Before its release, Gravity was introduced as a film beginning with a 17-minute continuous shot floating through space. I couldn’t help but think of Welles’ tremendously impressive opening to Touch of Evil (1958), a shot that contains its own balance of three-dimensional space, darting gracefully in and out of storefronts, up and over buildings, down to street level, pulling from extreme long shot all the way in to close-up in a choreographed dance that constantly follows the film’s two main characters, a car loaded with a time-bomb, and the character of this small Mexican border-town.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Producers: Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman
Writer: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editor: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Music: Steven Price
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Paul Sharma
Runtime: 90 m
Genre: Science Fiction
US Theatrical Release: October 4, 2013
US Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Cuarón also included impressively complexlong takes in his previous Children of Men (2006), a film that blends the fantastic post-apocalyptic speculation of Philip K. Dick’s novels, and a philosophical exploration of mortality on par with anything Woody Allen made in the 70s. Given this pedigree, and the much-touted care that Cuarón put into Gravity, I had high hopes for the 17-minute intro, the majestic shot that comprises ninety percent ofGravity’s promotional materials. And in some senses, it delivers on those expectations. The moving camera seems to exhibit some of the childlike joy one would imagine from an aesthete able to feel their way through the lawless environment of zero-gravity space. The camera dances around Matt Kowlaski (George Clooney), whose own float through space seems more adolescent than juvenile, focused as it is on claiming the record for the longest space-walk in astronautical history. It floats from extreme long shot to extreme close-up, advancing to watch Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she clumsily attempts dexterous activities through the limiting grip of her spacesuit’s gloves. It even mirrors its own jubilant dance in the meaningless leaps undertaken by the faceless Dr. Shariff (Paul Sharma), who bounces like a child in the anarchistic world of unfettered play. But for all that, all its quick up-close jabs and twists, its spins and flips, its seamless slides through debris, space suits, and flesh, and even its quite impressive transition from the static space ship to the exploding one currently hurtling through space, the camera never quite moves through a limitless space. Feeling more like a sophisticated soundstage than a mawing opening in the universe, the movement constantly maintains the flat “ground” of the glowing massive earth and the “sky” of the dark emptiness of space. Even with the huge curved IMAX screen and the illusion of depth coming from 3D glasses, this film is startlingly flat. We are never without a sense of up and down, never disoriented to the point of losing that direction, even though in zero-gravity space up and down do not exist. So this isn’t a space film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in which Kubrick’s fixation on the lawless nothingness of space direction pervades every wheeling, turning shot.
Gravity is closer to a road movie set in space, sharing more with the eternal flatness of the plains in Badlands (1973) than it does with Kubrick’s directionless epic. To put it more simply, it uses space as a backdrop and plot element--an obstacle in the narrative--rather than as a setting. It is not a movie about the floating and directionless medium of space as it is about the curving brightness of the Earth seen in the photographs taken from the Apollo missions. It makes this film no less majestic, just lacking in depth.
While the flatness of the space-world the film occupies is interesting and beautiful, the flatness of the script is perpetually frustrating. The two characters we get to know at all (after the jubilant Indian scientist is promptly removed) are so archetypal they feel deliberately so. Kowalski is that fourth character from a Hangover knock-off, the emotionally shallow man-boy who never grew out of his fratboy phase, still fixated on the stories of babes, booze, and badassery that fed his 19-year-old ego to bursting. His non-stop blathering about trips down Bourbon Street become somehow the definition of his character. I imagine there may indeed be more than a few astronauts who fit his emotional mode, but Stone is even less compelling. Her characterization is drawn in broad, heavy-handed strokes seeming more like an example from a screenwriting textbook than a legitimate movie character. She is a scientist living a lonely, meaningless life ever since her daughter died, who spends her evenings just driving to forget about the pain. Not only that, but she seems throughout the film to have no interest in her work, nor in the fact that she is one of a handful of people to have ever experienced outer space. She is a functionless, untrained member of their team, and as someone to follow throughout the entire film, she is terribly uncompelling. There is really little positive that can be said about these two characters except that I never thought I’d see a film that made a character like Kowalski so likeable.
The plot itself suffers from some of the generic flatness that permeates this 3D film as well. As we follow Stone through the challenges she faces to escape and survive, they are all followed, in an exactly equivalent level of urgency, by the next; keeping her fleeing from one exploding vehicle to another; her ineptitude and ill preparation combining with the catastrophe that befalls their crew to destroy everything precisely as she exits it. She proceeds like James Bond leaping from the flames of an exploding building, except that it happens seven or eight times throughout the film with nothing in between. And while the gripping nature of the plot is relatively effective and the beauty of the camerawork undeniably impressive, the game of emergency hopscotch she plays makes this feel less like a cinematic story arc and more like one you would see in a children’s TV show or a video game. Each subsequent catastrophe next begins to feel like the inevitable arrival of Team Rocket, foiling our heroes’ plans on every episode of Pokémon, or the myriad of mini-bosses eventually leading to the end of a video game.
