- Written By: Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron
- Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron
- Produced By: Alfonso Cuaron / David Heyman
- Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
- Running Time: 91 mins
- Year Released: 2013
- Age Rating: PG-13
Watching Gravity has made me feel old. And not because I’m past any expected age to be eligible for astronaut training. If anything, with 33 years on this mortal coil so far, I’m still one year off of the average age for candidacy, if NASA’s own stats are anything to go by. Rather, my clear and present decline is actually down to fuzzy memory. I could have sworn that Gravity came out in theaters last year. If not, then the year before that, at most. Certainly not 2013, that long-bygone era which marked the dying embers of my kinda-wild-but-not-really twenties. But no - Gravity, this frequently imaginative if conclusively underwhelming space movie, with its stunning visuals, occasional tight-knit tension and light sprinklings of A-List acting pedigree, really is four years old. It kinda bugs me that over that time I never gave this feature much thought to see at all - just kept telling myself I’ll watch it on Bluray soon, but never realized I’d go on to repeat that mental feat for the next few years. Well, whatever. Impending early dementia or otherwise, it’s nice to have finally seen it - at least until I inevitably forget about it again, and start wondering why these people in blue uniforms keep wheeling me out of my room to play with building blocks and paint.
In any case, Gravity, hideously over-lauded at its time (it ain’t 7-Oscars worthy, that’s for sure), is nonetheless an enjoyable movie. From a cinematography perspective, this British-American effort involving two astronauts suffering the maintenance callout from hell is still unquestionably the most impressive-looking movie of our times. Set entirely in the space surrounding Earth (and dedicating almost every single one of its shots to glorious HD vistas of our planet from orbit), the movie is incredibly keen to make its interplanetary environment the film’s headlining star. Which is probably just as well, considering how the casting for the film has taken a strategy of quality over quantity - only George Clooney and Sandra Bullock make up the on-screen performers given decent screen time in this 90-minute escapade.
Even in light of this fundamental lack of a cast, and with the film’s insistence on making its lavish camera work the central attraction, the pair nonetheless stand out with their performances. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, an exceptional medical engineer who’s taking her first steps as an astronaut. She’s on a routine shuttle mission to repair a panel on the Hubble Telescope and is joined by Matt Kowalski (Clooney), a veteran of the NASA space program who, after years of services, is finally hanging up his boots with this one final mission. Along with fellow engineer Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), the three of them are making pretty light, breezy work of the job if the mesmeric opening scene is to be believed. Small-talking with both each other and Mission Control (Ed Harris on voice) as they leisurely jet back and forth around their shuttle, Gravity’s first few minutes are a relaxing introduction to them and the setting - providing a perfect demonstration of the wondrous interstellar visuals the film repeatedly shows off. It’s all a bit too happy and peaceful, in fact. And that’s probably why Russia then suddenly decides to bungle a missile strike intended to dismantle one of its own defunct satellites, sending a deadly field of debris in the NASA team’s direction. Even though Mission Control demands its crew members to get back into their shuttle, the inevitable happens: Stone and Kowalski are unable to return in time, Shariff is instantly killed when blindsided by the debris’ front-running remnants, and the crew’s shuttle is destroyed in the ensuing chaos. Stranded in the space above Earth and faced with a situation they’ve never trained for, Stone and Kowalski are now left with a desperate mission to reach the nearby International Space Station for safety and an escape pod, before their oxygen runs out.
Naturally, this do-or-die escape, which they only have 90 minutes to complete before the debris orbits the Earth and threatens to take them out again, is just the start of an increasingly trepid, if thoroughly predictable ride. At the very least, it’s still very engrossing, in part because the science, rather than the fiction, is the vehicle for the film’s tension. Much of the effectiveness of the Cuaron brothers’
script is down to their shrewd intention to keep the dialogue-driven explanations of their leads’ astrophysical plight both succinct and comprehensive, letting the special effects provide the details for us. As satellites disintegrate, escape pods fail to activate and the tethers binding Kowalski and Stone’s suits leave them both at the uncompromising mercy of gravity itself, the movie’s high-tempo moments make for some great popcorn viewing that, bar a few scientific faux pas, is also satisfyingly realistic.
