Let 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.
Speaking 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.
There 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.