The Laws of Gravity: How the awesome wonder of the universe was weighed down by mismatched spiritualism

GravityLet me start off by acknowledging that aesthetically, Gravity is one of the most radical entertainment experiences that popular cinema has seen in recent years. There can be no denying the significant technical feats achieved by the director, Alfonso Cuaron, the genius cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and no doubt numerous other crew members unfairly relegated to virtual anonymity by our generally auteurist approach to popular cinema.  Indeed, for the first thirty to forty minutes, I had the distinct impression that a masterpiece of some sort was coming together before my eyes. Unfortunately, I simply don’t believe that this was the case.

Indeed, I suspect that this was the experience of many viewers who exited the film singing its praises, unwilling to acknowledge that the emotive power they had experienced early-on had withered and died by the end of the third act. Like myself, I suspect many were keen to cling on to the rare sense of awesome wonder that came with experiencing the unfathomably empty and nihilistic presence of an entirely indifferent universe. But let’s face it, by the closing credits it was about one person’s personal problems. Not that that’s not a worthy subject for film – it is. Just not for this one. So without further ado, I’m going to issue the obligatory spoiler alert (although I’ll try to keep my descriptions as allusive as possible for those who can’t help but read on) and proceed with a brief summation of Gravity’s fallibility as I see it.

Let’s get the basics aside – I’m willing to accept deviations from scientific possibility within science fiction films, so long as such deviations lie within the realms of the film’s own parameters for the suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to acknowledge that for my own part, this was generally the case here (although, I know that there are many who have been outraged by its willingness to forgo natural laws). The only moment I’ll refer to here, is a single instance (a strangely stale moment between Bullock and Clooney) in which an extreme decision is made that seems to run counter to the basic principles of movement in space as I understand them. But I’m willing to let that slide.

GravitySpeaking of stale moments however, brings me to my next point. I’m willing to ignore the fact that Clooney seems to phone this performance in. If anything, his slightly detached quality serves as an ironic and alienating strength in some strange way (insert obligatory comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey here). My greater concern (and sympathy) resides with Bullock, who has been laden with at least two of the most saccharine and unbelievable monologues in recent cinema history. I have to confess to a sense of admiration while watching these scenes – Bullock works desperately towards extracting every drop of performative juice she can from them. But ultimately there is no salvation for a screenplay that seems to directly position itself in violently sentimental opposition to the aesthetic sensibility and gargantuan concerns of the greater film.

After all, why is the viewer, having traversed the first half of the film in a state of absolute and helpless awe, so poorly rewarded in the second half with the sudden jarring introduction of a single individual’s personal traumas and rather irritating lack of will to live? That’s not to say that the human experience and the awesome power of the universe cannot be combined into a convincing narrative, the use of the lonely isolation of space as a locale with which to demonstrate a character’s heavy emotional trauma is not without merit, but this late stage intrusion, having been scripted with such frustrating clumsiness, is ultimately the film’s greatest overall weakness. Not to mention the fact that one would not expect borderline-suicidal individuals to be approved for duty in space. There will be some who would suggest that Bullock’s problems are intended to be analogical stand-ins for a greater human angst – and I have no doubt that this was the intention. However, such a task is far beyond the reach of this fragmented film. But let’s now proceed to the apex of Gravity’s total implosion.

GravityThere is a single scene so laden with the problematic weight of all the aforementioned concerns (plus a few more) that it cannot be ignored. To cater solely to those who have seen the film, I’ll refer to this simply as the moment of the vision/apparition. Putting aside the fact that this is probably the ten-millionth Hollywood film to subjugate the female will in order to allow a strong male to guide her towards salvation (we’re putting aside a lot today), it is in this particular moment that the viewer is asked to believe that the protagonist is rescued by divine intervention, haphazardly disguised as a highly specific hallucination for the more secular viewers. Whatever one’s personal beliefs, this is distractingly bad plotting that reduces all of the tension that has preceded it to mere parody. Indeed, what is a science fiction film if at any moment we are willing to accept that the laws of nature can unnaturally distort into a shining beacon of omniscient guidance for a single individual at any moment. It is ultimately this pedestrian spirituality of the film, which undermines, domesticates, and ultimately drowns the initial sense of the universe’s awesome (and at least seemingly indifferent) power.

Alfonso Cuaron’s similar use of religious iconography and subtext was beautifully balanced in his earlier work of science fiction, Children of Men, perfectly aligning the director’s spiritual lens with the harsh realism of the corporeal realm. Unfortunately, in the case of Gravity, the balance was lost.

 

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

26 thoughts on “The Laws of Gravity: How the awesome wonder of the universe was weighed down by mismatched spiritualism

  1. Fab review (not least because I totally agree with it)! I only saw Gravity recently after all the hype and was slightly disappointed for the same reasons. For me the visual effects were far more emotionally moving than the clunky human melodrama. And I thought that as good as Sandra Bullock was, it wouldn’t have mattered who was playing her role because the characters were secondary to the CGI which was the real star. In trying to put the human-in-peril storyline at the centre of the film, especially in the second half, it diminished the power the special effects worked so hard to create. It just about gets away with it on the big screen because the scale is so epic and so awe-inspiring but once you see it on DVD it’s impact will be lost and you’ll be left with a fairly routine sci-fi thriller. Can I now shamelessly plug my own review?! http://slatedreviews.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/gravity/

  2. Very thoughtful review.

    For my part – I’ve seen it three times and I loved it. I actually liked it more on each subsequent viewing. I felt it had the balance right between visuals, sound, narrative and was more powerful and absorbing towards the end rather than the beginning. I didn’t get thrown by the ‘vision’ as I think Clooney was a strong survival influence, so it worked for me.

    BTW I found “Children of Men” very powerful as well.

  3. It’s unsurprising that people would be “on watch” for themes that dare to be greater than humans…because we have such an EPIC record of kindness and achievement of goals outside of our own personal enrichment; how on earth could something better than us possible exist? (Yep, snarky comment.) People are so antsy w/ the spiritual anything…I’m sure it has to do with the atheism we were taught to adore in college. Atheism has its own rank, but so does spirtuality of the many different sorts existing on this rock. Atheists and agnostics FREQUENTLY forget that. I was one, and it’s an odd type of self-obsession that I later found to be radically unhealthy for myself and those around me. That said…this film seems to be yet another myopic, navel-gazing adventure into one person’s experience. So tired of these films and novels. Can we create things in which we are not obsessing on individual experience as a reflection of the only theme we seem to know anymore…me, me, me?
    Did I say I love this film blog…yep, love this blog. 🙂

    • Some very insightful points! For my part, I’m quite open to a cinema which dares to explore the possibility of something greater than ourselves. What bothers me (and it sounds like you agree with me), is when this idea becomes warped to satisfy the narcissistic needs of the individual.

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog 🙂

  4. I’m largely with Steve, above, on the spirituality issue. As ever, I was hyper-vigilant throughout for religious motifs, all ready to get all righteously secular, but happily didn’t read it that way. I saw the film as a spectacular thriller – nothing more – rather than a piece of any great depth, “an-intense-meditation-on-spirituality” sort of thing. What’s interesting about the film for me is the context of the immense spectacle – beautifully realised, as you’ve argued – versus the small-scale, personal (and occasionally irritating) personality at the centre of it. This is where it (for me, happily) departs from 2001 in giving us humanity, for all its cheesy flaws and tropes. front and centre. Sure, narratively it’s fairly clumsy B-movie fare (and your point is well made on the customary subjugation of the female will) but unless we’re invested somewhat in the character – motivation, back story, personal details – there’s no jeopardy. You aren’t on tenterhooks throughout because of the pretty pictures, and without caring at least a little bit, the special effects and the aesthetic are for nothing.

