Gravity

Maybe it’s the fact that I saw JC Chandor’s brilliant survival drama All is Lost earlier in the day, or the general profusion of bold, interesting films at a first-rate festival, but I fought against the siren song of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. This came as I surprise, since I’m an unabashed Cuaron fanboy who thinks Harry Potter is the Prisoner of Azkaban is basically the best studio blockbuster of the millennium. Gravity is visually spectacular, as advertised, filmed in gorgeous long takes with incomparable attention to geography, continuity, and physics. The musical score by Steven Price is astonishingly great. Parts of the film are unforgettable. But its attempts at characterization and drama are so feeble, so perfunctory and ineffectual, that the soulful adventure flick that Gravity aspires to be fizzles.

Cuaron is known for long, elaborate takes, and Gravity is sort of the logical conclusion of the style he’s developed. In space, fluid unbroken shots serve to orient us in an environment with no up or down, and they are also less distracting than similar terrestrial stunts would be: in such an unfamiliar setting, there’s less of a sense that the camera moves are impossible. The film’s first half is both a technical marvel and hugely suspenseful, as disaster suddenly strikes a spacewalk mission to upgrade the Hubble telescope, forcing the mission commander (George Clooney) and a scientist (Sandra Bullock) to tether themselves to one another and find their way back to their damaged space shuttle with rapidly depleting oxygen and propulsion fuel. Every moment of the action makes visual sense – the astronauts’ every crash, bounce and change of trajectory seems to have been mapped out in advance and accounted for. The camera feels like it can go anywhere, show us anything. At first we know little about these people, but enough to make them recognizable action movie types: Bullock is smart and studious; Clooney is a wisecracking, competent maverick.

The chances of getting back to earth unscathed eventually start to look slim, which is about when the movie determines that the prospect of imminent death for these characters isn’t enough to capture our sympathies. So it starts tearing at our heartstrings: Bullock for some reason gets a dead daughter, and eventually a tearful monologue directed at someone who catches her radio transmission but doesn’t speak English. We learn that she’s drowned her pain with work. She apparently comes to terms with her daughter’s death in the climax of the film, but this is almost laughable as a character arc. Clooney’s character meets a sad fate in a way that seems weirdly arbitrary, and then resurfaces in a cheesy dream sequence.

All is Lost, about a marooned sailor fighting for his life, proved conclusively that we don’t need trumped-up traumatic backstories to feel invested in movies like this. (Nor do we need the characters to mutter wisecracks like “Forecast: clear with a slight chance of satellite debris.”) Gravity tries so hard to add emotional heft to its simple survival story, but its attempts are labored, unconvincing, and frankly downright dumb. This gorgeous, exciting film didn’t need them. I found myself rolling my eyes even as I was holding my breath.

-- Eugene Novikov

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