Gravity: a Movie in Free Fall

gravity1 (Partial spoilers below.)

I love space; its penchant for emptiness and apparent contentment with just being. It’s the part of high school science that made me think I might actually want to study physics someday (before I knew precisely what lay between learning Newton’s Laws and actually theorizing about cosmic phenomena. Answer: a lot), and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity manages to capture much of the elegance and mystery that makes space both harrowing to explore and beautiful to behold.

At least in the beginning.

By the end of the movie, the International Space Station isn’t the only thing that’s fallen apart. The further Gravity drifts away from its original conceit, the more inelegant and banal it becomes, converging on a single cathartic moment which was possible by the end of the first thirty minutes, and not made any more profound or revelatory in the sixty extra ones that it eventually took to get there.

The movie has been almost universally hailed as a visual feast. I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D and agree. It’s at its best when composing scenes which juxtapose the smallness of human astronauts with the largeness of the celestial bodies they orbit. Further, the movie is not ashamed to take it slow, allowing audiences just enough time to contemplate its cycles between sound and silence, chaos and stillness. Unfortunately, the movie is not so confident as to rely exclusively on these merits.

You probably know that Gravity stars both Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Without them most people probably wouldn’t go see it, but with them comes some additional baggage. Clooney is Clooney for instance: handsome, charming, and reassuring. Though he is, as always, incredibly watchable, his presence can’t help but distract from the movie’s intent to portray an isolated view of space; untethered; unrelenting.

And Bullock, more subtle and employing greater dramatic range than her male counterpart, can’t escape the occasional voyeuristic glance from the camera. More than once the movie lingers on her partially denuded physique for no apparent purpose, especially given its technical impracticality. The performance shows how far she’s come since Speed, but is, for better or worse, not of a fundamentally different kind.

As Sandra Bullock’s orbit decays, so does her character, forgoing any idiosyncratic individuality for the inspiring universalism of an archetype. By the movie’s end, she is the survivor, if not by the grace of God, then by the grace of the artist, a no less supernatural force. Indeed, it’s hard to lay the blame for Bullock’s character’s descent into pure symbol at the feet of the actress. Instead, it’s the movie (and thus Cuarón) that precipitates its evisceration.

At the movie’s midway climax, Bullock is deprived of agency in a personal transformation that’s as arbitrary as the events it sets in motion. Plausibility is not a virtue in itself, but when it comes to charting a protagonist’s struggle to survive, the victory must feel earned, not given (unless the point is to convey a sense of nihilism–which Gravity does not).

Despite due diligence early on to the fragility of humans in space and the limits of our technology, the second half of Gravity eschews these practical realities in favor of showcasing the human will to survive, and its ability to do so, when mutually inspired by audience desire and directorial acquiescence. We want Sanda Bullock to make it back to earth, and Cuarón knows this, and so she does, even if the barriers he knowingly put in her path would normally require otherwise. It’s not my responsibility as the viewer to suspend my disbelief only when the movie wishes it, especially when the circumstances necessitating that I do so began originally as artistic choices on the part of the creator. As a result, it’s hard to forgive Gravity for these indulgences when better writing could have easily avoided them.

All of which invites the inevitable question: why space? Why set a movie about a human being trying to survive in a particular locale if not to take advantage of that region’s unique attributes? Cuarón seems content to selectively mine the riches of astronautic life, remaining faithful to the setting when it suits him, and betraying it whenever his plot and themes command it. The movie at its core would be no less different if Bullock were trying to make it down a mountain, or escape a flood, or hide from velociraptors.

What sets the rest of Gravity apart from those things are its beautiful visuals, and the detail with which it recreates the inhospitableness of space. If only it had the ambition to let that be enough.

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14 thoughts on “Gravity: a Movie in Free Fall

  1. This has been a great weekend for me to watch movies. I finally watched my Blu Ray of Zero Dark Thirty on Friday. Saturday I took my kids to see Gravity. Sunday, we watched The Flowers of War (on the rape of Nanking) on Netflix. Three fantastic movies. Gravity was probably the most significant of the bunch.

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  2. I’ve not seen it yet. It seems to me that the attraction to the movie is precisely that it is a movie, a visual medium of storytelling. That’s why I want to see this movie. But of course I know going in to the experience that it’s still a “man against nature” story even if “man against nature” is permuted as “woman against space.”

    The vastness, the cold beauty, and the speed of space are part of what makes the movie appear so terrifying. We could and would be scared of mountain precipices and cilffs, of confined spaces and the murky cold of the deep sea, the arid emptiness of an unforgiving desert, the sticky denseness of a swamp or a jungle, or the brutal and forlorn ugliness of an urban industrial waste.

    Space presents a new environment, a new phase of nature, one that has not been tackled frequently or significantly in many major motion pictures. So I want to like the movie. That the stars are attractive is only natural — it is Hollywood, after all.

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  3. This is good to know. The trailers didn’t make me all that interested in the film, and the premise didn’t feel like something that would remain engaging for couple hours, but I was seriously considering seeing it based on it having almost universally good reviews. Your review seems to confirm some of my expectations of the movie, so now I can skip it and save my money.

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    • If I want soundtrack and visuals alone, I have a substantial collection of BBC Nature DVDs (Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, Life, Africa, Madagascar, Frozen Planet) that cost nothing to re-watch. Wow, those are magnificent. Gorgeous, gorgeous filming. Wish we funded the CBC enough to make things like that.

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  4. Blaise asked me if I would like to see Gravity. Unfortunately, all day today at work I had to listen to co-workers break down the plot to this movie. Needless to say I’m not really all that interested in watching it any more. At the end of the day they informed me that they had just saved me $40.

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    • Gravity is worth seeing on the Imax and/or 3d – it is an epic spectacle.
      The story / dialogue – not much there. Although in reality, if you’re in the middle of a massive space disaster and are trying to preserve oxygen, you just don’t talk that much anyway.
      It’s really about the grandeur and loneliness of space. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, and don’t think too hard about the little implausibilities.

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  5. I’ve read that the astronauts who’ve seen it were pretty rattled that every single space ship shown in the film is destroyed. I can see how shadows of Columbia would make it uncomfortable for them.

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