In spite of its financial and critical success, Gravity isn’t the best film of the year. We have a few months to go, but right now Captain Phillips holds that place. Yet there is nothing in all of film that looks quite like Gravity, and its spare narrative allows us to look with even greater wonder at the visuals in the film.
You have to go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey to find a film set in space that provides the sheer awe of Gravity’s visuals. In some ways, it also reminded me of the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, the famous 1896 film that showed a train arriving at a station and allegedly provoked the audience to something of a fearful frenzy. For now, Gravity is the bookend to that impactful 50-second short, with hushed amazement replacing that film’s panic. Director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have immersed us in as believable a space world as we’ve ever seen. Cuarón, whose masterful Children of Men majored in long unedited scenes that brought us into the world of his film, goes one better here. His 17-minute first shot, uninterrupted, is simply breathtaking, and allows us to immerse ourselves in a new and different world, to soak in all the details and splendor of deep space. (To my film students: Bazin would have loved this!)
It’s been a while since the immersive experience has been the primary component of a film. (And yes, you should only see this in 3D IMAX. Take the trouble and expense—it will be worth it.) Avatar and Hugo were 3D successes artistically, and knocked our eyeballs out at times, but there were stories to be told in those films that kept pulling us back into what was happening. With Gravity, what happens is not the plot that affects the characters, but our experience as viewers. As widescreen and “stereophonic sound” were the lures to get people back into theaters after WWII and the arrival of television, the look and experience of Gravity is being successful in bringing people out of their homes and away from even their big screen TVs. We still want to say, “Wow!”
Perhaps the leanness of the plot that works to keep us gaping at the visuals is one of the problems of the film. Certainly, Cuarón’s insistence on the appearance of uninterrupted realism costs him dramatically at times; there are moments when the film would have benefited from something of a stronger editing pattern over the action, which plays out just a bit too often in real time. And since Cuarón isn’t afraid to go with dream/fantasy in one sequence, perhaps a flashback or two might not have hurt, especially when it comes to key moments of Ryan’s past.
The other problem, well noted by others at this point, is the screenplay. A lean survival story is clearly the goal, the better to keep you visually entranced, my dear. But some of the words that Ryan (the trouper Sandra Bullock) has to say are a bit embarrassing, though Bullock works hard to make them real. Matt Kowalski’s (George Clooney) often-silly dialogue makes sense when you finally see what he’s up to, and some of Ryan’s responses to what happens help ground the film in a realism it needs to have. But some of her expressed thoughts are clearly for us as viewers only, and others don’t quite land well on either the ear or the brain.
The other problem is what isn’t there. Spoiler alert: Except for the power shot of Ryan near the end that suggests triumphant human survival over obstacles, we have a simple survival story, and that’s all. There are perhaps a few too many obstacles at times, but the story is a slender one with no pretense at profundity. Kubrick’s 2001 virtually shook with meaning, possibilities, suggestions, and questions. Gravity has none of those things, and is the lesser for it.
Bullock is following an amazing trajectory as an actress. After being American’s Sweetheart and the successor to Julia Roberts as rom-com queen, she shocked her fans and film people alike with a spot-on performance in The Blind Side. Nothing she’d done prepared viewers for the precision and depth of that performance. Here, as the fourth/fifth/sixth choice for lead, Bullock bring her Everywoman smarts and charm to the part, coloring it as only she could. Angelina Jolie would have had more obvious intellect and edge; Natalie Portman would likely have been more vulnerable. Bullock brings reality rather than edge, vulnerability, or gravitas, and slides perfectly into the astronaut suit and our expectations. The female lead has to own the entire film, and Bullock does. She works hard physically, and finds the truth of each of her acting moments. She’s moving into American treasure territory here, and another Oscar nomination is surely in her future.
Gravity is somewhat like 2011’s Tree of Life, a near-masterpiece that just missed the mark by a few inches. Gravity could have been this year’s masterwork, but most of us will happily settle for an extremely well made film that takes us to a place we’ve never seen or experienced before. Whatever you do, don’t wait for the DVD. This isn’t