The reason for the resurgence in the previously waning popularity of 3D, on the back of Gravity, is plain for all to see. Providing viewers are wearing the goggles, of course. It’s an expertly made, immersive experience that makes use of the added dimension in a manner not seen since Avatar. And there’s the added bonus that this is a far superior movie. Yet surprise was still registered when there was no accompanying attendance bump for Thor: The Dark World, a post-converted 3D-er. The message is clear; if you make it special, they will come. But that brings with it a caveat. Great as Gravity is, it’s still very much an exercise in technique and technology. You’ll be hard pressed to uncover the depths attributed to director (and co-writer) Alfonso Cuarón’s best work.
There’s still every reason to celebrate his achievement, however. The edge-of-the seat-set pieces he creates are first-rate, and the fluidity of his direction ensures that, even when you are conscious of what he is doing with the camera, you are not pulled out of the experience. From the opening shot, as a speck becomes a space shuttle and then, eventually, our protagonist Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) comes into view and then into close-up, there’s an unhindered attempt to create something that is both incredible to behold and has dramatic value. That shot informs the entire picture; this is a vast, unfathomably vast, environment. To be alone in it takes agoraphobia to new levels (agoraphobia and claustrophobia are fundamental, the latter identified with Stone both confined and protected within a space suit). At other times the camera seamlessly transitions from third person observation to first person point-of-view, and it never feels like a gimmick.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that it somewhat is. In Children of Men, Cuarón experimented with a virtuoso one-shot set piece leading into a bombing incident; it was much vaunted at the time, but it only ever felt like icing on a particularly nutritious cinematic cake. Here, the director attempts to consistently adopt the meticulous attention to visual construction that was Hitchcock’s byword. But Gravity is shorn of the Master of Suspense’s dark psychology and morbid wit. This is a disaster movie, plain and simple, and it never stands (floats) still long enough to allow the weight, awe and terror of Stone’s experience to sink in. For all the splendour of the vistas Cuarón conjures, the picture’s approach to character is inveterately Hollywood. Perhaps this shallowness is a consequence of collaborating on the script with son Jonás, a whippersnapperish 32-year-old. There’s nothing in the hackneyed psychology of Stone or George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski (the name makes me think of Monsters, Inc.) that would look out of place in, say, The Poseidon Adventure. The only such feature Gravity lacks is Ernest Borgnine.
Stone is a serious-minded, meticulous scientist who really doesn’t like being in space (you know, in the way Roy Scheider doesn’t like going near the water). Kowalski’s a charismatic space jockey (not of the Alien kind) whose easy confidence and bravado conceals nothing less than a thoroughly decent chap; that all-American hero poster boy type that doesn’t really exist. You couldn’t wish for a better guy to take care of you out in the inky blackness. And, because he’s embodied by George Clooney, you make excuses for his corny stories and cod-psychology. He’s so damn charming.
If ever there was a picture relying completely on star power to sustain its characters, it’s this one. Clooney just brushes down his classic Clooney performance. Bullock has a role less tailored to her easy warmth, which is why she’s perfect casting. She may have been way down the list of picks for the female lead, but her likability shines through the clumsy dialogue and histrionics; you care what happens to her (I doubt first choice Angelina Jolie would have been so engaging). Bullock’s career resurgence, teetering towards her sixth decade, has been impressive. The only concession to her age is that she stops short of the full Barbarella zero gravity striptease (I can’t believe that wasn’t in Cuarón’s mind, though).* Amusing also that the plot manufactures a reason for the female lead to undergo a costume change midway through the proceedings, to a more slimline Russian number (and I know the suits for exteriors were CGI, but it’s the thought that counts).
When the picture eases on the throttle for long enough to focus on the characters, or rather Stone’s character (Paul Sharma’s Dasari is the only person we meet besides Stone and Kowalski, a voice applied to a CGI spacesuit who ends up with a whacking great hole in his face; such is the fate of those on the wrong end of ethnically diverse space missions), it grinds metal. Kowalski’s coaxing of background information from Stone, inevitably referencing a traumatic experience, is unnecessarily heavy-handed. Isn’t what she’s going through now tumultuous enough? Also lacking finesse are the repeated references to how quiet and beautiful it is up there; shut up and let us see/hear for ourselves. When Stone is left on her own she quickly descends into despair, until deciding that – just as Matt sagely advises during a fake-out dream sequence – she has something to live for. Do we really need that tired old cliché? It’s no more digestible for being hammered into a spectacularly well-made movie.
