effectively (if incessantly) substitutes the lack of sound within the rest of the film.
Then there’s George Clooney in an uncommonly distracting piece of casting and performance. As Matt he is a smooth charmer, one of those guys who loves telling the same stories (and he has lots of them) over and over. He’s a guy who would normally get on people’s nerves but gosh-darn-it, that charisma! Starting and ending at Point A, Matt never feels like an actual human being, even a poorly written one. He remains calm in a crisis, focusing his energy on helping Ryan through her panic. Yet there is no point, not even for a second, in which the gravity of their situation can be felt through his performance. There is a difference between trying to keep calm for another person’s sake, and having zero reaction whatsoever to free-floating in space with little hope of survival and rapidly decreasing oxygen. Deprived of the ability to give a physical performance, Clooney plays up the smug calmness of his persona, as if this were Ocean’s Eleven in space.
Gravity has been surrounded by a dangerous amount of hyperbole from all corners. Individual responses are filled with genuine excitement and energy, but taken as a whole the reception feels slightly insane. It’s been heralded as a groundbreaking milestone and a new form of cinema, with meaningless comparisons to 2001 thrown in for good measure. It’s always exciting to see a film cross over all demographics, seemingly capturing everyone on a grand scale, even more so when the release of a non-superhero, non-franchise film is deemed an ‘event’ by the general public, because let’s face it, that’s a pretty rare occurrence. But genuine heart-pounding moments are in aid of a simplistic story that rinses and repeats, feeling like the cut scenes of a video game rendered by innovators lost in space.