' ' Cinema Romantico: Gravity

Wednesday, October 09, 2013


“Gravity” is the sort of film Hollywood should be making all the time and just isn’t. Visual effects are prevalent in the movies these days but too often are a crutch, a cover-up for narrative deficiency, or merely showing off for their own sake. Director Alfonso Cuaron, working in perfect harmony with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, has crafted an occasionally transcendent little piece of Cinematic Experience in which the effects mix seamlessly with the story he’s telling because the story he’s telling very much is the visual effects. Yet even though “Gravity” is propelled very much by those visual effects, it remains Hollywood to its core by also relying on good old fashioned Star Power.

The story of “Gravity” is deceptively – well, maybe that make that glaringly – simple, and that simple story is contrasted against the jaw-dropping camera trickery at work throughout. Its opening is a virtually uninterrupted twenty minute shot that glides and winds its way through the earthly orbit where astronauts Kowalski (George Clooney), the old pro, and Stone (Sandra Bullock), the specialist tasked to assist with a bit of Hubble repair on this first trip to space. Alas, back on earth the distant voice of mission control (Ed Harris, thus echoing Gene Kranz of “Apollo 13”) indicates a Russian attempt to shoot down their own satellite has gone awry. Debris hurtles toward our defenseless spacewalking astronauts. Communications are cut. Their shuttle is smashed to smithereens and their fellow NASA men and women lost. They are on their own in space, short on precious oxygen and looking for a way home.

Anymore movies of this ilk seek to address the plight of humanity, to be about our world and its present ills, to function as commentary as it goes about kicking ass. "Gravity", however, is much, much less “2001” than it is Spielberg’s “Duel” or Rodrigo Cortes’ “Buried”, a sorta real-time thriller that proves Murphy’s Law applies even in space. Which is not to suggest it lacks thematic ambition. It does not, and that is also, I fear, where perhaps the film partially miscalculates.

As established, “Gravity” is first, foremost and throughout a story being told visually, and yet when Cuaron and his son Jonas, with whom he wrote the screenplay, turn to theme they do so through either awkwardly wordy passages or images that have not earned their supposed weight. The latter is tied directly to the end, which feels less spiritually uplifting than it wants to be because of the former. Stone is saddled with a tragic, and tragically thin, backstory, yearning to illuminate effects of isolation both on the Earth and above it. And thus, Cuaron’s film shoehorns in monologues and helpings of characterization that distinctly feel as manufactured as his set pieces feel effortless. One scene meant as Stone’s turning point to the drive for home is so jarring and frustrating you’ll know it’s a fake straight away.

It’s weird, and it’s weird because “Gravity” is so regal in the way it looks that nothing Cuaron could have these characters say would live up to what they and we see. Earth can be a lonely place, after all, but never more so then when the entire planet itself is right in front of you…..so close, so far.

That we still find ourselves tethered to emotion and not just sensation is a testament to Ms. Bullock, who has chopped her hair and significantly dialed down the every-woman charm she oozes in such abundance. She seems more terse and withdrawn and impatient with Clooney’s glibness in the face of doom. As such, “Gravity” emerges less than some sort of metaphorical rebirth than a closed-off woman opening up to the battling back, fight and (space) flight. Her moments of weakness are as winning as her moments of strength, and that duality is what prevents me from betting onboard with the attitude of the finale.

For all the soundless explosions and zero gravity spins and dips that caused my weak-willed stomach to order my eyes shut, the shot I will remember most involves Stone floating wordlessly in a space station airlock moments after surviving another frenzied ordeal. She closes her own eyes and just…..floats. Physically re-grouping, mentally re-charging, preparing to forge on. It is open to symbolic interpretation, but I will go with a more literal reading. Even when you’re all alone in space, sometimes you just need a moment to yourself.


Candice Frederick said...

that's just the thing. it's so minimally beautiful yet poignant and honest.

Lexi said...

"Ëven when you are all alone in space, Sometimes you just need a moment to yourself." Fantastico!

Nick Prigge said...

Candice: It is minimalist, isn't it? And I did really love that about it. I love a big Hollywood experience that is going the opposite way of Nolan. This review sort of reads weird, I think, because honestly I just used it as an opportunity to try to work out as a whole the way I felt about the film because it's really lingered with me. That minimalism is its greatest strength and why I kind of wish Cuaron went even further with it in regards to the theme he was trying to convey.

Lexi: Thank you! I don't know that this idea was precisely what the film was intending, but it's what I took away.

Derek Armstrong said...

I share some of your concerns about the thin backstory and rather too obvious themes, which is why I can't list this as my favorite film of the year thus far. However, that doesn't mean that it can't be #2, which it currently is with admittedly much more of the year still ahead of us. The technical achievements of this film are so grand that they almost overrule all shortcomings, of which there are not many. I mean thus is certainly no Avatar, where the story is disappointing enough to knock the technical achievements down a few pegs. And those achievements are just as ground-breaking if not (dare I say?) even more so.