Every few years we get movies like this that send the film community into hysterics for one reason or another. People come out of the woodwork to tell you that watching it will change the way you watch movies and give you new perspective in life. Maybe it's the simple originality of the thing: in our cinema normally clogged with adaptations, sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots (not to mention samey, generic plot structure) it can be both refreshing and exciting to see something created from an original screenplay. Maybe it's the movie's technical qualities: it is, after all, very well shot and scored, and the production value and acting are both top notch. In any case, Gravity (2013) is another one of those movies that gets everyone ready to pull their Kubrick cards when it's really just a regular, run-of-the-mill good movie. So what is Gravity and what isn't it?
To start with, Gravity is the story of two astronauts, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is a specialist (i.e. not a professional astronaut) on a mission to upgrade the Hubble space telescope with Kowalski supervising (who, judging by the fact that he's referred to as lieutenant and by his general knowledge of space stuff, is a professional astronaut). Mission Control (voiced by the amazing Ed Harris) informs them of an accident which has created a field of debris traveling at incredibly high velocity and that they must evacuate immediately. The debris is too fast for them, however, and Stone's lifeline is cut and she's sent floated out into the vacuum of space.
What isn't it? Well, for one thing, it's certainly not the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. Let's just talk about this comparison for a second, because it's made all too frequently with science fiction. On the one hand, Gravity doesn't have the same scope or thematic density. Where 2001 is a story about humanity from beginning to end and the dangers of technology or progress or whatever you want the monolith to stand for, Gravity is much more simple. It literally has seven actors credited for working on it, and five of those are just voices with very few lines. On the other hand, Gravity doesn't have the lumbering pace or long running time of 2001. It's an incredibly tight thriller with all of the excess trimmed for a constantly exciting adventure.
|Even the visual coordinates are different (cluttered rather than clean).|
Gravity also isn't perfect. As with just about any space movie, it has its flaws with regard to the reality of space and such. Entertainment Weekly (yes, I read EW, and yes, I realize they consistently overrate movies—I just read it for the articles) published an interview with a few real life space experts regarding the realism of Gravity's depiction of missions in space. As you might expect, there are many minor infractions, but there's one thing that verifies a feeling I had in the theater (spoilers until end of paragraph). In one important scene, Bullock is holding Clooney by a tether and is forced to release him in order to save herself, but it's unclear what is pulling Clooney away from Bullock. The experts in the interview confirm that there's nothing that would be pulling Clooney in this scene, but that's not really the point. The point is that it doesn't make sense, and that you're using a confusing scenario to kill off a main character, and in a movie with only two characters on top of that. At least throw in some pseudo-science to ease my suspension of disbelief.
Finally, Gravity isn't really science fiction. I mean, it takes place in space and all that, but there's no technology or anything that doesn't exist today. While the science fiction visual coordinates of spaceships and whatnot are there along with the necessity for some suspension of disbelief, this movie is really more like Apollo 13 (1995) in that it attempts to depict a situation that could actually happen (or in the latter case, that did actually happen). Whether this is a good or bad thing is really up to the individual viewer, but if we're doomed to having reality look increasingly like science fiction I'll be the last one to complain.
Alright Mr. Negativity, what is Gravity then? Well one thing's for sure: Gravity is stunningly beautiful. Part of this arises necessarily from the fact of its subject matter. Stone and Kowalski are working on a satellite orbiting Earth and there are plenty of breathtaking shots of the planet from space. In the interest of full disclosure, I saw this in IMAX 3D and don't know what kind of an impact these scenes would have in a regular cinema, but in any case if you're interested you should try to see it before it leaves theaters. More compelling for me, however, was director Alfonso Cuarón's camerawork. He has a wonderful understanding of where the camera needs to be, and his proclivity for long takes (reminiscent of his work on Children of Men) was a much needed release from the over-edited shakycam nonsense that clutters up Hollywood. The movie is also beautiful in the sound department. The sound design and score both help to convey the immensity of their surroundings as well as the tension of the situation.
|My favorite single shot of the film.|
The acting in Gravity is also some of the best I've seen so far this year. I've taken a liking to my hatred for Sandra Bullock, and now with this movie I've got no ground to stand on. She's the only person in the movie for a significant portion of it. Some of the acting quality comes of necessity with such a small cast, but that doesn't mean it's easy. We all know that the Oscars are a bit of a sham, but if Bullock's not nominated for her performance I'll be severely disappointed. Also, for what it's worth, she's now almost 50 and is still gorgeous.
Last but certainly not least, Gravity is a pretty smart film. The story revolves around ideas of hope, safety, and perseverance, and the central tension addresses the desire to return to the womb, to return to a point before the pressures and traumas of society (a tension that ought to permeate all of the escapist genre that is sci-fi). Beyond the above shot with Bullock in the fetal position with her tether taking the place her umbilical cord, the comforts of space are also compared to the womb explicitly in a conversation between Bullock and Clooney. One scene in particular stands out in this regard (spoilers until end of paragraph): Bullock has made it to an escape pod, but the fuel tank is empty and she gives up and turns off the oxygen. She's visited in a dream/hallucination by Clooney who confronts her and tells her that she's taking the easy way out and can still make it home if she tries. The message is that the attraction of safety, of a fantasmatic return to a presymbolic space, is a suicidal maneuver and that the only way to deal with your problems is to face them head on.
So would I recommend Gravity? Yes, absolutely. It might even be my favorite movie of the year so far. But please stop telling me how it's going to change cinema forever. It's just a good movie.
- For a movie which is similar both in its tone and minimal casting, check out my review of Moon (2009).
- For more about the desire to return to presymbolic space, check out my analysis of The Conversation (1971).