Film of the week: Gravity

Dancing in space; dramatising with a thud.

Jonathan Romney
Updated:

from our December 2013 issue

Gravity (2013)

Gravity (2013)

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

The 3D film is traditionally caricatured as a form in which things are thrown at the viewer; in Gravity, you might say, the viewer is thrown at things. This is a story about people floating through space, and Alfonso Cuarón’s feature brilliantly contrives to make the viewer feel similarly untethered, to often thrilling effect. This is surely the closest cinema comes to three-dimensional virtual abseiling.

Gravity is arguably the most sophisticated example yet of cinema as theme ride. The already celebrated 13-minute opening shot shows how dazzlingly and immersively this works, as the camera weaves elegant, intricate trajectories in space – or perhaps one should say ‘the viewpoint’ rather than ‘the camera’, since in such CGI spectacle the camera is for the most part virtual. The viewpoint, then, moves through space, approaching and navigating around a space station, slowly circling it, bringing us closer to and further away from its characters. Like the spacewalking Kowalski (George Clooney) and his doomed colleague Shariff (Paul Sharma), euphoric at their weightless condition, the camera is effectively dancing, with the viewer as partner.

The combination of 3D and space as a setting means that Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki – who together conceived similarly vertiginous long takes in Children of Men (2006) – can play havoc with the usual certainties of terrestrial mise en scène. One minute we’re looking down on a distant Earth; the next, the planet’s blueness fills the top of the screen like a sky hanging over us. At the start, at least, Gravity rekindles the awe and absolute strangeness that a generation experienced when first looking at photographs of our planet from a distance.

There is nowhere, in Gravity’s evocation of freefall, that Tim Webber’s remarkable special effects won’t allow the ‘camera‘ to go. At one point it seems to pass magically right through the helmet of astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), passing from inside to out; and the long takes disconcertingly combine extreme distance with no less extreme close-ups. The film plays dynamically with types of movement: it sometimes has us watch from a distance as its astronauts’ bodies move through the void, while at other moments the human body appears to be still while space rotates dizzyingly around it.

Gravity (2013)

Gravity (2013)

In many ways, this admirably concise film can claim to be the most significant achievement in 3D cinema (not that there’s much serious competition) since Avatar (2009). Dramatically, however, Gravity is a disappointment. At moments, the film promises to deliver real substance (the title alludes not just to G-force but to the seriousness of the situation). We are alerted at the start to the quasi-mystical effect of space’s overwhelming silence: something over-emphatically conveyed by suddenly cutting out from Steven Price’s screeching orchestral crescendo. But as for what’s eventually delivered in terms of the sublimity of the infinite and the horror of absolute solitude, such quasi-mystical intimations are better evoked by 2001 (1968) and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), while Gravity seeks to tame them with SFX entertainment.

The desolate existential resonances of Stone’s predicament are undermined by mundane character sketching in the form of a backstory – the loss of a young daughter. It’s partly the sound of a baby on Earth, heard on the radio, that encourages her to continue her struggle; but the theme hits a bathetic nadir when Stone sends the dead Kowalski a message to her child: “Tell her I’m not quitting.”

You can imagine how utterly imposing Gravity might have been if it had stuck to its guns as a drama of human isolation: though it’s unrealistic to expect a multi-million-dollar CGI drama to take such a sober tack. As it is, Gravity is too often concerned with reassuring the audience, especially in the avuncular presence of Clooney as the ostensibly frivolous but unimpeachably noble Kowalski – not least when he seems to return from the dead to encourage Stone, before proving to be a hallucinatory effect of trauma and oxygen withdrawal.

Gravity (2013)

Gravity (2013)

Too much is conveniently set up as a succession of nail-biter crises. It’s suspiciously convenient that there’s a chain of space stations in reach of each other, their airlocks easily opened from outside, and it’s outrageous how neatly the obstacles fall into place: at a crucial moment an escape pod proves to be out of fuel (“You gotta be kidding me,” groans Stone, redundantly). Finally, as she splashes down on Earth and tries to swim to safety, it looks as if the spacesuit that has protected her all this time will cause her to drown – one irony we don’t need by this point.

But the film’s contrivance, and the clunkiness of Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón’s dialogue, shouldn’t obscure the brilliance of its imagery: the objects floating in the wrecked NASA shuttle, including a dental plate and the Looney Tunes alien; a glimmering green Aurora Borealis; even, kitsch as it is, the single teardrop that floats free to be sharply focused against a soft background. And the film’s eco theme is sharply observed: sooner or later, everything floating in space becomes merely junk.

Gravity should be hailed for its vividness and for the artful elasticity with which it manipulates our sense of orientation – our bodily experience of watching, of being quasi-literally ‘moved’ by 3D imagery. But Cuarón ultimately sacrifices the promised ineffability for the easy payoff of cliffhanger thrills.

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