After seeing the trailer for Gravity a while back I was honestly expecting a bit of a boring time. Then everyone I knew who saw it started saying how good it was. It turns out I was wrong – it wasn’t boring – and so were the people who sang its praises – it wasn’t amazing. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s ability to conjure real feelings, of the emptiness of space and the claustrophobia of the equipment used to traverse it, along with George Clooney’s charm and wit, redeem an otherwise silly and relatively monotonous film. Most of this stems from the lacklustre story, which is little more than a reason for the characters to face a series of challenging events in a ridiculous quest to survive. Suspension of disbelief is hard to maintain, especially with the occasionally bizarre and over-the-top situations. I understand it is a work of fiction, yet elsewhere the production strives for believability: in the sets, props, and even dialogue. Cuarón admitted he took some liberties in order to make the drama work, but it doesn’t quite strike the right balance.
The film starts as Sandra Bullock’s Dr Ryan Stone and Clooney’s Lieutenant Kowalski are in orbit over Earth making some kind of addition and repair to the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s beautifully quiet up there, although a little stressful and isolated for Stone. The two are accompanied only by flight engineer Shariff, voiced by Phaldut Sharma, and a two man crew in the space shuttle, which constitutes almost all the characters in the film. Some charming and light hearted exposition goes on – Kowalski enjoys telling stories but no one will let him finish – before a Russian satellite accident shoots debris in their general direction. From there it becomes a small-scale disaster movie in the big setting of space. For the first half-hour or so the style really shines, and here Cuarón is best able to create sensations in the viewer as we face the beauty and the horror of space through the characters’ eyes. After that, though, things get more far-fetched, and the pay-off diminishes. The responsibility to maintain an emotional connection is falls onto Bullock’s shoulders, who doesn’t dazzle in this expansive but shallow role.
What is amazing about Gravity, though, are the visuals. Cuarón, Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki, and the massive effects team (there are some 686 folk listed on IMDB), have created a stunning and immersive environment. Who knew Earth looked so beautiful in 3D? Much of the film was shot using special rigs that moved around the actors, allowing them to stay still while appearing to be in microgravity. Perhaps this lack of actual movement explains some of the lack of believability in the performances. Whatever the case, the action has turned out spectacular, particularly where spinning characters scramble to grab on to moving targets, and with such a wonderful backdrop. The score by Steve Price, who worked on some of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, is unobtrusive and beautiful too.
At the end of the day Gravity isn’t a bad film, and it did win a bunch of Academy Awards. However, for a film that draws its thrills from real dangers, style and a hit-and-miss artistic vision trump authenticity too often. I’m not sure how popular this film would be amongst astronauts and astrophysicist types, considering it had a few problems that irked even me. Generally speaking, the story is a little ridiculous, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it falls short of the emotional intensity it aims for. That said, there are some intense sensations to be felt – from drowning in an ocean with no bottom, to suffocation and claustrophobia – and some beautiful scenery to boot. So if you take anything from this, don’t expect everything from Gravity and you might enjoy it.
Here’s a short that brings a little more context to a certain part of the film (spoiler)