2013 - 90 minutes
Directed by:Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Visually astounding, “Gravity” is no doubt a cinematic experience, but one that is void of anything beyond the technical that leaves a deep impression. About 5 minutes in I began expecting the theater seats to start jerking and twisting in sync with the characters floating across the screen, as the film is something more akin to a theme park attraction rather than engrossing narrative.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has undeniable filmmaking skill and it is on full display in “Gravity” – a few long, unbroken shots of space drifting recall some of his masterful work in the infinitely better film “Children of Men.” While that film was rich in character and story, “Gravity” bets on its visuals and pulse pounding score to sustain 90 minutes of runtime. The result isn’t a complete bust, but it’s no jackpot either.
With fluffy clouds, jagged mountains and other stunningly realistic topography of the Earth many miles below, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her maiden voyage to space, assisting with maintenance on the Hubble telescope. Scooting in and out of the frame is soon-to-be-retired veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), cracking wise and playing with his new jetpack that doesn’t require him to be tethered to the shuttle. The virtuoso 13-minute opening shot firmly establishes where we are and what is happening, with just the right level of vertigo.
Soon Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris) warns of an immediate threat from a debris field caused by a destroyed satellite. The debris rips through the shuttle, killing the entire crew save Stone and Kowalski, but sending them adrift. Communications from Earth are cut off, oxygen is in short supply and the jetpack fuel is almost dry. Adventure is on to navigate to a space station and escape back to the planet.
There are a few stops in their quest, including a couple of structures that the satellite debris happens to catch up to as soon as they get there. The unruly space junk seems to be targeting them specifically when they have a sliver of hope; just one example of story contrivance arriving just in time to move things along. It’s not so much heart-stopping as it is an expected inconvenience. As is a space capsule fire, an escape module parachute, et cetera.
It’s readily apparent the script (written by Cuarón and his son Jonás) took a backseat to the spectacle, which would be fine if it didn't serve to break up the action so clumsily. Kowalski opens with a joke about the Macarena, wonders about the vodka stash of Russian cosmonauts and has a penchant for telling (and not finishing) less-than-moderately-amusing anecdotes. Clooney displays his affable jokester panache perhaps a bit too well, becoming more annoying as things float along. Bullock’s character is given a standard sad backstory, wrung from her by straight-ahead questions from Kowalski. I find it extremely hard to believe that he basically knew nothing about the person he was going on a mission to space with (“where’s home?”). I mean, they had to be training together for months, no?
Bullock has tough duty, but effectively portrays a mixture of strength and smarts with out-of-her-element fear of the unknown. She almost makes us not notice the script’s reliance on the helpless woman being guided by the experienced man. Almost, that is, until she’s pushed past her limits and conjures power though Kowalski’s teachings. This unfortunately negates her painstakingly framed cosmic “rebirth” – wherein she removes her spacesuit and assumes the fetal position in a space station airlock, complete with a tether floating in the background as a cut umbilical cord.
If you go in expecting “2001” you may be disappointed, but “Gravity” is a film I would recommend seeing in the theater (IMAX 3D if at all possible); just as I would recommend strapping in for
Mission: SPACE if you’re visiting Epcot. At that one the seats move.
© 2013 by Blake Crane