Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
Gravity (2013): Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Written by: Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón. Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language. Running time: 90 minutes.
Gravity is proof that films involving science fiction and/or science fact need not exist devoid of humanity and feeling—the effect of the film is thrilling, yes, but deeply spiritual. It recalls that wonderful brew of painstaking scientific research and divine wonder in Kubrick’s 2001, which Cuarón pays tribute to, but never rips off.
The film’s conveys a visual poetry striking enough to be called totally novel. In the astounding opening scene, we’re introduced to the characters, the mission, and the setting with a tracking shot that circles the players like an orbiting planetary body.
When the inevitable cataclysm arises, it seems to spring out of a nowhere (something Cuarón played with in Children of Men)—one moment, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is doing the equivalent of home improvement on a satellite; the next, she and her cohorts are bombarded by deadly space debris. Seems the Russians have blown up one a defunct satellite (is Putin a dick or what?), and the shrapnel now presents the astronauts with a tiny armada of deadly consequences.
From Y Tu Mamá También to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to Children of Men, Cuarón has explored genre after genre, even as he retains his stylistic trademarks and quirks. His space epic not only attains realism but also an unforced whimsy—the sight of Clooney with that goofy jetpack, or the minute astronauts shot against the enormity of planets and space itself.
Cuarón, along with his co-writer (and son) Jonás, subjects us to many an impressive set-piece, as Bullock’s novice astronaut is freed from her tether, spinning helplessly through the void—or later, when a fire chases her through the International Space Station. But the film is not just a nonstop adrenaline rush—it allows for moments of pause and contemplation. As Clooney’s Matt Kowalski attempts to lead them to the ISS, we learn that Ryan lost her daughter in a senseless accident some time ago. She hasn’t escaped her past—her problems play out against the backdrop of space.
Make no mistake—even with Clooney billed next to Bullock, this is really Ryan’s story, and hence, Bullock’s movie. Even with all its technological advances, the movie would sink without Bullock to anchor it, and she’s more than capable; she endured six months of rigorous physical training in preparation. She stands in for us, caught in an impossible-to-fathom situation, showing vulnerability, utter panic, and steadying confidence as is needed. But I wonder if a less recognizable star might have heightened the realism Cuarón is going for.
He certainly puts Ryan through the ringer, yet he always remains sensitive to her religious and emotional journey as well as the purely visceral one. When Ryan attempts to contact a neighboring Chinese satellite, she hears a voice she thinks is praying—or so it seems to her. “I’ve never prayed…Nobody has taught me how,” she realizes. While that may sound like faith propaganda, it’s much bigger than that—her attempts to fill the void with a record: “I was here.”
Given the film’s ambition, it’s a shame that Ryan lacks the specificity and nuance to distance her from Bullock’s star power. We learn about her daughter, and a smidge about her work, but she’s less a character than an archetype— defined by her faithlessness. And as we watch Ryan contend with some similar problems, we lose the tension from the first half of the film—we start to anticipate the handholds Ryan will find as she plunges onto yet another satellite, or the porthole that will ensure her safety from a electrical malfunction.
I don’t mean to disparage the film, especially one of such beauty and rawness. But there’s a certain Hollywood-ness to the proceedings that, removed, might have increased the suspense and defied the inevitable conclusion. That said, Cuarón’s pictorial commentary makes up for most of the compromises. How refreshing to see spirituality committed to screen, without resorting to preaching, and in the guise of an action flick!
–The CineMaverick, 10/9