  5. I agree. I actually was looking forward to seeing how the human factor would be handled here- a person drifting alone through space trying to return to Earth is kind of a melodramatic analogy, but there’s no reason it can’t be an effective one. It just fell flat here, though. For me, when a spectacle-driven movie like this aspires to more and fails like this, it puts a bit of a damper on the spectacle as well. It was still an enjoyable thrill ride, but I found it pretty underwhelming coming from Cuaron. That “apparition” scene was laughable.

  6. My experience of this film was similar to yours. Thoroughly enjoyed the first half and then, yeah, that out of the blue transition followed up by saccharine.

    I also wanted to mention that the scene where she’s trying to get in the airlock of the ISS was interminable and incredibly aggravating to me. I felt no dramatic tension, just frustration at Clooney’s character’s inane banter and what seemed to me to be a very long, drawn out scene. I’m not sure why I hated that scene /so/ much, but ugh, I sure did.

    • Yes, that was around the time that the spectacular element seemed to cave under its own weight. Especially as it became increasingly clear that each new scene was going to be remarkably similar to the last.

  7. Nice review James. As you pointed out this film is pretty thin on story. When you compare it to 2001 you can see what might have been if only they had a decent script to work from given the massive advantage in technology the filmmakers had. It reminds me of that joke: A photographer at a posh dinner party is complemented by the host saying your photographs are amazing you must have a very good camera. After dinner the photographer says that meal was delicious you must have a very good oven. If you ever meet Alfonso Cuaron you have can tell him your film is amazing you must have had a very good visual effects supervisor. Its nice for everyone connected to the film that it is a hit and the film does have its charms but its not “great” its just good. His previous film Children of Men was great lets hope he gets up there again with his next outing.

  8. Thank you for an honest review of this film. I haven’t seen it, but everyone has been raving about it-which unfortunately often means there is a significant downside to the film in question. It sounds like the plot was mashed together after the cinematographic direction had already been decided, and unfortunately the narrative couldn’t match the aesthetics.

  9. Extremely thoughtful consideration of what I found to be the worst film in the year the movies took a sharp nose dive. One of the few reviews that was neither hateful nor supplicating, but addressed the shortcomings of the film while ruing its failed potential. Fine job, James.

  10. Thanks for this considered review James. The film has been lauded here, even by Mark Kermode (do you know him?) as the best ever use of 3D and Imax technology. The general reaction has been ‘forget the plot- enjoy the effects’. Most people I know who have seen it, seem to have done exactly that, and rave about it constantly.
    I was suspicious of sentimentality being the conclusion of the film, and your excellent review seems to confirm all my worst fears.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Hi Pete. That seems to be the reaction everywhere – but I think a little time and perspective will probably see the consensus shift. Yes, I know Mark Kermode 🙂

      Unfortunately, this is not a film that invites the viewer to forget the plot. It is quite aspirational, which is why I found it ultimately so disappointing. I’d still check it out though. If nothing else, it is an interesting visual experience.

  11. I didn’t see it as spiritualism or divine intervention at all until you mentioned this interpretation. To me, it was more a sense of subconscious guidance as the conscious mind began to fade away.

    • Hi Steve. I definitely think that Cuaron intended to make yours a legitimate possible reading of the text, but this is certainly not how I interpreted it.

      The constant allusions to prayer, including that final attempt by the protagonist to vicariously relay a message through to her daughter, are testament to this. As is the extremely particular and technical detail of the apparition (our subconscious is rarely so meticulous in detail). I’d also point to Cuaron’s quite overt use of religious motifs as drivers throughout his work.

      • Well, I’m not so sure about the subconscious not being specific – I’ve awoken from many a dream in the midst of a specific chess game or in the middle of creating a detailed bit of computer code (very good to write these things down immediately!) – but in regards to Gravity I suspect you are absolutely correct regarding the director’s intentions. And yes, I prefer my interpretation for the same reasons – the religious interpretation just detracts too much from my enjoyment of the film.

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