Cuarón's "Gravity" Heavy On Spectacle, Light On Substance

The hype machine has been working overtime on Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” with the phrases “game changer” and “all time greatest” being bandied about like candy on Halloween. Critics that viewed the film early became its de facto publicists, while the internet only fanned the flames of sky-high expectations. But hype has a funny way of snuffing itself out. Once a film (or any pop culture landmark) hits, reality sets in. Consumers realize that the passage of time is vitally important in determining whether or not something is a classic, and, of course, detractors come out of the woodwork.

But as reviews of “Gravity” began to pour in closer to its release date, a funny thing happened. The narrative didn’t change. Critic after critic toed the line, hailing “Gravity” as one of the best films of the century. Respected critics were turned into ostensible quote whores, and grown men were apparently reduced to tears, struggling with bouts of heavy breathing induced by… a Sandra Bullock movie. A Sandra Bullock space thriller from the very capable director of “Children Of Men,” yes, but a Sandra Bullock movie, nonetheless.

I’m not here to tell you that “Gravity” isn’t any good. Au contraire. It’s an impressive feat of technology, to be sure, abounding with impossibly long takes (Cuarón’s trademark) and incredible use of CGI. It’s at its best when it’s breaking the barriers of what a shot can be, transforming from third-person to first-person and back to third-person without cutting. But the film’s impressiveness begins and ends with its sizzle-reel mentality, never amounting to much more than a dazzling technical exercise starring some really famous people.

Many have hailed the story’s simplicity – female astronaut fights for survival in space – asserting that the pic’s groundbreaking special effects required its narrative to take a backseat. A sound argument if there ever was one, as complexity does not a great screenplay make. But here, the CGI isn’t even willing to cede the backseat. It hijacks the entire ride, putting a bullet in the story’s head for good measure. The narrative is skeletal, at best.

Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone – a biomedical engineer and first-time astronaut with the kind of psychological scars that NASA would screen out after one evaluation. But her heartbreaking backstory is the emotional vertebrae of the film, so it’s a narrative leap worth taking. On a spacewalk with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the two are warned by Mission Control (Ed Harris – the only actor that should ever voice Mission Control) that a nearby satellite has exploded and debris is headed their way.

As it turns out, movie stars are remarkably good at not getting hit by space debris. As their ship is smashed to bits, Stone and Kowalski are left mostly untouched. Their faceless crew members? Not so much. As the duo’s oxygen supply diminishes, they’re faced with the prospect of propelling their way to the distant (but not too distant) International Space Station, which is conveniently located within thrusting distance of a slew of functioning spaceships. More debris is due soon. As you can probably guess, things get progressively worse for our heroes.

Bullock – who carries the bulk of the film – does good work in a conundrum of a role. It’s a largely physical part, but considering the pic’s reliance on CGI and its minimalist story, she had a dearth of sets and actors to work with. She deserves all the credit in the world for making her character at all interesting, let alone sympathetic. It’s telling that in the face of so much state-of-the-art technology, Bullock is the only thing on screen that really matters. She is the pulse of the whole piece, the only human element, rendering the impressiveness of the CGI not so impressive.

Apart from one memorable scene, Clooney’s performance is wholly unremarkable, his cocksure character striking an odd balance between charisma and smugness. When the film is at its darkest, his poorly written wisecracks aren’t much of a consolation. Nor is the appearance of a “Marvin The Martian” doll that’s one of the film’s few attempts at humor – none of which hit their mark.

For all intents and purposes, “Gravity” is an innovative animated film trapped in a humdrum live-action film’s body. It has very few good ideas that aren’t technical ones, its bare-bones screenplay belying its ambition. And as visually forceful as the picture is, it’s not in the same league as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Koyaanisqatsi,” a sensory-based movie with zero narrative thrust that says far more about humanity that “Gravity” could ever dream of – all without the aid of CGI, which suggests that the technical feats of “Gravity” are more bluster than breakthrough.

In the end, Alfonso Cuarón the writer – he co-wrote the film with his son, Jonas – is the worst enemy of Alfonso Cuarón the director, and it’s impossible to reconcile the gap in vision between the two. Cuarón the director is a pioneer, capably steering his ship, while Cuarón the writer is content to wither away in the barracks, doing nothing to help his captain realize his vision. It’s this confounding relationship that renders “Gravity” a disappointment, albeit one that will impress those who are dying to be impressed – or folks who can’t get enough deus ex machina. Beware the Hollywood hype machine.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 4, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)