Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity Sans Gravitas

Based upon early reactions to/reviews of Alfonso Cuarón's latest film (co-written with his son Jonás Cuarón), perhaps my expectations for it were too high.  James Cameron reportedly called it the best space movie ever made, and comparisons were made to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 in terms of the film being a watershed.

It is a watershed visually, at least in terms of the 12-minute opening (shot in 3D with no cuts) in space.  And I accede that it's also a watershed in terms of space in 3D, although I was also less impressed with the 3D effects than I had expected (I liked the tears best).  There is no question, though, that the film is stunning and thrilling.

But Gravity has more in common with Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) than 2001.  It's not the work of an auteur like Kubrick or even of a Christopher Nolan in Inception; it's not a film of ideas.  It's not even as strong and involving in terms of plot and character as Alien (which of course benefited from an uncredited rewrite by producers Walter Hill and David Giler).  I was frankly more invested in Alien's Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) than in either Clooney's or Bullock's characters.  The reason for my reaction is quite simple:  in Gravity, the characters have no arc.

SPOILERS AHEAD:  see the movie first!

Clooney plays Matt Kowalski (they couldn't come up with a fresher Polish surname?), who wisecracks, tells stories, and downplays his heroism.  He is what he is and that never changes. His facade never cracks.

Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone (solid as a rock, tough like her male first name), stoic and highly defended against a trauma that seems to have defined her life--the death of her young daughter.  But that tragedy is the film's shorthand attempt to establish her character.  She's someone whose psychological journey won't really begin until the film is over.  At the outset she's competent, methodical, and modulated.  She falters momentarily when she decides to give up, but then she imagines or hallucinates Kowalski returning (expectedly, also expectedly a dream or a fantasy), then she gets back to her methodical quest for survival.

Andy Nicholson's production design is overall impressive, save for the silly blank console buttons on the Chinese escape pod and the less-than-futuristic looseleaf manual that Stone consults on board (I mean, come on--not even phones and printers come with paper manuals anymore!)

There are some lovely emotional sequences, as when Stone is listening to Aningaaq, whose voice comes through in the Chinese pod along with his dogs and a baby.  (Jonás Cuarón made a reportedly affecting short film  about the man behind the voice, an Inuit fisherman who speaks to Stone over a two-way radio.)

There are also some moving images (sorry!); for example, Stone curling up into a fetal position.  But of course she's wearing what Guillermo del Toro would term "suspicious hotpants."   (GDT is thanked in the credits, and Cuarón references the red shoe of GDT's Pacific Rim in Stone's backstory of her daughter.)  I'm not a big Bullock fan, but she's as fine in this as the character lite script allows. 

The plot consists basically of one calamitous event after another.  One imagines the Cuaróns sitting together, thinking, okay, what horrible predicament can we throw her in next?  There's a new one every ten minutes or so (an alternate title for this movie could have been Relentless).  It's the plot of a B movie, as others have noted.  There's no journey, no arc.  Just bombardment.  Hence the film lacks the substance of Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 sci-fi film, Children of Men.  That gravitas would have made this one a truly great film.  As it stands, Gravity is a movie that depends upon sensation--visual and situational.  If that's enough to float your boat (don't even get me started on the apparent stupidity of Stone opening the pod in the water), you will love it.  But I wanted more.  As Paul Simon sings in "Further to Fly," "The open palm of desire/Wants everything."

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