Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

GRAVITYBy Adam Nayman

[SPOILERS, as they say, below.]

In space, apparently, no one can hear you scream “Cut!” That’s the sensibility of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which unravels its tale of two astronauts stranded outside their damaged shuttle in a series of gossamer-glossy long takes, with perilously dangling (digital) camera movements courtesy Cuarón’s house DP Emmanuel Lubezki and editing by the director himself (with Mark Sanger). It’s no small compliment to say that the resultant visual weave is as seamless as anything spun out by a Hollywood studio in a long time, and likely won’t be topped any time soon. More than anything, Gravity succeeds as an experiment in scale, with credibly Kubrick-sized intergalactic vistas looming in the background of nearly every shot; similarly, when the virtual lens floats or zooms towards the characters, their faces are framed as reverently as religious icons.

And that is indeed what they are: at this point, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are about as close as the American cinema has to secular his-and-hers-figureheads. Since their simultaneous emergence in the mid-’90s, Bullock and Clooney have evolved, 2001-style, into higher Hollywood beings: she from a mere Miss Congeniality to Oscar-night pageant winner, he from a soulful square-jaw to a matinee idol-cum-mastermind in the Robert Redford mould. In a film filled with computer-generated heavenly bodies, the pair are both luminously celestial in their own right yet terrestrial enough to give us something to hold on to in the weightless swirl of Cuarón’s multi-million-dollar mise en scène.

That’s the idea, anyway; but unfortunately, Gravity’s casting coup is only halfway successful. Having Bullock play a civilian M.D. flummoxed by her zero-gravity surroundings is clever, as it plays on both her cinematic past—imagine Speed (1994) with an escape pod substituted for a bus—and also her present-tense status as America’s Sweetheart. Like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 (1995), she’s an Every(wo)man who we just want to fall to earth in one piece; simply by virtue of who’s in the spacesuit, the good Dr. Ryan Stone thus becomes the physical embodiment of the average viewer’s rooting interest. Cuarón and co. can thus put her through her paces—hovering, hyperventilating, heroic, hysterical—without worrying that she’s going to burn up her formidable store of audience goodwill (which, after The Heat, should last until Earth crashes into the sun).

Clooney is another story. He was quite good as an existentially addled astronaut in Steven Soderbergh’s estimable 2002 remake of Solaris (a role not far removed from what Bullock is playing here), but Gravity simultaneously asks too much and too little  from its co-star. On the one hand, Clooney’s Matt Kowalsky is a cocky space jockey whose staccato confidence and decorated past mark him (all too clearly) as a contradistinction to his rookie mission mate; on the other, the role has been designed (again, all too clearly) as an exercise in movie-star (seeming) self-effacement. Whatever the shock value in seeing Clooney pull a Steven Seagal thirty minutes in, as Matt makes an executive decision to sacrifice himself so that Ryan has a shot at making it home, is offset by the feeling that this (self-)righteous martyrdom belongs more to the actor than to the character.

Hypothetically, Gravity should improve with the cease-and-desist of Clooney’s stubbly Buzz Lightyear act, which is some of the laziest acting he’s done in years. But his absence—set up such that there’s an ongoing possibility for his heroic return, which is not-so-skillfully exploited in a silly hallucination sequence—actually plays up a larger problem, namely the thinness of Bullock’s character. Those critics who have not wildly overpraised Gravity by comparing it to the work of Stanley Kubrick (inevitable) and Max Ophüls (oh, come on) have pointed out that whatever boldness the movie shows by beginning in deep space and placing its characters in mortal danger before the first visible edit is tempered by the backstory it deposits in Ryan’s lap around the midway point: she’s grieving the accidental death of her four-year-old daughter.

The introduction of some emotional ballast to weigh things down is not objectionable in and of itself, but Cuarón and his co-writer (his son Jonas) drop it into the middle of the action like a chunky asteroid, where its impact is self-destructive. There’s really nothing in Bullock’s performance that reconciles this past hurt with her current predicament, at least partly because it’s hard for an actress to give a role any real shading when she’s simply trying to keep her arms and legs inside the rollercoaster at all times. But even as the film goes the wringer one better and launches its heroine into a veritable spin cycle, as with most survival narratives—i.e., Life of Pi (2012), which Gravity resembles far more than 2001—there’s no real dread; after all, if anything too terrible happens, the movie will be over.

The idea of Ryan as a tragic heroine misses the mark; elsewhere, the script’s subtexts land with a thud. Ryan’s journey from a damaged American spacecraft to a wobbly Russian one to a functioning Chinese model fairly cries out for ideological interpretation, especially when Cuarón pauses his camera calisthenics long enough to show off a smiling Buddha figurine on the dashboard of the latter. Biblical signifiers abound, but the film’s vibe is more New Agey than anything else, with the Universe at once depicted in all its unfathomable majesty and then neatly reduced to a crucible for self-improvement. (A sarcastic but accurate reading of the movie is that Ryan finally figures out how to fly a shuttle without the help of tech support.) The last thing a movie set in the cold, unforgiving vacuum of outer space should be is sentimental (something that Kubrick, who, according to Variety, is marvelling at Gravity from the top of some celestial monolith, understood intrinsically); Cuarón, however, who has previously played at technocratic ruthlessness—as in Children of Men’s (2006) various brute-force money shots—is ultimately a soft touch. So for all of its hurtling visual and narrative momentum, Gravity ultimately doesn’t have an awful lot of force.

“Look at that sunrise,” marvels Kowalsky a few moments before disappearing into the ether, and while the beauty of the image is undeniable—an encroaching sliver of orange ringing the contours of the planet below—the pathos feels prefab, part of a package that includes “wonderment” as an addendum to “terror, “grandeur,” and all the other sensations that the film conjures up as it goes along.  On some level—and it’s a fairly elevated one—Cuarón is a wizardly filmmaker, and Gravity betrays none of the scars of studio-mandated compromise that its delayed release date might have implied. Rather, its compromises come from within, from a director whose talent is such that he can’t help showing it off to the point that it overwhelms everything else on display—or, perhaps, the pyrotechnics merely point up the fact that there really isn’t all that much to see here after all. Cuarón gives us a spectacular sunrise, sure, but his song of two humans is Autotuned all the way.