I’ve had a week now to ponder my feelings about Gravity, and I’m grateful for the time. Critical reaction to Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film has ranged from ecstatic to the downright orgasmic, with only one or two dissenting opinions in between, and I was almost in the orgasmic stage. But a little reflection has given me pause. Gravity is, without question, one of the most remarkable visual experiences I’ve had at the movies, a daring and inventive action film set in space that contains some of the most magnificent camerawork and cinematography I’ve ever seen. Film scholars and students will study it for decades to come, and it will surely make many best-of lists — for the year, and perhaps the decade. Gravity is a visual cinematic masterwork. Emotionally, however, it’s vacant, and that’s where my troubles begin and end.
The film opens with a long (more than 10 minutes) unbroken shot of Astronauts Matt Kowalski and Ryan Stone (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) attempting to fix a downed satellite in space. The camera swoops in and around, up and down, circling the action as the big blue orb of earth hovers in the background. Kowalski, a goofball on his last mission, surveys Stone’s work by spinning in and out of frame on a jetpack. The appropriately-surnamed Stone is annoyed, but she perseveres. Houston chimes in every now and then with mundane information. It’s an amazing, landmark piece of filmmaking that would stun and impress even the most jaded of cinephiles.
Houston has a problem: debris from an exploded Russian satellite is rocketing through space at unimaginable speeds. Before the astronauts can take cover, the debris destroys their shuttle, effectively marooning Kowalski and Stone in space. What ensues could best be described as a series of unfortunate events. Or maybe “Ryan Stone’s Very Bad Day.” It’s Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong, will. The duo first attempt to dock at the International Space Station, only to find it destroyed. Next stop? A Chinese space station. No luck. After the two become separated, Stone finds herself alone and floating from one pile of space junk to the next, searching for a way home. Her few successes are fleeting, until…
Well, I wouldn’t dream of giving anything else away. Basically, Gravity is a series of astonishing set-pieces, most of them punctuated with some kind of action, that probably would have rung false and cliched if not for the remarkable visionary gifts of Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. They manage to alter our perception of space in ways that haven’t been seen since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film to which Gravity has, understandably, been compared ad nauseam. When the camera isn’t up-close and personal with Bullock as she attempts to extricate herself from tangling debris, it’s pulled back in shots so long, that she and everything else around her almost become points of light indiscernible from the endless blanket of stars. The swirling camera constantly changes our idea of which end is up, so that orientation becomes a luxury. The POV shots from Stone’s helmet cam, as she spins out of control through space, desperately trying to grab on to whatever hunk of metal she can find, are thrilling and tense. And the score, by Steven Price, is a mini-masterpiece in itself, icy and haunting, that enhances the action without ever seeming to trample on it.
Like I said, a masterwork of visual cinema. But I also called Gravity emotionally vacant, and so it is. With the exception of a little inane banter at the outset, we get very little background of either Kowalski or Stone. The screenplay, by Cuarón and his son, Jonás, makes a feeble attempt to paint Stone as a recluse still reeling from a personal tragedy, who would rather spend time alone in space than make any real personal connection with another human being. There’s a lovely shot mid-way through the film, as Stone curls up in a fetal position, her body floating weightless, a cable unfurling from her like an umbilical cord. It’s a rebirth, to be certain, but the entire philosophical thread is slight and all but floats away in a sea of astonishing visuals. None of it is very moving, or even necessary.
And yet, Gravity is a remarkable achievement. I could easily watch it with the sound off, just to take in the revolutionary visuals, and I will likely revisit it in the future to see if perhaps my opinion about the story changes. After so many years of tired horror remakes, superhero action burn-out, and dumb basement-level comedies, I welcome a film like this. I’m just not as orgasmic about it as some.