Best of all, the majority use of such effects is surprisingly efficient. This is one of those rare films where the CGI, so over-employed in movies these days, actually serves to give credence to the setting. Whether or not its vivid shots of orbital Earth or exploding space stations are the focal point, there’s a refusal from both dialogue and camera work alike to bog down Gravity with the kind of dry over-analyzing that so many sci-fi movies employ as a plot device, keeping the intensity of its dramatic moments on point. Behind all of its space explorations and aspirations, Gravity still knows what it is at heart: a simple but solid survival-action movie, and is at its best when acting as such. There are moments where it might get a little too carried away in this regard: with the film essentially trying to look like it’s been shot in one take (despite briefly switching back and forth to other perspectives), some of the sweeping shots of the duo’s flailing attempts to get away from danger look like something more akin to what you’d see on a simulator ride, a la Star Tours. Gravity was most definitely a film designed to delight the 3-D crowd when it was released, and when viewed in 2-D it occasionally looks like it’s showing off a little too much. Still, it’s main function as a movie is to bring a wow factor, and those looking for that above anything else are unlikely to be put off by its digital showboating, given how incredible it continuously looks.
Where the real problems emerge is when the film takes a breather from its high-octane space disaster set pieces and decides that its characters need a bit of musing time. The second half of the movie puts a central focus on Bullock’s character entirely, and as a result, starts to become a bit dull. This isn’t the fault of Bullock herself. She leaves Stone as a compelling enough heroine, even if just like Clooney’s character, you never shake the feeling that she’s really just playing herself in a spacesuit. We do end up finding out that part of Stone’s own ascent into space is in part driven by the death of her young daughter, with a mission to the stars being one of her numerous attempts to escape the emotional weight of such a tragedy. But only at the point when the film puts her completely alone does it begin to do a deep dive into her feelings on the subject. At that point, she only has space for company. And space, so well captured by Gravity in its serene, empty wonder, isn’t talking - leaving the film struggling to develop this potentially resonant side-plot any further.
The fact that most of Gravity also depicts an environment where the lack of its namesake forces its characters to drift dreamily around also ends up being a burden. As Stone floats around derelict space stations in search of salvation, her gliding pace and the sparseness of her surroundings begin to make the film sluggish. Some might say that the likes of 2001 and Alien had these kind of scenes as well, but both of those movies were able to keep viewers occupied with the mysteries they were building alongside them. Halfway through Gravity, we already know the main characters’ end goal, and we’ve already had our fair share of imagery to tell us that space is both beautiful and deadly. We don’t need to spend any more time being awed over symbolic shots of Bullock half-suspended in zero-G with her spacesuit tether wrapped around her like an umbilical cord - we’d rather she just got on with escaping the turmoil she’s in.
Ultimately though, a thunderous, fiery climax helps bring this movie back down to Earth, and gets the job done. A few extra years of age and a distinct lack of Clooney in its latter stages (never thought I’d ever find myself writing that) may leave Gravity struggling to maintain the reputation it obtained for itself at numerous award ceremonies. But it’s still a gorgeous, well-considered and occasionally thrilling sci-fi epic that shows that we don’t need a galaxy far, far away, or a final frontier to witness how exciting, and lethal, space adventures can be. Both director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (whose Oscar-winning work is enough to warrant repeated viewing) can be pleased with their work - they certainly won’t be disregarding the Oscars they won for it, that’s for sure. And the chances are that if you’re looking for a fairly light but persistently entertaining action movie, you’d probably do well not to disregard Gravity either.
I mean, I did for four years, and look where that got me...
Gravity is now widely available on BluRay and DVD.
Media utilized in article is property of: Warner Bros. Pictures / Esperanto Filmoj / Heyday Films / moviestillsdb.com