And speaking of video games (this aside coming from my misspent youth), I’ve seen the general plot of Gravity done before (and done better) in the 1999 role-playing epic Final Fantasy VIII. Just like Dr. Stone, Final Fantasy’s Rinoa goes floating off into space and, like Kowalski, our hero Squall dives out after her, catching her in the nick of time. But, despite its undeniable melodrama, painfully slow pacing, and now totally dated feel, Squall and Rinoa are real characters and so this same exact scenario takes on more significance, becoming a moment of (melo)drama and meaning, rather than just one of action and excitement. Squall and Rinoa are real characters, and thus their climatic meeting in space has meaning, rather than just being two figures drifting through the science-fiction/action movie motions of the 2010’s.
What is even more frustrating is the way Gravity’s plot breaks the rules that it sets for itself. There has been a lot of (legitimate) criticism of the film from those more scientifically inclined, that many of its catastrophic events could not happen; that satellites and space stations operate at different orbital planes; that the Hubble Space Telescope, which the team is supposedly repairing, is on the other side of the Earth from the other locations that the film visits. Those I am willing to overlook, not being a NASA geek myself, but the other issues less so–most notably, the film’s understanding of its own eponymous force. At the most emotionally climactic moment of the film, when Dr. Stone and Kowalski have managed to tangle themselves onto the very last possible piece of the International Space Station (because of course it has to be the last second or it’s not suspenseful), Kowalski is pulled away by some mysterious force. Despite being arrested by the tether tied to his chest and gripped by Stone, and despite them sitting in the same zero-gravity orbit they have occupied the whole film, he is unable to propel his one-hundred percent weightless body toward salvation and has to unclip and “fall” away from the station. Seriously, with only a flip of the wrist, the lightest possible amount of force, he could move in the right direction, but somehow he is pulled off into space. The only force I could imagine having this kind of hold is the hand of an executive producer trying to inject some emotion into this flat story, pulling on Clooney’s ankle. While certainly these are the movies and these kinds of rules can be broken, it feels sloppy to break them so blatantly for what is the only legitimate emotional moment in the film.
After this moment, and Stone’s seeming inability to understand the limitations of space (despite her limited oxygen and clear instructions from Kowalski to “sip, not gulp,” she literally stays still, breathing hard and watching him float away under the mysterious force that pulls him) I lost all compassion for this flat character. As she struggles subsequently to make it to the airlock and the relative safety inside, the devil on my shoulder started rooting for her to die, and I started listening. Indeed, it seems the film almost begs us to see her this way. Why on Earth (or slightly off of it) should this inept fool live while a team of smart capable astronauts have died? Why should I hope that this miserable character with no one at home to care about her makes it back to Earth? And why is she in space anyway, as I believe, with zero training, most of us would perform just as well in the same crises? In no smaller terms, why should I care? The film fails to provide a substantive answer to this question.
Through the rest of her haphazard joyride, I was still gripped by the excitement, but with my persuasions turned in the opposite direction. Maybe this helped me ignore the extremely heavy-handed religious symbolism of it all. (Each of the many escape pods she pilots and destroys has its own thematic religious icon, and her line “Nobody ever taught me how to pray” going up with Christian Bale’s Batman’s “I’m not wearing hockey pads” as one of the silliest attempts at gripping dialogue of the decade.) Regardless, the rest of the film found me rooting for every momentary obstacle to be her last, from the pieces of rubble that somehow miss her and all the sensitive pieces of equipment as they shred the space station behind her, to her own suicidal desires.
In the end, walking out of the theater, I felt my heart still beating fast. Despite all of these deficiencies, the film is so formally intricate, so beautiful and overwhelming, and so legitimately gripping that it’s really hard to hate. That is Gravity’s real achievement. Despite the flat, odious characters, a sub-video game plot, and unbearable dialogue, despite the fact that I hated the main character so much by the end that I hoped she would be decapitated by a burning piece of satellite debris, and despite the two thousand words I just wrote lambasting the film, I really liked it. I would absolutely see it again--in IMAX 3D of course--and I’m sure it would be just as gripping the second time through. But the intricate care and artistry present in every part of this film (except the script) just makes you wonder. If Cuarón cares so much about these visuals, so much about the cinematography and the careful, deliberate edits, then maybe this abysmal script is a deliberate choice too. Maybe this is all some piece of conceptual art, and when Cuarón steps up to receive one of the many awards this film is destined to win, he’ll let us all in on the joke. Until then we’ll just have to take it for what it is--an incredible narrative film that tells an almost unbearable narrative.