Film Reviews

Gravity Alfonso Cuarón

Rating - 6/10

In an era where video games are attempting to prove their artistic validity by becoming choose-your-own cinematic adventures that reduce interaction to simple joystick movements and moral choices designated to controller buttons, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is a film that offers the experience of playing a game hands-free in first-person perspective. With so much attention paid to Framestore's gravity-defying visual effects and the fluidity of the eternally panning and swooping Arri Alexa cameras, the script undoubtedly takes a hit, relegating it to the substrata of middling video game writing.  However, simultaneously, one immediately gets the impression that director Cuarón desires his cinematic event to be compared to the premiere of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since its release, audiences appear to be receptive, with this particular critic encountering an enthusiastic sixty-year-old moviegoer outside the theatre who compared the experience to the memory of his fifteen-year-old self staring awestruck at 2001 in 1968.  However, as it seems to be continually proven, the power of time and technologically advanced graphics are the most powerful distortions. Outside its daring visual landscape, Kubrick's film resonates as a more suggestive, multi-thematic, and ambitious project, whereas Gravity revolves around a rather simple and familiar disaster scenario that never philosophically or psychedelically marvels; it burns out as trite tale of survival even if it puts on quite a show in the process.

Tension in Gravity is initially derived from the pairing of polar opposite personalities; anxious Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the newly recruited medical engineer aboard the SDS 157 shuttle, and collected veteran frat-boy-in-space, Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), gently float into the first unbroken frame and attempt to repair a panel on the Hubble Space Telescope, which is their final task on a week-long assignment. Mission Control (Ed Harris) suddenly warns them that Russia has destroyed an inoperative satellite, and its field of debris is hurtling in their direction causing communication blackouts through an astronomic domino effect. The 3D is employed to great effect as this scene evolves, expanding the depth of the screen that includes the space in which the characters occupy (the dome of space suit helmets), so the close-ups, particularly on Dr. Stone, literally magnify her emotional turbulence. The camera also pans to her point of view gazing into the terrifying vastness of space (and certain entities tumbling through it), as she hopes to grasp any sturdy man-made object with her hands, lending another degree of immersion to the sense of her suspension 600 kilometers (and falling) above the Earth's atmosphere.

The film's overriding shortcoming is the sonic component - the buzzing electronic soundtrack, rambling self-reassuring monologues, and distorted jargon through headsets. Functioning as the only aspect that adjoins both sequences of inaction and extraordinary peril are intermittent, reprieving silent passages, which exist as a natural result of lack of air pressure in space. But Gravity seems intent on muddying these sparse and potentially meditative moments by externalizing Dr. Stone's inner monologues and with crescendos that perfectly cue up the choreography. Stone's self-chats remove a visual component from the film, and her delivery of one-liners like "clear skies with a chance of satellite debris" break the suspense and intense visual craft of the film as if she is acknowledging the fact that someone is watching her in-between hyperventilating fits. This, again, plays into Gravity's seeming intent to exist as an entertaining video game simulation where death is not finality; Stone's behavior predicts the trajectory of the last act of the film as things play out in an all-too-familiar fashion. In the small space of time where both Stone and Kowalski are contained, the actors' utter lack of chemistry is revealed; Clooney's clinical approach puts him at an even greater emotional distance during the script's most character-driven episode. As Kowalski plays an empty-vessel psychologist, Stone talks through him, revealing past trauma that provides context for her intensely panicked reactions to each successive setback as well as the will to overcome adversity.

For a film that desires to be defined by its technical achievements, Stone's history and behavior are largely handled verbally; while Cuarón wisely chooses not to intercut sections of flashback that would surely break the swaying weightlessness of motion, Gravity has no chance at succeeding as a character study in this way. Tension is always situational, creeping through the clunky sections of speech in the sense that the trajectory of debris is beyond human control. Cuarón attempts to transcend humanity's eternal quandaries and fears (fully instilled in Stone) through a shift in mentality that culminates in a tranquil scene where Dr. Stone secures an airlock, strips off her suit, and curls into the fetal position. As her body softly spins clockwise, the camera holds on her figure for several seconds. Whether or not it's an intentional nod to the final image of Kubrick's 2001 is to be debated, but the striking shot identifies Stone's coming rebirth without emotional depth. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson may decry the scientific inaccuracies (primarily, the differing orbits of the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope), but character physics are more out of whack; Dr. Stone's miraculous course towards an escape pod is a validation of her video game-like invincibility. Additionally bothersome is Kowalski's perpetual lock in unrealistic intrepidity. Gravity's dizzying visual orbit may be a force of attraction to prompt its viewers to reassess their own sense of proportion in the universe, but the film does not adequately explore the characters' inner space, ignoring transcendent thematic qualities that have been associated with previous cinematic explorations; this is just the first movie-game in outer space. But perhaps time will again alter that assessment.