Gravity is a Thin Marvel

Posted on October 20, 2013 by

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Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a perfect Hollywood experience. The visuals are revelatory, and likely historic, and the director wrings from his talented movie stars compelling, temperate performances in spite of the chilly sterility of space. These strengths cannot hide the reality that Gravity is still slight and as translucent, as flimsy as the space equipment that gets shredded at different points–beautiful, for sure, but insubstantial. Gravity, maybe more than any recent film, presents viewers with the heights and depths of what many films offer today.

Gravity is a technological masterpiece. The first segment features an uninterrupted camera shot that puts viewers in space, right alongside Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). The dancing frame allows viewers to feel the weightlessness in a dynamic way that other space films, even very good ones like 2001: A Space Odyssey or  Apollo 13, cannot manage. Kowalski’s space walk is fanciful, a celebration of technical skill both on-screen and as a representation Cuarón’s mastery.

While these first moments are blissful, unforeseen events disconnect Stone from Kowalski and, in time, both of them from Houston, an oracle that is only heard here and never seen. What was once a ballet descends into a suffocating horror as the camera assumes Stone’s perspective as she hurtles, untethered, into the black void. It is here, for the first time, we begin to glimpse the power of Sandra Bullock’s performance. She manages to convey nearly the full spectrum of feelings with almost no counterpoints. It is skilled and total and the best performance I have seen from her.

What takes place throughout the rest of the film is both fully unexpected and still formulaic. The destination is predictable, but the journey is surprising and powerful. The plot, crafted by Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, is simple, but not necessarily simplistic. More than anything, Gravity‘s story is relentless and the ninety plus minutes vanish, leaving viewers wanting more, but probably making them second guess that desire.

This leanness is also what robs the film of a deeper meaning. There is an emptiness to Gravity that is not necessitated by its setting or subject matter. While it involves standard notions of determination, sacrifice, and heroism, those are revealed through actions which, when added together, do not reveal much collectively. This, in the end, prevents Gravity from reaching the first tier of science fiction, or even space-based films like 2001 and Solaris. In some ways, this is unfair, for Gravity is rooted in reality more firmly than either of those, and this constraint limits what might be said, and that is a valid contention. Gravity, outside of its technical superiority, also is deficient compared to Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, though not by much. Why? Those films had more to say because they used earth to shape our understanding of space. They revealed a NASA culture that was compelling and consistent. Space, for these films, evoked a national mood replete with modern optimism. Though not weighty philosophically, the films peeled back a layer of the worldview that produced NASA and the space race. By contrast, Gravity‘s focus prevents us from drawing any larger conclusions about the world these astronauts inhabit. While we are treated to some personal anecdotes and references, these are used to connect us to the characters and not to make a statement.

None of this should be construed to disparage Gravity, and there is something unfair about punishing a film for failing to be what it did not desire. As an experience, Gravity is unmatched and it deserves to be viewed in the theater and in 3-D.  In fact, Gravity is for me the first film where 3-D is an additive as opposed to merely a money-making tool.

FINAL GRADE: 2/3 Eggheads

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Posted in: Movie Review