1. Inexplicable character transformations:
Sandra Bullock decides to commit suicide, and then doesn’t (or maybe still does), for no apparent reason. The only material difference is a hallucinatory visit from the ever dashing George Clooney. Channeling his best Jacob Marley, Clooney’s character inspires Bullock’s character to live, or at least try to survive.
The rest of the movie is an exercise in demonstrating the illegitimacy of her original decision to die. Robbing her of agency, Alfonso Cuarón reverses the heroine’s motivations without providing any explanation for why, or laying the groundwork for it earlier in the story.
2. Less than the sum of its parts:
For all its audio-visual spectacularity, Gravity is untethered, and not in some cool, meta, content-through-form kind of way. Meaning and purpose in Cuarón’s disaster-porn space thriller are subservient to the riveting sense-perception experience the movie has to offer.
What does the heart pounding anxiety of watching Bullock narrowly escape depressurized destruction and high velocity collisions, time after time, have to do with the meditative silences, sweeping camera pans, and nihilistic drifting which the movie revels in the rest of the time? Gravity is part inspirational parable, part roller coaster ride, and part experiential, cinematic short. It is not a successful amalgamation of all three.
3. In outer space but not of it:
You may or may not be aware of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s observations about the movie on Twitter. He actually liked Gravity quite a lot. People who took his comments the wrong way though chided him and others for seeking scientific accuracy in what was principally a piece of art seeking to elicit emotional responses.
This leads me to ask though, as I did in my review, what’s gained from setting the movie in space only to then resist the ground rules that exist there (and which the movie half-heartedly tries to establish itself)?
When pivotal scenes, like Clooney’s departure, and important plot devices, like space-suit thrusting, rely on artistic deviation and subterfuge, the illusion starts to break down, or at least it did for me. Whether it’s realistic characters, realistic motivations, or realistic outcomes, some level of accuracy is necessary. The logistics of astronaut life and space station maintenance are no different.
4. The script:
Gravity was written by Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonas. While the sequence of events that occurs in the movie isn’t a problem, the things said throughout them are. Even bracketing for the moment the central story’s overall triteness, there are few lines exchanged between Bullock and Clooney that resonate.
The movie’s dialogue achieves little beyond dutifully filling the audience in on the (loaded) rules upon which Cuarón’s space thriller is predicated, explaining to us at times what we’re seeing on screen, and always leaving it clear what Bullock’s next objective is in operation Gravity. Its only real priority besides these three things is telling us what Bullock’s mental and emotional states are, rather than just letting us watch them. The movie would have done well to rely more heavily on Bullock’s powerful physical performance, and less so on Cuarón’s stilted script.
5. The choice:
One of the cardinal rules in movie criticism is to analyze and review the movie you saw–not the one you wanted to see. This is sound advice as far as it goes, but there are occasions where it’s not always clear what a particular movie thinks it is or wants to be. In these instances it can be difficult, but sometimes worthwhile, to consider what a movie wasn’t in addition to what it was.
Bullock has two spacial possibilities in Gravity: float closer to earth or drift farther away. This dichotomy weakly mirrors the emotional and thematic ones Cuarón tries to build around her character, and we see in Clooney’s perilous outcome, the alternative to Bullock’s loud, treacherous, but ultimately safe return to the planet’s surface.
Taking this binary even further though, Gravity itself could have gone one of two ways while still retaining its fundamental conceit of “quasi-realistic experience of something goes wrong in space.” The second half of the movie is a prolonged chase scene, but it could have been a prolonged goodbye if it chose to chart Bullock and Clooney’s final moments as they slowly drift tortuously apart, both from one another and from earth.
However, that was not the route Cuarón chose, as is his prerogative as an artist. But those his was a more entertaining, griping, and commercially viable choice, I can’t help but feel that the other may have been a much more bold and interesting if less bombastically thrilling one.