“Don’t let go.”
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Synopsis: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after a catastrophe destroys their shuttle and leaves them adrift in orbit.
If cinema was exclusively about the visuals, Gravity would be the holy grail of movies. Director Alfonso Cuaron filmed the movie in 3D to stunning effect so that, for the first time, the audience truly feels as if it is a part of the events that take place onscreen rather than having random objects from those incidents thrown at them for cheap effect. The earth, a constant backdrop, looks gorgeous, and the opening thirteen minutes, filmed as if in one continuous take, is a marvel of technical wizardry which somehow takes us seamlessly inside a stricken astronaut’s helmet as they drift helplessly through space. It all looks spectacular — it’s just a shame the quality of the creative process comes nowhere close to that of the technical because, in terms of story and characterisation, Gravity is something of a dud.
Apart from its final scene, the action in Gravity takes place entirely in space. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney — Ocean’s Twelve — who, in his spacesuit, looks uncannily like Buzz Lightyear) accompanies novice Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock — The Blind Side) as she repairs the panel on the Hubble telescope. He receives a message from mission control that a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite has sent tons of space debris hurtling towards them. The warning comes too late, however, and, while Kowalski and Stone survive the subsequent storm, fellow astronaut Sharif (Phaldut Sharma) is not so lucky. And although they might have come through the storm in one piece, their shuttle wasn’t so fortunate, meaning that Kowalski and Stone are stranded in space with a rapidly depleting oxygen supply and no way of getting back to earth.
Talk about a bad day, eh? Well, let me tell you, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. The problem is, only the first part of that observation applies to the movie because that opening fifteen minutes is by far its strongest part. Surprisingly, Kowalski survives only a short while, sacrificing himself in one of those selfless acts of movie heroism which rings particularly hollow here, so that the inexperienced Stone has a chance of survival. Stone is attached to the Soyuz module, to which they travelled courtesy of Kowalski’s thruster pack, by one length of parachute line which is wrapped around her ankle but slowly releasing her because she’s holding onto Kowalski to prevent them both from drifting off into space. Realising that Stone still has a chance of survival if he uncouples the tether to which he’s attached, Kowalski does just that and slowly drifts away. It’s all very noble, and I could be wrong, but isn’t everything weightless in space? So why are Stone and Kowalski placing a strain on that line if they effectively weigh nothing?
Like I said, I could be wrong, but nagging little questions like this keep arising throughout the movie. Gravity is both tense and exasperating in equal measure, and is overcome by Cuaron’s tendency to overplay his hand so that tense situations are diffused because they go on too long. For example, Stone’s attempt to reach the Soyuz air lock after her reserves of oxygen have run out seems to take forever. By then, though, the pattern of the movie has become clear, and we know that she’ll eventually achieve her objective only to discover that another apparently unbreachable obstacle awaits her.
The movie also suffers following Clooney’s premature departure as his is the only character that has any kind of, well, character. Stone is defined entirely by one tragic incident from her past which supposedly undermines her will to survive. It’s her overcoming of this character deficiency — thanks to a horribly sentimental temporary contact with Earth and a bit of post-death Obi-Wan-style advice from Kowalski — that forms the core of the story within Gravity, and if that sounds like an awfully familiar character arc that’s exactly what it plays out like in Gravity. They raved about 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the 1960s in the same way that they raved about Gravity in 2013, but the only similarity I can see between them — other than the fact that they both take place in space — is that they lack any kind of compelling characters.