*AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following review may contain spoilers that could reveal important plot points to readers who have yet to, but are intending on viewing the film “Gravity”. Reader caution is advised.
To anyone familiar with the works of Ray Bradbury, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” may seem like familiar territory, recalling the short story Kaleidescope, as collected in the 1951 volume The Illustrated Man. In Bradbury’s little opus, a crew of astronauts are ripped from their rocket and scattered into space by a meteor collision; the narrative unfolding through the radioed communications between the surviving members, who are floating helplessly in different directions into deep space (though one is moving in the direction of Earth’s unforgiving atmospheric furnace), connected only as lonely voices in the void and coping with their hopeless situation with the only device left to them, which is the defensive surfaces of their individual personalities ragged edges of the self, which have become independent entities away from Earthly ties. This leads to personal tensions and conflicts bubbling to the surface, as every moment brings them closer to eternal floating oblivion and death. It is a story about disaster and extremes, of how men are left to cope with their most elemental nature in a world to which they’re exposed to unnaturally altered conditions due to scientific advancement.
In “Gravity”, Cuarón is after a similar result though his film is saddled with two problems: first, the complete reliance on the conventions of the action film and the need to satisfy the visceral expectations of an audience (Bradbury actually goes one bold step further and introduces his story moments after the collision, the only real action of the story), especially younger generations, who have been spoon fed visual illusion at an alarmingly escalating (rather than evolutionary, which is untrue as a simple viewing of many special effects laden films made pre-CGI are far more visually credible than most of the patently fake plasticity of most visual effects work today) rate, blunting their critical faculties which might recognize and reject wild disparities in narrative logic by, instead, nurturing an appetite for aesthetic sensation rather than conceptual coherence. Second, is building an entire scenario on an escalating series of action events, precluding even a modicum of contextual exposition (later attempts are made to interject a minimum of background information, but the attempts are clumsy at best) which makes for a film that is inescapably hollow at the core.
We are immediately introduced mid-mission to a repair of the Hubble telescope by the crew of the NASA shuttle Explorer, though for the purposes of narrative brevity, we are only introduced to astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)- wastefully clowning around on a Manned Maneuvering Unit -and mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), all other cast members are heard only as transmitted voices or as distant figures of, no doubt, pixilated origin. Almost immediately, after Kowalski shows a bit too much of his wiseacre side (it’s as if Clooney is mistaking his performance here for one of his customary flippant appearances on a television talk show), a warning comes from Mission Control that a deadly field of debris is floating into the Explorer’s path, the result of a Russian missile destroying one of their own satellites but exponentially creating a chain reaction of high velocity orbital destruction. Before the crew is able to return to their craft, it is shredded by the massive wave of detritus, catapulting a somersaulting Stone into deep space.
Despite often impressive accomplishments in the area of visual effects, there is little to distinguish “Gravity” from your average run-of-the-mill SF flick: the script is a collection of desperate inanities and the science is often appalling. (Would someone explain the initial title card correctly reminding that sound does not exist in the vacuum of space- and indeed, for a great deal of the film, it adheres to this most abused of scientific facts -yet later in the film, the muted sounds of scratches and slams against the exterior of a space station are clearly audible? This scientific principle might also be better served if Cuarón had resisted the impulse to slather his film- initially disturbingly effective in its engulfing silence -with the annoying pseudo-New Age tones of composer Steven Price.) For example, a major incident concerning the continued survival of Kowalski is determined by the drag by which he is being pulled at the other end of a tether held by Stone, which is inconsistent with the vacuum of space and the laws of momentum. A simple tug of the wrist would have solved this problem. Instead the film must find a way to isolate the panicked Stone, who has already announced her inability to operate a rescue pod in the simulator, as the film rapidly morphs from a tale of survival from the harshness of space to a tale of surviving the difficulties of a mother’s survival guilt. In moments, the film veers into an entirely new direction- which is fortunate as Cuarón is preparing his onslaught of metaphysical hocus pocus which is, presumably, seeking a place on the mantel beside the ethereal aesthetic of Kubrick’s “2001”, but unfortunate, as the metaphysics of “Gravity” are more attuned to SF profundity from the Nicholas Sparks school of three hankie date movies.
During the arduous trek of survival, floating from one space station to another as if they’re conveniently situated like rest stops on a turnpike (this also begs the question as to why every one of them hasn’t been destroyed on the first pass of the debris field since Cuarón has everything orbiting at the same level- something that is preposterous even in theory), Kowalski passes the time by asking Stone about her background, a curiously inept way to insert exposition as it presumes that none of the crew knows anything about each other. With the revelation that her daughter died in a freak playground accident, Stone begins to unravel both emotionally and spiritually, recounting her many episodes of simply driving blankly without destination, questioning her own resilience and desire to survive. (Would NASA pass a technician so emotionally brittle to work on an important project?) Thus the film becomes a journey of redemption with all of the openly symbolic images of maternity, birth, prenatal development, conception, and some have suggested that Stone herself has expired at a critical point, though there is no direct evidence of this and the film’s already limp pyramid of logic would literally collapse under such assertive analysis.
Not content with its the creative boundaries of its action film origins, the staggering attention to visual detail the effects team has put into the film must also “say something” to justify the energies expended on its production, and so Cuarón attempts to competitively obfuscate against “2001”, though that landmark film was able to achieve a passable garden variety level of metaphysical credibility through the consistency of its grandiose speculation. “Gravity” is not so blessed as it is saddled haphazardly conceived insertions of the mythic, the spectral and the prenatal, none of which gels either with the hard science trappings of the film, nor are they soluble as integrated thematic threads; Cuarón and his writing collaborator, son Jonás, seem to have found themselves boxed into a corner from which everything but the proverbial kitchen sink (though if you look closely, there may be one of those orbiting the Earth as well) is thrown at the problem, and this probably resembles a wealth of meaning for those whose faculties are sufficiently dazed by all of the shiny objects onscreen, but the serious cinema (and since Cuarón is generally considered one of the most important of current director so the demands on his artistic sensibilities rise exponentially with the prestige of his reputation) demands more than suggestions of random ideas, and certainly when those ideas are hackneyed and create a dissolution of logic. For those looking to ascribe a depth of psychological profundity to Stone’s odyssey, the fuel for such attributions are not on the screen. The film suffers from the “Titanic” syndrome of film making, which weds an obsessive attention to physical detail while surrendering the scenario to a plot that borders on the asinine; the entire narrative formed by improbabilities piled on top of impossibilities: for instance, a long range trip across open space with the use of a fire extinguisher which would have the astronaut spinning uncontrollably, or the sudden ability of a character to automatically perform complex functions on three differently designed systems on international spacecraft, or- most bizarre of all -the dispensing of critical knowledge to a character by an apparition! By the time of its patently phony ending of an ethereal ascension to psychic redemption, the hooey level has rise to the point you expect to see an appearance of space leprechauns.
Sandra Bullock is functional but again miscast (Has she ever been properly cast in a film since “While You Were Sleeping”?) as Ryan Stone, convincingly fulfilling the physical demands of the role, but failing to penetrate the more intellectual end of the scientist; while Clooney, as previously mentioned, acts as if he’s hosting a cocktail party, lacking the necessary sense of gravitas that he so expertly conveyed in “The Descendants”.
There is no doubt that Alfonso Cuarón is a director possessed of a keen instinct on the technological possibilities of his craft and he certainly has a genuinely resourceful visual sense, but it remains to be seen as to whether or not this will ever translate to aspirations beyond settling for being a cut-rate narrative intelligence.