Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron || Produced by: Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman
Screenplay by: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron || Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Paul Sharma
Music by: Steven Price || Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki || Editing by: Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 90 minutes
When Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity released last fall, I admit that I did not buy the hype surrounding the movie’s lauded special FX and its critically praised “thrill-ride” story. Films that are hailed as special-FX “experiences,” movies that place special emphasis on turning their plots and characters into theme park rides, turn me off, especially in the wake of the childish James Cameron-adventure that was Avatar (2009). That is more or less what I thought Gravity was after skimming the reviews and taking in the general fan-reaction regarding the film’s visuals.
As it turns out, I was partially correct in my pre-judgments. Cuaron’s latest critical and commercial success is, like Avatar, a film that relies heavily on computer-generated FX to create its spectacle and inspire a cinema-of-attractions-type “awe” in its viewers. To the film crews’ credit, the special FX are impressive. It would be hard for anyone in their right mind to knock Gravity on its visuals or sound design. Everything from a technical perspective is well done.
With that in mind, Gravity does disprove my prejudices to a large extent by using its vivid imagery to construct deep symbolism. The good looks of Cuaron’s picture are not just for show, as they would be in most other special FX-heavy films like Cameron’s Avatar or most superhero blockbusters. More importantly though, Gravity does sport competent characters that undergo interesting arcs. The film shares motifs with shipwreck and wilderness survival narratives like Cast Away (2000), Life of Pi (2012), 127 Hours (2011), and Rescue Dawn (2006), in that it examines the limits of human endurance in the face of isolation and catastrophe. In many ways, Gravity is a logical extrapolation from the classic survival stories of the past, transplanting the thrills of man (or woman) against the odds of mountain cliffs, unforgiving oceans, and treacherous jungles to the eerie vacuum of zero G.
Cuaron’s film succeeds because it combines effective, albeit minimal, character development with complex imagery. The movie is a similar experience to my always-favorite and frequently referenced action movie, The Raid (2012). Both films utilize sparse yet effective plots and characters in combination with potent spectacle to create masterful thrill rides. In Gareth Evans’ Raid, the spectacle was impeccably choreographed and filmed martial arts; in Gravity, the attraction is symbolic CGI. If you’re paying attention, you’ll pick out things like the resemblance between protagonist Sandra Bullock and a fetus in a womb in one nuanced shot, and the evolutionary symbolism when Bullock swims out of a drowning spaceship and slowly crawls onto, and then finally stands upright on, land.
With all that said, I’m not as in love with Cuaron’s Oscar-nominated picture as most. Reasons why have to do with Bullock’s performance and how repetitive it is to hear her panting, screaming, and complaining for 90 minutes nonstop during this space-adventure. Gravity would have been a cinematic explosion if its central character had more nuance and/or acted less annoying. Bullock’s Academy Award-nomination for Best Actress makes little sense to me.
Another complaint has to do with the movie’s tendency to talk down to its viewers. To say the film’s explanation of its primary theme is heavy-handed might sound harsh, but George Clooney’s description of Bullock’s entire emotional conflict and character arc, word-for-word in monologue, comes across a tad clumsy. This continues when Bullock herself explains in monologue her character’s arc, just to make sure we got the message. In general, the medium of film is meant to show, not tell, and when a movie as visually complex as Gravity dumbs itself down to the point where it has to flat-out tell you the whole point behind its story, it’s frustrating; you feel like an otherwise adult experience is being converted to a mass-audience friendly formula, which is essentially what’s going on. Now this only applies to a few sections of the film, so it’s not a huge deal, but it’s consistent enough to mention.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to knock the movie on its mediocre protagonist and condescending plot when it’s so powerful in all other areas. Cuaron’s direction is the deciding factor that wins the day for Gravity. The man did an outstanding job crafting such an entertaining piece of space-survival; I am on board with Cuaron’s directing nomination, even if I have reservations about the praise for Sandra Bullock. If you’re looking for a “thrill-ride”-type cinematic experience, you can do much worse than Gravity. It has all the technical expertise of Avatar without much of the accompanying shallow characterizations and cheese. It’s heavy filmmaking without being too heavy-handed in its delivery of thematic images, and it’s smarter than your average visually charged blockbuster.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Gravity’s deep visuals are executed with confidence and grace courtesy of Cuaron’s expert direction. The film is flashy and intelligent… in a visual sense. While ultimately second fiddle to the movie’s technical aspects, Cuaron’s writing paces the adventure for maximum impact.
— However… Bullock is unappealing as a space-survivalist. Her mannerisms and line-delivery grow tiresome by the story’s conclusion. Much of the dialogue from the entire cast could have gone, as far as I’m concerned. The film’s tendency to talk down to its audience is annoying.
? I know where the Russians store their vodka!