And this is a shame, because those moments where it all quietens down offer a glimpse of the picture I frankly expected. Perhaps it was the difficult incubation period of Cuarón’s project, but I assumed Gravity was intended not merely as technical challenge but also a conceptually difficult one. A human adrift alone in the awesome/fearsome majesty and silence of space, facing the end, and undergoing an unsurprisingly acute existential crisis. I don’t know how I expected Cuarón to pull that off, but that seemed to be the challenge. As it is, any expectation of imminent destruction is leadenly verbalised and Stone spends relatively little time alone or not in action. I wondered what Terrence Malick’s Gravity would have been like; probably something closer to Tarkovsky’s Solaris (rather than Clooney’s concise remake). Cuaron trying for something of that meditative quality amid the thrills would have been nice, but he settles for the broadest of strokes (notably both Malick and Cuaron use the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki). Kubrick’s (much truncated in comparison) spacewalk in 2001 (as Bowman attempts to retrieve Poole and then get back aboard the Discovery One) achieves a much more lingering effect.
The consequence of there being nothing “deep” to talk about is that awesome adjectives for the scenery and suspense run out. There’s nothing much to the characters, so the conversation has quickly turned to the science; its accuracy and/or inexactitude. I don’t much care about how far away the International Space Station is from the Chinese space station, but even to my decidedly untrained eyes the escalation and mayhem quickly stray from science fact into the realm of the credulity-stretching. We’re not talking Michael Bay Armageddon levels, but that’s hardly the most helpful point of comparison. How many successive attacks of space debris can one unlucky astro-girl encounter? Stone is having a seriously bad day.
It was a neat touch to appropriate the Kessler Effect (the chain reaction idea in respect of the colliding satellites), but it has the side effect of diverting attention towards what kind of fucked up shit would be going down back on Earth when the majority of the communications net drops out (we never find out). Additionally, the catch-up waves of disaster it fosters translates into a slightly too convenient dramatic device. Don’t get me wrong; the carnage on inflicted on the ISS is a gripping encore of the opening. But, at that point, the manipulative structure starts to become foregrounded, which is never a good thing. So, by the time we arrive at Stone flailing about in space using a fire extinguisher to guide herself to the Chinese station, I was “Sure, that would work. After all, every other unlikely ruse has paid off”. Next thing they’ll be telling us they can send a man to the Moon. The fact that Cuarón couldn’t resist having yet another mishap befalls Stone when she has finally splashed down to Earth, submerged beneath the seas, says it all. I was half expecting her to be circled by marauding sharks. Or a cliffhanger ending; Stone sets foot on dry land, only for dinosaurs to rear up in the distance.
That may be why I didn’t respond in disbelief to the movie’s one really goofy scene; the one where Clooney appears at Sandy’s Soyuz door just as she’s given up on everything. He lets himself in and she miraculously survives the resultant depressurisation and spacey vacuum. Such improbability would have been fine by me, in a Dark Star kind of way. Of course Clooney could have survived. Maybe he could find a bit of flotsam and surf his way back to Earth on it (while I knew his was a supporting role, I was unsure if he snuffed it or merely absented himself for much of the proceedings).
The sombre core of Gravity will no doubt guarantee a whole raft of spoofs and skits over the months to come; it takes itself so very seriously but manages to mistake sensationalism for (ahem) gravitas at crucial moments. Nevertheless, Cuarón’s willingness to experiment has more than paid off with audiences and critics. If I have reservations over aspects of the picture, I still absolutely want to see more of this kind of event movie; one that approaches its subject matter from an invigoratingly different angle or perspective. Even when Cuarón & Son coast on standard-issue plot devices and tropes, they manage to deliver a film many times superior to standard multiplex fare.
*Addendum 08/09/22: With hindsight, we should count ourselves very fortunate.