Undeniably high-flying technique … and regrettably pedestrian storytelling
Even before its release, the legends and lore around the making of Gravity were beginning to possibly outshine the film itself. It was in pre-production for an eternity, seemingly with a revolving door leading into the casting office and gloriously burdened with the kind of synopsis where it’s easy for even a casual filmgoer to imagine technical challenges and cost overruns. Now that Gravity is actually out, though, that narrative of challenge has been replaced by one of triumph — a perfect fusion of cool, heady moviemaking and warm, human emotion, heralded with Oscar talk and big box office receipts.
The real issue, though, isn’t the narrative of Gravity, but, instead, the narrative in Gravity. Co-written by director Alfonso Cuarón with his oldest son Jónas, Gravity begins on just another workday in low orbit. Near the end of a mission, Sandra Bullock’s new-to-NASA scientist Ryan Stone attempts a fix to the Hubble and George Clooney’s old-hand astronaut Matt Kowalski tests a new make of jetpack for spacewalks as their Space Shuttle hovers nearby. But when a satellite’s destruction results in a chain reaction sending a deadly field of debris moving at unimaginable speeds towards where our heroes work, things happen fast, and go very badly …
Gravity‘s technical majesty and just-the-facts approach have led many to praise the film as the spiritual heir to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. As was more reasonably pointed out (first, at least to me, by film journalist Scott Weinberg), the true precedent for Gravity isn’t Kubrick’s austere fable but, instead, the broad and big disaster flicks of Irwin Allen. (Every time you hear someone insisting you have to see Gravity in 3D IMAX, if you swap out Gravity for Earthquake and 3D IMAX for Sensurround, you’ll get a sense of a similar sales job, regardless of each film’s merits.) That’s hardly a bad thing, despite being far less prestigious-sounding. Gravity does work at the base level of storytelling summed up in George Abbot’s classic aphorism on the secret of great dramatic writing since the age of Moliere: ‘Get your hero up a tree; throw rocks at them; get them down.’ It’s an impressive tree, and impressive rocks; the getting them down is, perhaps, where Gravity gets all too earthbound.
Curarón ‘s camerawork and technical efforts here makes his infamous tracking-rotating car shot in Children of Men look like setting up a tripod in comparison. A lot of Gravity relies on very modern CGI; a lot of it involves the same kind of old-school trickery Hitchcock used to hide the edits in his ‘single take’ film Rope. The 3D is well-used and wisely-used, but you can’t help but get the sense it’s also there to help mask any flatness or lumps in the more CGI moments of the film. It’s the dialogue and storytelling in the film that can be a little wanting — whether that’s in the form of Bullock’s bolted-on Screenwriting 101 backstory or the way the camera lingers a little bit too long on a visual symbol as if to tap our shoulders and ask us if we got it. Put less elegantly, even though the film went to great lengths to fake free-fall, that mock-weightlessness can’t keep the more off moments in the script from landing with a weary, muffled thump.
The performers are game on-screen (and considering the isolation and effort required to make them spacewalk, clearly were game off-screen, too), and Curarón wisely uses their personas as well as their skills. Clooney is the perfect choice to play an astronaut who knows that he’s playing the part of an astronaut, even in a curiously clumsy scene that makes him into the man of our heroine’s dreams. As for Bullock, she’s perpetually proven herself adept at taking on the flavor of the projects around her — which makes her sound, unflatteringly, like tofu, but in fact is one of the best things a performer can do to serve a film — and she again does so here.
There have been comparisons to Avatar in Gravity‘s ambition and reception; the difference is that while Cameron pushed the technical envelope with Avatar, that envelope was full of rote characters and too-familiar stories. Gravity also marks a milestone of technical accomplishment, and if the story could use a touch of polish or confidence in some of the newer material it lays over age-old saga-of-survival bones, it also has far more heart and soul and emotion than Avatar‘s showy, clattering hollow toybox of tech tricks. When it works, Gravity is a gripping tale of disaster far from home with limited resources and a ticking clock; when it doesn’t work in its more talky moments, thankfully, the momentum of the plot and the pieces in it soon kick in again. What comes up, as we’re told, must come down; once the hype and hysteria descend from orbit, it’ll be nice to have Gravity simply be what it is — an exciting, accomplished and flawed film from a director whose most exciting accomplishment this time around might be his willingness to take risks in the name of discovery.