GRAVITY Review: It’s Not Flying, It’s Falling With Style
Prior to seeing this year’s Iron Man 3 in IMAX 3D, my last experience with an IMAX screen was sometime around the 8th grade (that would be the early 1980s for those of you wondering) at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Back then, movies that played on IMAX screens weren’t major Hollywood releases; they were plotless films that were nothing more than different scenes strung together, with those scenes shot to exploit the scope of the format. I don’t remember the name of the movie I saw, but I do remember one particular scene.
The premise was that my classmates and I were in hot air balloons, floating over the countryside as the leaves had just perfectly changed to their rich autumn colors. One particular scene – the scene I remember – had us floating over a lazy river as if we were in a boat, only the boat was hundreds of feet in the air. It was peaceful and serene … until the river ended and the waterfall appeared. My stomach dropped; other stomachs went in the opposite direction. It’s my sole memory of an IMAX film from that era, something that has stuck with me for 30+ years.
So imagine how long every scene in Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity will stick with me, considering the balloon is not a boat but a space shuttle, the lazy river is the Milky Way, and the waterfall is a cascade of danger hurtling at incomprehensible speed. Even the simplest of scenes in this amazing film makes that waterfall scene of my youth look like a View-Master still.
Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are two members of a US space team performing a last day’s series of tasks outside the Shuttle Explorer. For Kowalski, it’s his final mission, and while Stone and the others are busy taking care of business, he is busy tooling around the shuttle in a jet pack, regaling his peers and Mission Control (aka “Houston,” voiced by Ed Harris) with old war stories. For Stone, it’s her first mission, and the rookie is deeply focused on her task at hand. Before you can say, “Houston, we have a problem,” the crew is pummeled by hurtling space debris that destroys the shuttle, leaves the International Space Station in shambles, kills the rest of the crew, and sets Kowalski and Stone adrift in space with limited resources to get back to Earth.
With Gravity, Cuarón presents cinematic imagery so stunning, the experience is like watching movies for the first time again. In my adult life, I’ve only had this sense of wonder twice: believing dinosaurs still existed with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and believing a man could bend time and space with The Wachowskis’ The Matrix. Cuarón achieves a similar feat here – you believe he filmed this in space. I screened this in IMAX 3D, a format I tend to find nothing more than expensive gimmickry. Not this time. Gravity is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible because it better captures the vastness of space, and the added viewing dimension allows you to better appreciate just how small we are in the universe. It is simultaneously awe-inspiring and humbling.
All of that beautiful imagery still needs to be directed well, and Cuarón doesn’t disappoint. For as harrowing as the Bullock-spinning-wildly-on-the-severed-shuttle-arm scene is (as seen in the trailers), it’s the calmer scenes, when the rolling of man and machine is much slower, that have an even greater impact on the viewing experience. You can really feel these slow-rolls, and they allow you to appreciate the sense of weightlessness and let you take in the activity and scenery in the distance and on the periphery, which Cuarón shrewdly doesn’t ignore.
The director also takes opportunities, in scenes calm and frantic, to present the film from the POV of Stone, often through the fogging face shield of her space helmet. Yet within the vastness of outer space and during 90 minutes of intense – sometimes terrorizing – action, Cuarón doesn’t forget little details, either. There are many I liked and surely some I missed, but my favorite is when Stone, in a quiet moment, allows herself to cry. Her tears don’t roll down her cheek; they wouldn’t in zero gravity. Instead, they simply float away from her eyes.
Another smart decision by Cuarón is keeping the action entirely in space. To have involved Mission Control in any way other than Harris’ voice would have (a) taken away precious time from the space imagery, and (b) made the film about the astronauts AND Houston, when it is all about the astronauts.
As for those astronauts, Clooney plays, well, the Clooney character, but in space. Call him Mission Commander Danny Ocean – part-time charming, part-time serious, full-time rakish, ever with a plan up his sleeve and devilishly handsome even if you only ever see his face (surely he wears an Armani two-piece under that spacesuit). Bullock, on the other hand, is wonderful. She not only shows a wide and natural range of emotions, shining brightest when trying to keep herself together in situations that would turn most of us to dust, she does so as a one-woman show. Because Stone spends a considerable part of the film alone in space, Bullock has no one to play against. She doesn’t need it. In fact, she’s better alone than she is in her scenes with Clooney (which is no shot at him – their chemistry works; she’s just THAT good on her own). Plus, she more than ably handles the physicality required for the role. We should all look so good and move so well – regardless of gender – at age 49.
But where Cuarón the director sparkles, Cuarón the writer stumbles. At its core, Gravity is a disaster/action movie: something terrible happens on a grand scale and someone must defy the odds to save the day. With that, and in order to work, a disaster/action film needs to offer us one of two rooting interests – a protagonist we are invested in that we want to see succeed, or an antagonist we loathe and want to see fail. Consider two space-based films of recent history: Apollo 13 (1995) and Alien (1979). In Apollo 13, we were invested in the astronauts and NASA; we wanted them to succeed. In Alien, we didn’t need to be invested in Ripley because the alien, having killed the rest of the crew, was a strong enough villain to root against; we wanted the alien to fail.
Cuarón (and his co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón) fails to establish either here. We can’t root against the antagonist because the antagonist is space debris. This leaves needing a hero to root for, but of the two heroes in the film, neither gives us anything to pull for, be it something overt, like a family back home, or something subtle, like a personal demon to conquer. If either of the astronauts (or both) fail, we don’t particularly care, nor do we feel elation if they succeed. We simply witness what happens. The quality of the visual we witness might make it gourmet, but the film is still popcorn fare.
Ultimately, Cuarón has pulled off an amazing feat with Gravity: he has created visual effects so remarkable that they actually more than compensate for the problems the film has as a film. Not many popcorn movies – gourmet or otherwise – can say that.
10/11/13: Since publishing this review on 10/04/13, I’ve come to the realization that I didn’t consider just how heavily this film relies on its technical presentation – that seeing it in 3D or IMAX 3D is better than seeing it in 2D. That makes Gravity a better technical achievement, not necessarily a better film. The technical aspect is still important, and certainly should not be dismissed, but I think I didn’t weigh it properly in my initial rating. As such, I have downgraded the film from 4.5 to 4 stars.