Oct 6, 2013
The images are of astonishing beauty. The first 15 minutes of this film fill you with wonder. You are witnessing, almost experiencing what it must be like to be in space; in joy and terror. Sometimes you remember to ask yourself what the hell you are seeing: you do an internal double take, a swift reality check to remind yourself that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are not floating around in space. It is a feat of human ingenuity to put those two huge Hollywood stars in such a backdrop and still create the successful illusion that they are actually there.
Gravity is a spectacularly beautiful, thrilling and wondrous feat of artistry and craftsmanship. It works wonders in 3D and I assume that it's even better in IMAX.
I say this every year, so here it is once more, with feeling: If cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't win an Oscar (his umpteenth nomination) this time, there is no justice in the world; hell, in the entire universe. He is the undisputed master of point of view, as he has amply shown in movies like Tree Of Life. And more: the way the camera captures everything both in outer space and inside the modules, everything we see is stunningly, delicately, magnificently gorgeous. His camera and his light are sensual and sensitive, even in space. The camera moves like nothing you've ever seen before. It is astonishing, as are the special effects and the art direction, all of which should swipe every accolade and award.
Sandra Bullock gives a fantastic performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, in a very basic story of survival in space. She is very good, and George Clooney is his usual charming self. Both command the screen even when encased in astronaut gear. Somehow, they are not dwarfed by the surrounding cosmos.
So why does the heart sink, why does everything come crashing down to earth like a merciless meteorite? It pains me to say this, but the writing is terrible. Everything is weighed down by triteness. That Bullock and Clooney are the chosen vessels to conduct the corny dialogue is fortunate; they pull it off with great panache. Actors of less stature would make the flimsy writing even more glaring. Bullock gives her all to impart weight and feeling to her predictable, utterly needless lines. And Clooney brings his reliable Clooneyness to his character Matt Kowalski; you truly feel that you are in good hands with him, as an actor and an astronaut.
Yet I was praying that at some point the words would stop. I wish Cuarón had heeded the example of Theodore Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc (or, closer to home, Stanley Kubrick and 2001) and stopped the script from blabbing. Everything we need to know and feel is in Bullock's face and in her breathing. She doesn't need to talk.
I also thought of The Hurt Locker as a great example of how an action movie can have existential heft by stripping the dialogue to its barest bones. In that movie, the soldiers, when confronted with lethal danger, use words only when absolutely necessary, for the most basic instructions; yet somehow this imparts the movie with gravitas and existential meaning.
I get it: if you are alone in space, you talk to yourself. I know I would. You are not suddenly going to become Schopenhauer. But in Gravity, the dialogue is jokey, and hokey and disappointingly trite. There is no irony. There is no edge to the humor. Ryan's painful past seems manufactured by the Hollywood trope factory.
Nobody expects philosophical pontification in a movie that is clearly designed to be a thrill ride, but one knows that Cuarón has done and can do much better. It's as if he and his son Jonás, who co-wrote the film, were abducted by the Hollywood shitty one-liner squad, and this sinks the movie. I don't mind Kowalski's garrulousness. Even though Clooney does not really give it that nuance, it is obvious that he fills the void of space by talking a blue streak. But when he asks Ryan what she loves most about space, and she answers "the silence", a good zinger and a heartfelt thought, why is there soaring music in the background? Why is there a fear to let the audience experience that silence? Some gravity is in order. I loved the ominous, abstract music by Steven Price at the beginning. Did it have to bring in the weepy, epic string section towards the end?
The writing ends up relegating space to a backdrop, instead of using it to investigate how we measure up against the universe. How far we've come, how remarkable and insignificant we are. That's what space is for. Instead, we get stuff more suitable for a Lifetime TV Special.
It is hard to reconcile the facile, sketchy writing with the painstaking artistry of the rest of the film. I wanted to leave cheering. I left pondering why a movie that is such a magnificent achievement in so many levels is so careless and unsophisticated with something so essential. Gravity could have been a masterpiece. It is just a fantastic entertainment.