Dazzling evocation of floating in space, not free of other conventions
When it begins in medias res, an experienced American astronaut, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), is working with a woman medical engineer, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who’s only had six months of training, and they’re setting up to do some work on the Hubble Space Telescope. Kowalski is a jokester and a storyteller. Houston has heard some of his stories before. He is relaxed. But he “has a bad feeling about this mission.” And that bad feeling turns out to have been right. Some Russian satellites have disintegrated and a storm of their debris eventually heads toward the US vehicles, and Kowalski and Stone. Before you can say “abort,” the vehicles are toast and all crew but our two are dead, contact with Houston lost. The rest of the film’s compact but gruelling ninety minutes are a survival story.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an impressive achievement in terms of visuals and the technical side of recreating certain aspects of space travel — things science fiction strives for. It’s also a logical use of 3D, if you like that kind of thing. I don’t, because I don’t think it creates the illusions it strives for as well as 2D combined with the imagination have always done and continue to do. Technical advances, wonderful though they are, aside, all else remains the same. We have jokes and tears, and two good actors asked to do conventional things. They do them well. But the level of verisimilitude they achieve is not up to the visuals. This film makes the same mistake the recent Europa Report, also admirable from a sci-fi point of view, also made, only more so. It tells us that in space there is no atmosphere and therefore there is no sound, and then it proceeds to bombard us with loud movie background music.
Cuarón is one of the exciting new Mexican directors who floated out into the international mainstream in the 1990’s, and he’s chosen to remain undecided about what his style is. He went from a version of Dickens‘ Great Expectations to (still by far my favourite) the sophisticated sexual romp Y Tu Mmá También to Harry Potter to the apocalyptic fable Children of Men, the latter, much praised — a bit too much. It’s effective, but there is a lot of other stuff out there like it and the genre is getting more and more overworked. The director has said he always wanted to be an astronaut: so now he has visualised that dream. And no one can say he did not commit to this project.
The title “Gravity” points to what’s absent here. Never has nearly an entire film bee devoted to images of zero gravity, where things and people float in space.
Clooney becomes an old fashioned hero in the manner of Errol Flynn, a dashing daredevil ready to sacrifice, but with something else, a sterling practicality. It’s a well-conceived character, and also one tailored for the actor. Bullock’s character, granted that neither one gets more than the briefest background sketch, conventionally painted in by the device of having Kowalski ask her questions, has a twist that offsets the standard plucky lady she usually gets to play. She has had a terrible loss, a young child, and lives alone. She has a possible death wish: in fact, her selection for this mission might be questioned. But at least the oddly named Ryan Stone (“my father wanted a girl”) has some complexity.What happens? Well, I mustn’t tell you that, because this is a new movie. And besides, I don’t really know. The finale seems a tad magical. It’s safe to say that Cuarón and his son Jonás, who jointly did the writing, show a greater clarity of focus in the setup than in the finale, conventionally satisfying thought the latter final moments are. Let me sum things up by quoting A.A. Dowd and Ben Kenigsberg, from their AV Club review penned at Toronto: “As an excuse for Emmanuel Lubezki to rotate his camera through a bunch of cool-looking 3-D space hardware, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (Grade: B-) does its job spectacularly. In narrative terms, though, it’s somewhat lacking, essentially counting on viewers to be so lulled by gorgeous refractions of light and insane long takes à la Children Of Men that they won’t care about dramatic anemia or missed opportunities for tension.”
Nothing can take away Cuarón’s stunning achievement in the floating-in-space-with-a-camera category. But do not mention this in the same breath with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or call it an “epic.” And do not think that because it’s getting a free ride in many of the mainstream reviews, there are not critics who see it in a less flattering light. Among these besides AV Club are others I respect and often look to for an independent assessment, such as Armond White, Rex Reed, and Mike D’Angelo (the latter, like me, unable to climb on the Children of Men bandwagon. He thinks Cuarón still does things just to impress here, but finds the visuals unprecedented, giving Chador’s new All Is Lost the dramatic edge). For about maybe forty minutes this is a glorious film, and starting out a bit uncertainly, it begins to really grab you. But then those “missed opportunities for tension” begin to tell, and the ninety minutes beginning to seem surprisingly long. And my ears began to ring. The music was not only strangely omnipresent for a film about a place without external sound, but so loud it actually hurt. And as I walked out, they were still ringing. So this was actually a painful experience. And bombastic as blockbusters are, that is an unusual thing to happen.
DIRECTOR: ALFONSO CUARÓN
WRITERS: ALFONSO AND JONÁS CUARÓN
STARS: SANDRA BULLOCK, GEORGE CLOONEY, ED HARRIS
RUNTIME: 90 MINS
COUNTRY: USA, UK