Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Last night, I finally received the blessing of getting to watch one of my all-time favorite directors return to the big-screen after seven long years. The last time Alfonso Cuaron made a motion picture, he gave us a haunting glimpse at the future with his sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men. I still hold that film as one of the most spectacular theatrical visions I’ve ever witnessed. With that film, Cuaron utilized fantastic technical advances to enhance single shot sequences, thus heightening the tension and realism of the film’s spectacle.
Which leads me to Cuaron’s latest effort, Gravity. Much like 2009’s Avatar, the film Gravity has been in development for many years, with actors and actresses dropping on and off the project several times. That said, the film is finally here, and although it shares the same technical progressions that Children of Men demonstrated, Gravity over-extends itself as a technical masterpiece, rather than a narrative one. Just like Avatar, it breaks new ground in transporting us to another place, but provides a no-brainer screenplay with little thought in its structure and/or originality.
The film has a spectacular setup with camera use that makes me warm and fuzzy just rethinking about it. We’re introduced to the astronauts’ right off the bat with them performing a routine space walk and doing repairs. We first meet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is the mission leader and also the goofball of the bunch. He tells ridiculous stories about past shenanigans he experienced to the space station as everyone else is stressing on the space walk. It’s clear the character is a damn good leader and decision maker, but knows how to keep the team morale in check with his witty personality.
Then there is Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who is the engineer for the NASA mission, and also the central character to this survival story. I know I’ll probably get so much crap for this, but very few moments in this film did she convince me that she was a competent select for this mission, reason being I’m pretty sure her psyche evaluation would’ve raised some red flags with some of the circumstances they bring up about her past. NASA takes absolutely no risks when it comes to these missions.
One of the stranger aspects of this film involved a character named Shariff (Voiced by Paul Sharma), who is an astronaut of middle-eastern descent. Shariff is outside performing the space walk with Clooney and Bullock’s character in a suit, but for whatever reason, all we are allowed to hear is his voice, and the camera always conveniently dodges his face. Spoiler warning… Then when the character dies, the one time they show his face in the film, there is a hole straight through it. Did anyone else find this a bit off-putting how the one diversified role in the film is handled this way? Spoilers end.
Anyway, tension begins to rise as Mission Control (Voiced by Ed Harris) begins dispatching that a Russian satellite was taken out by a missile, and the debris could be a potential danger to the space walk. Moments later, the danger becomes real, and the crew has to abort the mission as soon as possible. The film then heads into an unrelenting portrayal of how dangerous space can be, but that’s pretty much it. Get ready for a ninety minute explanation of why space sucks, with no feelings or remorse whether anyone lives or dies.
The technical achievements in this movie are definitely MVP. Months ago, when James Cameron said that this is the best space movie he’s ever seen, I didn’t read in to those comments the way I should have. This is the best depiction of space we’ve ever seen from mainstream Hollywood. One moment in the film had me feeling the gravity so strongly that I actually had to shut my eyes to keep from getting motion sickness, and that never happens to me. So, is this a game changer movie technically? You’re damn right. If anyone argues different they obviously know very little about the mechanics that go into filmmaking.
Problem is, Gravity suffers from the same issues as Avatar did back in 2009. So much emphasis was placed on creating a three-dimensional world, and creating the environment that transports us to that world that we end up with two-dimensional characters and storytelling. When characters experience trauma or tragedy, there’s no emotional connection. You feel absolutely nothing if someone were to live or die, and that includes both main characters played by Clooney and Bullock. Are you feeling the tension while watching? Yes, only because the technical department made you feel that way, not because the writing or acting made you give a sh*t.
Don’t get me wrong, Clooney and Bullock did the best with what they were given, and even Sandra “tried” to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, they were only cast to bring in a profit for the film and it shows. If half of the work was put into casting and writing, then maybe I could call this a well rounded picture. Another example is the addition of Ed Harris as mission control. It’s almost like someone remembered Apollo 13, and lazily decided to throw his voice in there. Just for the record though, let it be known that I love Ed Harris.
One thing I will add to this is that the score is pitch-perfect for driving the tension in this film. The composition designed by Steven Price creates a layer of dread to the intense technical spectacle. Parts of his sound give off a vibe of a chaotic symphony with notes flying in all directions as the gravity sequences soared into madness. It truly becomes a character of its own the entire film, playing with silence and pandemonium all at once.
The editing is also brilliantly crafted as one would expect from an Alfonso Cuaron movie. The opening sequence is one of the best in a long time executing a 17 minute continuous tracking shot which will melt your face off. It’s just so deliciously photographed and perfectly accomplished that I could watch that sequence alone a thousand times.
I realize it sounds as if I didn’t enjoy this film, and let me be clear this is not the case. There is a lot to enjoy about Gravity, and a lot of technical achievements to praise it for. Technicalities aside, the film lacks any real weight, making the plot and character development as light as the gravity within the film itself. For that reason, I can’t say I love this movie. Especially, when director’s like Ang Lee showed how a film can be technically driven, as well as incorporating a compelling narrative with last year’s Life of Pi.
Take away the toys, the 3D, and the intense visuals, and all you have is a scary depiction of space with no emotional impact. On its own, Gravity feels like a showcase movie to show audiences how far we have come on a visual standpoint with filmmaking. Almost like Cuaron needed an excuse to show off his new toys to everyone, and this was the perfect way to make it happen. Bottom line, Gravity is this year’s Avatar, pushing forward the technology of filmmaking, while shuttling a forgettable story.