Gravity gives sci-fi films a huge boost
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Director Alfonso Cuarón has come a long way since A Little Princess, though that’s still a superb movie. Cuarón’s been pushing the envelope from a technical point of view ever since, but always in service to the story he’s telling. His breakthrough came with Children of Men — a remarkable film, and one in which complex and absurdly long shots heightened the tension exponentially.
After CoM, Cuarón took seven years to come up with a new project that inspired him. The result is Gravity, a movie that singlehandedly makes 3-D relevant again, restores a degree of respectability to sci-fi and gives the genre a depth not seen since Alien. And those are just the collateral benefits.
Gravity occurs almost entirely in Earth’s thermosphere. During a routine mission, the crew of a space shuttle faces a massive cloud of debris coming at them at high speed. Very quickly, the crew is reduced to two astronauts: the outgoing, cool-as-a-cucumber commander Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney, at his Clooney-est), and the designated mousy scientist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).
Their ship inoperable, Kowalsky and Stone have no option but to try and make their way to the International Space Station in their spacesuits. With little oxygen, barely any propulsion and satellite fragments flying past, their sole hope for salvation lies in their own determination.
On the surface, Gravity is a tremendously efficient thriller. I dislike the overused phrase “on the edge of your seat,” but only 15 minutes into the movie that’s exactly where I was. 3-D is more often than not a questionable strategy used to increase ticket prices, but it works best when objects are thrown randomly “towards” the audience — and Gravity has plenty of that. (You may find yourself instinctively ducking fairly often.)
On a deeper level, Gravity is an ode to fighting against long odds and stubbornness of those who insist on holding on. In Cuarón’s worldview, “letting go” is the coward’s way out. For most of the movie the leads survive by the skin of their teeth, and the main character’s arc is all about learning to value your life. It’s a widely applicable lesson, but one that’s seen far too rarely in big-budget filmmaking.
The casting of Bullock might seem troublesome, as she’s long been known as a comedic actress who’s completely unable to disappear into a role. (Even in her Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side, for example, Bullock couldn’t help but be sunny and likeable.) But in the last few years, something interesting has been happening: after America’s Sweetheart went through a very public breakup, her characters turned towards sombre and embittered as often as not. Alfonso Cuarón makes great use of Bullock’s newfound pathos here: her Dr. Stone fights for survival, but often seems to embrace impending death as some sort of relief.
Towards the end, Gravity takes a turn too many that pulls you straight out of the movie, leading to a heavy-handed conclusion. It feels like a lost opportunity, but it’s not a deal breaker. This film isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey.