Gravity is the force that keeps objects rotating around the Earth and sometimes pulls them back down. Unfortunately, the hype over this movie is not subject to it. Go in with normal expectations, and I expect you will enjoy it. My own stratospheric hopes never reached escape velocity.
Yes, Gravity is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. It follows the trials and tribulations of three American astronauts (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Paul Sharma) when a spacewalk to install new software on the Hubble telescope goes awry. Beyond director Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark showy long takes, the film is a triumph of specific visual detail. Framestore, the visual effects company largely responsible for Cuarón’s previous Children of Men, working with production designer Andy Nicholson, creates a seamless, utterly convincing world of jetpack space suits, capsules, international space stations, helmet reflections and zero-G physics.
The astronaut characters are likewise convincing, if under-developed. The script, by Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonás, conveys about as much character as the man-against-the-elements story allows, but that leaves the emotional depths of the characters mostly an airless void. Clooney plays against playing against type as a charming ladies man. Bullock is a specialist in medical imagery who somehow wangled a rocket ride despite flunking at least one part of her astronaut training. She spends so much of the movie reacting as a normal person would — that is, hysterically — that I wanted to reach out at the 3D space and smack her. Don’t you realize you need to pull yourself together already, Mission Specialist Ryan? This movie is only 90 minutes long.
Should the movie be seen in 3D? Emphatically, yes. Based on the IMAX 3D presentation I saw, I can hardly imagine not seeing it in 3D. The virtues of this film are visual and auditory, and the IMAX presentation was a spectacle in the best sense, even if Universal Citywalk’s AMC Theater could probably stand to crank up their bulbs a few footlamberts. (It is important for 3D projection to be extra bright to compensate for light lost in the glasses.) Even if you insist 3D must be used for ‘debris flying at your face’ moments, this movie will please you. I flinched four times in one short scene. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice… the fool me gets fooled twice again.
But back to the story… Bullock’s character’s late discovery of inner resources (and faith) is unconvincing, and her backstory, involving a dead child, is Hollywood boilerplate. At least Caurón and master d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki create several images of rebirth — a space foetus, floating in an airlock; baptism by fire; and a final water submersion, which culminates in her flopping up onto a beach like a missing link fish. (So it works for both Creationists and those who believe evolution!)
The movie seems like an elaborate expansion on the repair sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey — and not just for the floating pen references. To see what can be accomplished character-wise in the triumph-over-adversity genre film, see Life of Pi, 127 Hours, Cast Away, or the documentary Touching the Void. That is why I do not think this is frontrunner for Best Picture. But who knows. I haven’t seen the other films.
Of course I will buy the Blu-ray for the bonus features, because I must know how they pulled off such a convincing re-creation of space without actually going to space. But I suspect the re-watchability of this film will be less than Children of Men and certainly less than Y Tu Mamá También, which is still my favorite of Cuarón’s films.
Speaking of Alfonso Cuarón, it is a damn shame that this is his first feature since 2006. With the dissolution this week of Focus Features as an art house-supporting company, it is a good time to reflect on why a filmmaker of Cuarón’s talent has not made a film in seven years. Assuming he did not take a five year mini-retirement, it is a failure of the system of movie financing. I suspect, had George Clooney and Sandra Bullock not agreed to do this film, Gravity would not have been financed either. (Ironically, it is now on it’s way to being the highest-grossing opening weekend for either mega-star.)
Perhaps that is the real secret, deeper message of Gravity. It is a metaphor for the long and perilous mission Cuarón has had to go through just to make another film. It’s a great film. But I believe he is capable of even better. What I am not so certain of is that the film industry is capable of giving him the resources to prove it.