By Jacob Mertens.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) drifts in zero gravity, curled into a fetal pose with eyes closed, as if the decompression chamber was a womb. She has withstood an onslaught of space debris that wiped out her fellow astronauts and as she hovers above the ground, sunlight pours through the window and envelops her. Stone has been given another chance at life; she has emerged from certain death ready to embrace her role amongst the living—and if the audience has not picked up on these orchestrations of meaning, there are less subtle gestures to follow. At first thought, one might find outer space an unlikely setting for a story rooted in rebirth and renewal. After all, as Gravity‘s opening title cards point out, life in space is impossible. Space is that tremendous void pressing in on the world when the sun sets, a vacuum in which nothing can survive. And yet, mankind sojourns to this inhospitable landscape and defies the impossible, testing the reach of their influence in a cosmos too grand to rightly appreciate. Amidst this backdrop, the weight of a single life might as well be that of a raindrop falling to earth, and what could the presence of gravity provide besides a sullen splash?
Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film has been anointed by many critics as the ideal hybrid between spectacle and substance, and perhaps that’s due to its innate disparity: measuring the importance of a single life against an all-encompassing firmament. This contrast engenders a struggle for survival that is, at times, harrowing and moving, while the phoenix revival of Dr. Stone burns bright for the shroud of darkness around her. I cannot blame critics for seeing beauty in Gravity‘s premise, nor can I deny its technical brilliance, but the film’s overall potential never translates into genuine depth. With its recent re-release into theaters—a push made relevant by the awards season—and its release on Blu-ray and DVD, viewers can return to Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller with eyes open. Upon close examination, it is clear that scale alone cannot ensure the film endures repeat viewings. In scene after scene, Gravity sacrifices specificity for grandeur and ambiguity for transparency. Without nuanced detail, the film’s personal allegory cannot be fully realized. Without narrative obscurity, its thematic intentions become obvious and heavy handed. What remains is a cinematic spectacle with little emotional heft, whose title speaks more to irony than import.
Oddly enough, the only real defense for Gravity‘s supposed greatness is its claim toward minimalism. Considering that the film is largely constructed by CG, and that its entire filmic expression is meant to heighten the immersion of IMAX 3D, this would seem to be a ridiculous argument. However, the isolation of Stone’s character, the prevalence of long takes, and the simplicity of the narrative does suggest a fleeting impression of starkness. My supposition here is that Gravity uses this quality as an eloquent punctuation for its action set-pieces, and there are examples that could support this. For instance, in one of the film’s most effective sequences, Dr. Stone is jettisoned into space after her shuttle gets destroyed by the shrapnel of scuttled satellites. She spins out of control, further and furtherfrom the wreckage, tethered to humanity by the lone, assuring voice of Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) on the radio. Once that transmission cuts out, the camera lingers on Stone as she spins and hyperventilates, tightly framed on her helmet, showing a reflection of earth flit across the glass repeatedly. After what seems like an age, the film cuts to a stunning wide shot of Stone careening into deep space, backlit by hundreds of stars and disappearing into the void. The held silence that follows reinforces her bereft circumstances. It compels viewers to identify with her panic without a word needing to be said, stripping the moment down to one essential image.
If Cuarón could have trusted his audience more, these brief minimalist leanings might have made up for a lack of characterization. The film could have taken the shape of a poem instead of a story, in which its characters thrive as abstractions. Unfortunately, Gravity is far too literal-minded to embrace the ambiguity that minimalism begets. Indeed, the film cannot even embrace silence. Once Dr. Stone is left alone in the film, she talks out loud to herself, but really to the audience, for fear they may grow bored without quipped one-liners like “I hate space.” Her dialogue also acts as a way to spell out narrative conflict, taking viewers by the hand and walking them through the film. A clear example would be when Stone leaves shelter at the station for a nearby space capsule. As she drifts out into the open, she checks her watch. At this point, the audience has already been informed that the debris kicks up at timed intervals. For many filmmakers, Stone’s minute gesture would be enough to plant the seed of conflict without overstating anything. Cuarón opts instead to have the character further comment on just how soon everything will be going to hell, and so when the debris starts to fly in the background the scene is robbed of its initial suspense.
Moreover, going back to the point of characterization, as much as Stone and Kowalksy talk in this film, there is almost nothing of note being said. Viewers learn that Stone had a young daughter who died, and that her death provoked a somnambulist haze of work and meditative driving sessions. They also learn that Matt Kowalksy likes to tell stories about his ex-wife and that he thinks space is beautiful. Ninety minutes of run-time, and that effectively sums up the two characters. No information is gleaned about the daughter’s personality, so that loss has little impact. And when Gravity uses her death as its thematic anchor, the entire film becomes as weightless as its characters in zero-g. A few months back, Film International‘s Wheeler Winston Dixon wrote a similarly negative piece on Cuarón’s film. At further risk of retreading his arguments, I must grant that the title he gave says it all: “The Unbearable Lightness of Gravity.” However, for my part, I believe the action-fueled approach of Gravity could have lead to a meaningful viewing experience. I left this film wanting a dearth of dialogue, with characters emoting through action and allowing the visuals to communicate for them. When Stone and Kowalksy speak though, particularly in an intimate way, they better incorporate themselves into how viewers experience the narrative. That is when the need for specificity comes into play and the lightness of the film grows unbearable.
As a final note, the most egregious part of Gravity‘s critical response has to be its likening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 2001, more than anything, was unapologetic with its artistic demands. Kubrick created long takes that were fascinating in terms of detail and scope, but which unfolded at a grueling pace, and he allowed silence to pervade at whim. The grandeur of 2001 never came at the cost of cinematic pandering; its thematic intentions are still being debated today; and, admittedly, one does not leave the film knowing much about the characters, but they do at least feel real for the attention given to their actions. All said, the lasting vitality of Kubrick’s epic speaks volumes to its greatness. With that in mind, Gravity will have years to prove its own inadequacy.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
Gravity was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Warner Home Video on February 25th, 2014.