For a film called Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s latest gets most of its weight from visual spectacle. If you’ve got any film buffs on your Facebook or Twitter feeds, you’re bound to have seen many, many, many variants on “OMG GRAVITY THE VISUALS SPACE SPACE SPACE WOW SO MUCH PRETTY SO INTENSE!” But the movie makes for an interesting case study: can a film survive on surface alone? Admittedly, Cuarón’s “surface” is perhaps the most visually innovative and truthful take on the cosmos since 2001: A Space Odyssey. But do the scales’ balance turning away from storytelling to kaleidoscopic vision cause the film to, tee hee, lose its gravity?
I’m in the minority when it comes to offering any kind of critique of this movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, its ratings are about as far from disarrayed splatter as possible. Oscar buzz is generating and both critics and everyday viewers are talking about Gravity like it’s the latest addition to untouchable cinematic gospel. For the most part, I’m with them. I was never bored because, without exaggeration, I was enthralled from start to finish. Cuarón succeeded admirably at creating a more attention-grabbing take on the same cinematic playground Kubrick helped build decades ago.
But let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The acting and writing is too inconsistent with the dramatic situation to be generating such high praise. When Sandra Bullock is on 8% oxygen, Clooney keeps bantering with her, exuding charm and filled with levity. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was almost out of oxygen, I’d become more of an introvert than I ever was before. Later, when Bullock’s flipping between radio signals, trying to find any help she can, she ends up hearing from a Chinese man and his dogs. She then proceeds to howl at the moon along with these amiable mutts. Given her impending mortality, I’m concerned with her thinking animal imitation should be on the top of her priority list as a means of comfort and/or killing the time. It’s a cardinal storytelling sin to create characters inconsistent with the plot they’ve found themselves in. And it’s a sin I can’t absolve Cuarón of as a viewer.
Good news: it really is as visually compelling as all those people on your news feeds are saying. You do, beyond a shadow of a doubt, feel like you’re in space. The absence of sound and presence of weightlessness is executed masterfully. The long takes, the close-ups, the perspective shots, the spacescapes, it’s all more than enough to fill you with awestruck wonder.
Cuarón made a great decision in continuing his partnership with Emmanuel Lubezki as his cinematographer. Lubezki has done cinematography for Terrence Malick’s last three movies as well as five of Cuarón’s other films; the man is a master of stunning your eyeballs. For someone with The Tree of Life under his belt, it’s a real accomplishment to say this may be his best work yet.
In Gravity, the protagonists races agains time in space. On that level, Gravity succeeds as a very poignant visual metaphor. On earth as it is in heaven, man’s greatest struggles are against space, time, each other and themselves. Bullock and Clooney’s predicament is more anxious because they are up against a backdrop we’ll never be able to stack up with distraction. In space, cities can’t go up, advertising can’t permeate, and artwork can’t plaster the walls. As these astronauts orbit the earth, their danger is eye-opening. Cuarón’s greatest genius lies not in his awe-inspiring visual work but by his insistence to use space not as an escape but as the greatest possible reminder of our own physical and philosophical predicament as mankind.
Gravity shows us as we really are. Stripped of civilization, we are all of us engaged in a battle in which space and time will crush us. There is no star baby in Gravity, no insistence man will one day succeed to match the earth’s power. Space and time are more powerful than any of the characters in this movie and any person watching it as well. Kudos to Cuarón for making such a true viewpoint palatable and engaging.
Watching Gravity will press you down with your own smallness and mortality and the things we do to ignore them. What is the reason for all this trouble? Another satellite has shattered and the debris is coming to kill our heroes. It’s our own rebellion against our supposed place in the universe which eventually becomes our undoing. It took man’s brilliance to get us into space but Clooney and Bullock’s eventual survival or lack thereof (no spoilers here) once they’ve arrived up there is more reliant on chance than their own wits. If anyone gets home, it’s because of sheer grace. Whether that grace is found inside or outside our universe is up to the viewer to decide.