Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has the experience of journeying through outer space been treated with the kind of awe, reverence, terror and–pardon the pun–gravity that it is in the latest from master director Alfonso Cuarón. The depictions of space flight, spacewalking, the specifics and limitations of technology and that fragile, frightening dividing line between life and death that astronauts must tread make for an intense, one-of-a-kind viewing experience. Gravity is one you absolutely have to see on the big screen–the biggest screen you can find. Cuarón also designed the film as a 3D spectacle and, on that score, Gravity acquits itself pretty magnificently. There are moments in the 3D experience that made me dizzy and terrified as the camera took in the grandeur of the view above Earth, especially in the story’s opening minutes.
On the level of technical skill and in capturing moments of sheer peril–and there are many in Gravity–the movie taps into our innate terror of the unknown, of loss of control, and our revulsion of danger and death. Integral to the story’s cinematic power are the breathtaking photography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the hypnotic, dread-inducing score by Steven Price. As with his emotionally gripping 2006 dystopian thriller, Children of Men, Cuarón expertly mines our common fears, terrors, our empathies and instincts for nurturing life in stories that connect with our nervous systems instantly. But instantly doesn’t necessarily mean deeply, and often in Gravity, there is the feeling that, intentionally or not, Cuarón is exploiting basic human impulses in crafting an edge-of-your-seat thriller, without actually developing novel and original characters. In the bargain, he offers us a cinematic spectacle without equal in the tradition of mainstream blockbuster cinema. So, is that deal worth it? In the end, I’d have to give a solid yes.
The story is a succession of heart-stopping disasters as a team of space-shuttle astronauts encounters a freak storm of flying debris, unleashed after nearby satellites are involved in a series of collisions. The debris destroys the shuttle and most of the crew (instantly killing off a thickly accented Indian spacewalker, I might add), leaving two marooned survivors–astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock)–to improvise a plan to save themselves and return to Earth. While Kowalksi is an old pro on his last mission, Stone is a newbie–she’s an engineer who can’t wait to be back on Earth if only to settle her stomach.
When disaster strikes, Kowalski, being the problem solver, guides Stone (and the audience) through a series of actionable steps. At this point, the screenplay busies itself with goal-oriented objectives. And the audience watches with bated breath as a scenario in which the odds of survival are infinitesimally low becomes more and more tenuous as one possibility after another begins to falter, beginning with depleted oxygen and propellent.
Cuarón, who penned the script with his son Jonás, gets the nuts and bolts correct. That is, he fastens down a trajectory of rising tension and rivets in the wrinkles and reversals of increasingly danger-filled second and third acts. But, in Stone and Kowalski, he gives us connect-the-dots characters. Here is what we have: Kowalski is the glib, hyper-competent man’s man, a career astronaut who loves his gig if only to forget the wife who ran out on him years ago; Stone is the wild card–grieving after the loss of a young daughter, she gives indications of deep self-loathing and loneliness (her father, she says off-handedly at one point, wanted a son, hence her masculine name). Seeking a thematic through-line, the Cuaróns find one in Stone: Gravity is as much about survival as it is about Stone finding her self-confidence, her self-worth, her groove. Cue, then, a succession of heavy-handed imagery symbolizing her re-birth, starting with the image of her floating in a fetal position within the embryo of a space pod. The moment marks the inception of Stone’s re-defining herself, the first in a series of images and moments that underscore her transformation. But, ultimately, all this is just a thematic convenience, a blanket on which the propulsive dynamics of the action is overlaid. In the absence of closely felt, organic characters, the Cuaróns’ attempt at character development don’t get past screenwriting-class mumbo jumbo.
That leaves the inherent appeal of the film’s stars to bolster the script’s shallow characters. Clooney trundles out his typically gabby, twinkle-in-the-eye self, a modern approximation of both Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. It’s a serviceable schtick without being very interesting. Bullock’s ability to exude vulnerability and competence in the face of crisis is put to maximum use as Stone is called on to buck up and take charge. The limited role calls on Bullock’s talents to reel us in and root for her. And we do–ardently and with sweaty palms–for no other reason than to see this poor woman back on Earth.
Some have called Gravity a masterpiece. I suppose it is, of sorts: Gravity demonstrates virtuosic filmmaking, engineered for maximum suspense and thrills. From beginning to end, it is a masterful job. But what I couldn’t help but wish was that Cuarón had opened up his story more for the sake of his characters, perhaps even given them scenes of their lives on Earth prior to launch or simply moments of existential contemplation on-board the shuttle rather than start (literally) with a bang. Perhaps then we might’ve been more invested in Stone and Kowalkski as distinctly developed human beings rather than as mere instruments in a survival story. More Tarkovsky, less Zemeckis! Now that would’ve been a masterpiece.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris