2010s, Scifi

Gravity (2013)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón

By Roderick Heath

To judge by the early reception of Alfonso Cuarón’s new space adventure movie, it’s the most super-duper, amazing, staggering work of filmic genius of all time, a thrilling successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as evocation of the awe of space, combined with an elementally thrilling, limited-cast survival quest of the likes of, oh, say, The Perfect Storm (1999). With such unceasing and elated praise, a certain level of scepticism going in and disappointment coming out becomes almost inevitable. Cuarón is a talented, observant, technically ingenious filmmaker who can wring a fablelike sense of macrocosmic beauty of some peculiar material, like his 2001 classic Y Tu Mama Tambien, whilst the Harry Potter franchise owed everything to his forcible reinvention of it with 2004’s The Prisoner of Azkaban. He can also be a prissy bore, as his 1998 version of Great Expectations transmuted Dickens’ drama into the worst kind of Miramax mush.

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Gravity seems born of the praise for Cuarón’s 2006 scifi dystopian allegory Children of Men, or, more accurately, the praise for the most superficially impressive aspects of it. Cuarón has an interest in and great facility for creating the one technical act by a filmmaker that can still set cinephiles foaming at the mouth in nerdish delight: the epic unbroken shot that seems to defy all inherent limits of perspective and staging. Gravity offers up one at the beginning that takes the form to new heights, seeming to drift as weightlessly as the characters in space whilst recording the action with precision. Indeed, the whole of Gravity is a technical marvel, a sprawling, eye-gorging example of all that contemporary film photography and special-effects units can offer. It’s just that the film is so remarkably banal, even embarrassing, on a dramatic level.

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Cuarón’s protagonists are a pair of American astronauts, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), introduced nearing the end of a long, exhausting spacewalk from their shuttle, Explorer, to work on upgrades to the Hubble space telescope. Matt is the old hand, on his last mission, garrulously yammering to keep nerves dulled and spirits high, and coaching rookie Stone, a former medico. Fellow astronaut Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) putters idly as word comes through that some sort of missile accident has caused a Russian satellite to disintegrate, and soon, waves of space debris fly toward Explorer. Explorer is smashed, Shariff and the other crew are killed, and Ryan is sent spinning off into the void. Fortunately Matt, who has a thruster pack, also survives the calamity and retrieves her. They make their way back to the ruin of Explorer, and then head on to the International Space Station (ISS), hoping to use the Soyuz modules docked there for an emergency landing. As they near the space station, with Matt’s thruster power running low, they see that the crew has abandoned the damaged station. Can Matt and Ryan make it aboard the ISS and maneuver the damaged craft to Tiangong, a Chinese-manned station?

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Standing well apart from the space opera traditions of galactic warships and the like, the more realistic mystique and danger of existence in space has wrung interesting representations from filmmakers for decades now. The James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), directed by Lewis Gilbert, commences with a surprisingly, poetically chilling scifi vision of a space capsule being swallowed by another: a spacewalking astronaut’s tether is cut by the closing jaws of the larger craft, leaving him to drift off into eternity. So striking was this moment that Pauline Kael, with a hint of accuracy, said that with 2001, Stanley Kubrick seemed to have fallen in love with it and tried to stretch it out into a feature film. Certainly one of the remarkable aspects of Kubrick’s film is that, whilst sustaining its larger, semi-mystical programme of parable, its fastidious attention to space detail provided a genuinely gruelling sense of life and death in the vacuum in a fashion that felt uniquely authentic, extracting every echoing spacesuit breath and agonising moment of laborious action outside the craft to invoke the dread of the void: many of the film’s most poetic moments are achieved through the conscience avoidance of poetic licence.

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Peter Hyams did a good job on a similar level in the belated sequel, 2010, with a memorable sequence depicting a scientist’s (John Lithgow) first spacewalk. Brian De Palma’s severely underrated pop version of 2001, Mission to Mars, sported one amazing sequence of prolonged suspense in which Tim Robbins’ space captain, drifting away from his friends in a spacewalk, finally ends their efforts to save him by removing his own helmet, a climax to one of De Palma’s many scenes of operatic construction and power. By comparison, likening Gravity to 2001 is a bit like comparing Lawrence of Arabia to a Road Runner cartoon because they’re both set in the desert. The exhausting raves for Gravity only seem to prove how deeply the hooks of Hollywood technocrats are now lodged in the general consciousness. I refuse to become used to the repudiation of the need for a first act, where the viewer is introduced properly to characters who are then developed with detail and portrayed with substance, giving the audience time to engage with their individuality and then their plight. The dialogue in the first 10 minutes of Gravity is pitched on the same level of crappy conversational exposition I expect from a ’50s B-movie; only the staging distinguishes it.

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Cuarón commences with an immense vista of a gorgeous CGI Earth, slowly allowing Explorer and Hubble and the tiny humans darting around it to drift into view. Cuarón repeatedly returns to similar vistas of the Earth, evidently intending for us to soak in the impersonal grandeur and spiritual significance of the view, but what I got from it was the sense that he’s entered a novel dimension of artistic experience: filming the average college student’s screensaver. But anyway. . . soon disaster erupts, and the serenity of weightless orbit, which Ryan says she could get used to, is abruptly transformed into a churning maelstrom. Apparently the missile accident that starts the havoc was Russian. Ha, those Russians. Wait, what? Are we really blaming the Russians for everything that goes wrong again? Hunks of speeding metal hit Explorer and smash it to pieces, killing Shariff—that’ll teach us to quit doing what Matt describes as a “version of the Macarena” and other goofy acts and behave only in an utterly professional manner. Perhaps he was meant to edge into the role of Doomed Ethnic Guy, except that’s still too substantial. If this film had been made in the ’60s, Shariff would’ve been played by Red Buttons, would have had actual screen time.

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After the disaster, Ryan goes spinning off into emptiness unlimited in the film’s most effective shot, directly cribbed from the one in You Only Live Twice. The basic limitations and challenges that Cuarón sets himself are admirable and certainly worthy of a great filmmaker: a tiny cast, little space on either side of the crisis it portrays, no flashbacks or digressions from sustaining a unified authenticity. Except that as Gravity continues, the realism which Cuarón and his production team strive for exactingly and constantly devolves as the pressures of maintaining the sort of breathless thrill ride he’s constructed means piling plot devices, coincidence, and absurdity on top of each other. Spurning the initially cool sense of extraterrestrial physics, the film favours increasingly silly, cartoonish-looking, cliffhanger stunts. When Matt and Ryan make it back to Explorer after the initial disaster, they encounter the drifting, frozen bodies of their shipmates, one of them suddenly looming out of the hull with all the blunt force of a cheap horror movie scare: even the music gives regulation “boo!” underlining.

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It’s obvious why Clooney was cast as Matt. He has the kind of stoic, adaptable, good-humoured attitude that only someone who’s starred in a couple of Killer Tomato movies, but whose career survived, can radiate. More importantly, his instincts are strong enough to turn a god-awful line like “You’ve gotta learn to let go” into a professional charmer’s last, weak gag as he gently encourages Ryan to release him to certain death. But Clooney can’t make Matt more than a cliché wrapped in a cliché, a compendium of archetypes. He’s that goofy guy who’s always got a corny story about that time he was in New Orleans to keep things light and earthbound. He’s the veteran superior who’s only a day away from retirement, damn it. He’s the noble, experienced, self-sacrificing captain passing the torch onto his Girl Friday. At no point does he feel like a real person. There’s no fear or pain in him when he tells Ryan to let him go, and Cuarón turns his death into a kind of joke as he goes back to listening to his cowboy music, in a touch that feels like an outtake from Dark Star (1974): now there was a space movie.

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And Dr. Ryan Stone, what is she, apart from a woman with an unlikely name? She admits, during a particularly fraught passage through space, that her daughter died in a softball accident, and that ever since she’s been inclined to drive aimlessly, dissociating, until whatever quirk of fate turned her into an astronaut (it seems to be something to do with adapted medical imaging tech she developed). Now, whilst it would’ve violated the conceptual purity of this project (though few things are starting to shit me more than conceptual purity), I found myself wondering what another director might’ve done with this contrast of earthly and celestial wandering, what poetic resonance they might’ve garnered by contrasting the image of a grief-stricken woman driving the lonely Illinois plains and floating high above the Earth. Cuarón can only give me literalism: Matt and Ryan are drifting around to the dark side.

