Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
The best thing about Gravity is its masterful combination of intense action sequences with breathtaking 3D CGI. The worst thing is its clumsy screenplay, filled with false and unearned sentiment. The most surprising thing is that this mixed bag of a movie should come to us from the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, he who gave us the brilliant Y tu mamá también, back in 2001, a film with no special effects and much true sentiment. In the years since that early masterpiece, Cuarón has made surprisingly few features, but those films have been strong: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best in that series) and Children of Men (not perfect, but very interesting). The rest of his time has been filled with TV work, some short films, and, perhaps, preparation for this new project. Keeping abreast of new technologies is a tough business these days, and Cuarón has definitely learned how to shoot beautiful and gripping images in the current environment. And Gravity is a successful thrill ride, but while it pulls you in, it will definitely weigh you down every time one of the main characters opens his or her mouth.
This is not to say that the film is made without wit. The story begins as three U.S. astronauts are making repairs to the Hubble Space telescope, communicating with Ground Control back on Earth. And who should be the voice of NASA? Ed Harris, the man who helped save the threatened crew of Apollo 13. Very clever. Since this opening scene was taking place in a stunning 3D facsimile of low Earth orbit, I had initial high hopes that Cuarón would produce a movie of grace and beauty, throughout. But then George Clooney and Sandra Bullock – two of the astronauts – began conversing, and the gracefulness disappeared. Not to worry too much, folks, however, because when the action starts, it’s gripping and terrifying. Who needs smart dialogue when you can stage a space disaster with such mastery?
And what a disaster it is. Just a few minutes into the movie, the peace and calm of our astronauts’ routine maintenance work is violently interrupted by debris (moving faster than a speeding bullet, Ed Harris warns them) from an obsolete satellite that the Russians have blown apart with a missile (their version of routine maintenance). Suddenly, all is chaos. The telescope is destroyed, the non-movie star astronaut is dead, and Bullock finds herself propelled far away from George Clooney’s folksy charm. As she spins out of control into the dark, fogging her helmet with hyperventilating breaths, she (and we, with her) is enveloped by the vertiginous loneliness of space.
Along comes Clooney (in space, it turns out, someone can hear you scream), however, with the calm of experience (his Kowalski is a veteran space traveler) and miraculous jetpack (for more on just how miraculous this jetpack is, you can read this New York Times article), to rescue Bullock’s (novice medical engineer) Stone. Although her oxygen is quickly running out (those gasps of fear will kill you), they meander over to the International Space Station (their own space shuttle was also destroyed), talking about their hopes and dreams. I would suggest that less talking – both for us and for Stone – would definitely have been better here. And there, again, is the crux of what keeps Gravity from being a truly amazing work of cinema: Alfonso Cuarón and his son and screenwriting partner Jonás don’t seem to realize when enough is enough. Let the images speak. Show, don’t tell.
I’ll refrain from spoiling more of the plot, except to say that at each step of the way, the increasingly dire circumstances that our heroes face are spectacularly realized. Bullock, especially (except when reading painful lines of dialogue), more than holds our attention on screen. She is the center of the film. Movie stars become who they are because of some special combination of charm, talent, looks and chemistry, not always distributed in equal doses. It’s nice to see Bullock in a film this year – other than, say, The Heat – that allows her talent to shine.
Whatever my issues with the script, I emerged from this experience exhausted, and relieved. It is a true adrenaline rush. If that’s what you need, and if you can ignore the hokey human interplay, than this could be the film for you. Bring a partner whose hand you can grip tightly.