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Truth be told, Ryan’s backstory of loss is only brought up to give her the thinnest of emotional identities, and to justify Cuarón’s repeated, deeply corny images of rebirth. Bullock, not generally an actress I like, is restrained and efficient in her role, thankfully. Here, as in many of the film’s numerous, repetitive moments of cliffhanger tension, the visuals and the way the human figures are manipulated within them began to resemble not convincing approximations of space, but rather the sorts of mechanistic inventions found in a lot of completely computer-animated films these days. This feeling gets strongest with a shot Cuarón repeats twice, when Ryan opens an airlock, the interior pressure flipping over and back with cartoonish speed, and her grip suddenly seeming to have become superhuman. Another technically bravura moment depicts the return of the wave of debris, slamming into the ISS and carving it to pieces, with Ryan, who’s been trying to cut away a cable restraining the Soyuz, surrounded by whirling debris and crumbling infrastructure. That Ryan survives such an experience for the second time, this time without even losing her slight grip on her buffeted craft and left completely untouched by a multitude of flying metal shards, seems patently ridiculous.

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The sensation that Gravity represents the Pixar-fication of “live-action” cinema increased with every passing minute. It reflects the same delight in turning a ruthless movie scenario into a mechanistic, Rube Goldberg construction. Logic and likelihood seem aspects Cuarón and his coscreenwriter, his son Jonás, decided to avoid early on to concentrate on sheer rollercoaster thrills, plus Cuarón’s getting at something the crystallises in the film’s most amazingly bad sequence. Ryan makes it aboard the ISS after being forced to abandon Matt, a moment that’s curiously unaffecting, partly because Matt’s demeanour of professional acceptance and humour doesn’t waver. Matt has alerted Ryan that the debris field will be returning about 90 minutes after the first strike judging by the speed it’s moving in orbit, and when it comes back it destroys the ISS and almost takes out Ryan’s Soyuz. The 90-minute interval seems set up to accord closely with the film’s initial real-time mission brief, for Gravity runs just over an a hour and a half, but Cuarón throws that felicity away as he plays games with story progression in the last third. Ryan’s first entrance to the ISS sees the wryest of Cuarón’s several nods to earlier scifi films, as Ryan strips off her spacesuit to reveal her lithe female form beneath, evoking the famous opening zero-g striptease of Barbarella (1967), but with sniggering sexuality replaced with the grace of mere biology. Except that Cuarón instantly gets too cute by having Ryan curl up in a foetal ball, to underline her own renaissance, and possibly invoke the star child of 2001, but only achieving the status of laboured symbolism. This isn’t the only moment in the film where one of Cuarón’s better touches segues instantly into one of his worst.

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The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is, as expected, superlative throughout, though as Christopher Doyle complained about last year’s Oscar-winning Life of Pi, to what extent a film as relentlessly post-produced as this can be said to be have photographed is increasingly dubious. Lubezki shot the last film to earn a lot of 2001 comparisons, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and he has a gift for making even mundane objects seem blessed to exist and bathed in holy luminescence. But whereas Malick’s loopy epic shared a vital trait of thematic adventure and aesthetic risk with Kubrick’s work, Cuarón’s film is infinitely more conventional on all levels but the technical. Kubrick took risks to offer up his space-age tale as a metaphor for the search for divine transcendence one can’t imagine a contemporary big-budget filmmaker being allowed to take, and indeed now, his work was largely greeted with querulous confusion. By comparison, Cuarón’s attempts to invoke religious, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions to his tale range from the cringe-worthy to insulting. After the ISS’s destruction, Ryan is left alone in a seemingly broken-down craft contemplating a solitary death. Again Cuarón offers up one of his best moments here, as Ryan contacts a Japanese ham radio operator and begs him to listen to the barking dogs and crying babies she hears in the background, and begins forlornly howling along with the dogs herself.

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There’s riskiness here, an embrace of a note of black comedy as well as a threat of existential absurdity that does achieve something like what Cuarón’s aiming for. But he immediately destroys the effect as Ryan moans, “Nobody ever taught me how to pray!” Give me a fucking break! The film’s dramatic credibility slides precipitously towards the level of a bad soap on a Christian TV channel. Ryan decides to die by turning off the air supply, but Matt, either his shade or Ryan’s feverish, oxygen starved imagining of him, returns and lets himself into the Soyuz to give her pep talk and tell her how to get out of her fix. I will admit as this crap piled up, I very nearly left the movie theatre. A good genre smith would’ve let the angst, the fear, and the desolation in the story all speak for themselves, but Cuarón pretentiously underlines his points in such a way to only highlight how obvious, slick, packaged, and greeting-card-worthy the sentiments here are. We couldn’t just take it for granted that the woman doesn’t want to die and would like to get back to Earth. Cuarón’s presumption to evoking cosmic awe and human frailty in the face of infinite has, lurking behind it, a religious presumption that’s as tinny as a late-night preacher’s homily. One has been warned of Cuarón’s fondness for cheesy symbolism before: to wit, the ship called “Tomorrow” that picks up the heroes at the end of Children of Men, but that was more forgivable as it was akin to a sort of sign-off admission of the story’s fable qualities after constructing his world with some rigour. Here the lurking stickiness of vague New Age spirituality is recalled right at the end as Ryan breathes a grateful thank you, perhaps to God, perhaps to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Or are they the same thing? Of course they are.

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There’s no real curiosity about the universe, about the nature of humanity, the contrast between the scale of space and the finite nature of human endurance, to be found here. This is a popcorn-selling, fantasy-action film, no mistake. Some are celebrating it as a riposte to the emptiness of many special-effects blockbusters, and yet it’s no smarter than many of those; in fact, in some ways it’s interchangeable with them, and in other ways worse. At least Avatar (2009) had some actual ideas. Gravity has lots and lots of scenes of Sandra Bullock trying to hold onto metal bars in repetitive cliffhangers. Indeed, consider the title’s similarity to Bullock’s star-making vehicle, Speed (1994), and the close relationship of the two works emerges. Perhaps the greatest lack here is any kind of story complication that might have offered some moral or actual psychological depth, a la Tom Godwin’s famous scifi short story “The Cold Equations,” or various cinematic permutations on it (like precursor realist space movies Destination Moon [1951] and Marooned [1969]). Structurally, Gravity is another recent movie that owes quite a bit to video games as well as Pixar, with its first-person shots and the series of rolling crises that defines the story to quite ridiculous lengths. Really, the tidal wave of technical carnage takes out every satellite, which are all on exactly the same orbital level? Can your average spacesuit really take that much punishment? Are we really supposed to swallow Ryan being saved by the ghost of Matt? Because make no mistake, Matt’s reappearance does have a functional effect on the story: he tells Ryan how to get the Soyuz going and get to the Chinese station. Can we buy this as Ryan’s subconscious telling her how to do it? Either way, it’s really stupid.

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Some proponents of the film have dismissed the validity of remarks on its science and implausibilities, as if this was somehow incidental in a film that’s being sold around its realism. I’d like to say that at least on the level of a thrill ride, I enjoyed Gravity, but even there I’d be stretching it somewhat. I often found the film’s technical cleverness to work against the nominal effects it was trying to achieve—the sense of claustrophobic vulnerability violated by the camerawork, the keynote of physical danger degraded by the precision control of the special effects, which, in spite of their grandeur, still rarely looked like actual objects that pose immediate tactile danger to the actors. The opening single shot is deeply admirable as spectacle, and yet I felt irritated by it on a fundamental level: it’s nothing, really, that the many recent fake-found-footage filmmakers haven’t already done. Certainly, this manner of filming has come on in leaps and bounds since Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) had to awkwardly hide cuts in close-ups. Now all sorts of astonishing, reality-jamming things can be accomplished. But the reason why so many filmmakers, critics, and theorists cream their jeans about unbroken tracking shots it’s because they’re supposedly more realistic and offer a more open sense of detail, a challenge to the usual precepts of movie construction, direction of attention, and coherence of space and time.

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Such shots in a film like Gravity are more like an extended stunt, not provided to give detail but to wow with how good the staging and effects are. Instead of the potential to awaken the viewer’s receptivity, here it helps to narcotise it, to make us stop paying attention to details and give ourselves up to the experiential haymaker. I will admit to betrayed expectations. This sort of story seems to me more fit for a dark, meditative, mostly psychological thriller, rather than a pompous arcade attraction. Steven Price’s clod-witted scoring has all the subtlety of a day-glo thong. Cuarón has only done one major work not based on strong preexisting material, and that was Y Tu Mama Tambien: if not for that film’s quality, I’d readily put the weakness of this one down to the lack of such a basis. As for the finale, well, remember how Apollo 13 (1995) went into all that detail about descent trajectories and how if they’re not met correctly, you burn up? Yeah, well apparently that doesn’t matter in a Chinese space capsule. Yeah, that was another good space movie. Finally Ryan crawls out of a lake that somehow looks faker, more generic and art-directed, than the space she’s just been in: the real world has become phony.

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