Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, released 2013.

Handed a familiar woman-in-jeopardy role, Sandra Bullock does what she can with it. There’s no slasher or serial killer at her back, just the icy vacuum of space and a bad case of nerves, and at times we find ourselves wishing there was something chasing her. As it is, the camera has almost nothing to cut to except the sumptuous Earth itself, hanging there gorgeous and seductive like a giant blue Rorschach blot. Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone has no one to talk to most of the time except herself and Bullock can’t quite pull off the one-woman show.

George Clooney only sticks around for a little while as Stone’s mission partner, veteran space dude Matt Kowalski, mercifully floating away before his voice can drive us crazy. He pops up again later during Stone’s low-oxygen hallucination, as though to remind us how good we’ve had it without him.

Gravity has a well-trod linearity to it, but there are some visual delights in this movie. One of them, of Stone tugging open an airlock and nearly getting blown out into space, is so good it’s repeated later and the fright it engenders is no less for the repetition. And if you’ve ever wondered what an astronaut wears under her spacesuit, well now you know: sleeveless undershirt and spandex skivvies. Watching Bullock strip is fun — perhaps not quite as much fun as Jane Fonda in Barbarella but probably as unintentionally good as a serious movie can get.

Gravity is not a bad movie, but it doesn’t succeed at solving the problems it creates for itself. The marooned-in-space astronaut, half crazy and lonely as Robinson Crusoe, is an ancient trope well-explored in sci-fi movies, from big budget (2001: A Space Odyssey) to shoestring (Love) to everything in between (Silent Running). Does Gravity break new ground here, bring any new insights to bear? Well, a female protagonist is a nice touch, if only to drive home how awful this movie would have been with, say, Clooney’s Kowalski as the surviving crew member (morphing into a slightly different sub-genre: space horror). And Bullock is probably not a bad choice, either, although this kind of movie has no place for her comedic talents.

I have no knowledge of (and little interest in) the genesis of Gravity‘s story, but at times it felt as though the screenwriters started with what was probably a solid (although not original) concept: solitary survivor of space mishap forced to conquer both her own fears and some recalcitrant equipment to survive. Given this concept they then worked back from there, creating their own story debris as they went along:

  • Why is she there? Dunno; space experiments are pre-packaged, much-tested modules, never accompanied by the teams that created them.
  • Why did the Russian satellite explode? Explanation is unconvincing.
  • What’s “pulling” Kowalski that makes him decide to unclip and sacrifice himself so that Stone might have a chance to survive? The whole scene is dumb and we’ve seen it a thousand times in war movies.

For whatever reason, space movies seem to be natural places for examining mankind’s “relationship” with technology in a way that films about Formula 1 racing or aircraft carriers are not. But Gravity doesn’t have much to say here really. The space gear is clean and white and groovy looking, but it serves a purpose similar to architecture in a haunted-house movie: great if it’s distinctive, even better if memorable, but let’s get inside and find those ghosts!

The title also invites speculation, given that it names something decidedly missing in space. At best it feels vaguely metaphorical; at worst it’s misleading, like calling a film Respiration instead of Breathless.

The ending reinforces one’s suspicion of metaphor, but metaphor for what? Stone crash lands in a lagoon, floats on her back to shore, then struggles to her feet on zero-g-weakened (though smooth and shapely) legs, staggering away on the beach. The end. Does “gravity” stand for “home,” like in some family-in-crisis movie? The elements are present (mom: Stone, dad: Kowalski, child: Stone’s deceased daughter), but my mind refuses to go there.

Or is “gravity” meant to suggest that Stone finally accepts her daughter’s death (which, oddly unremarked upon, was also the result of an accident)? This seems credible, but the movie handles everything related to the daughter so clumsily. In a novel, a long interior monologue might suffice here to tie everything down, but the movie provides no cinematic equivalent. Thankfully we’re given no flashbacks, but the generic details we are given sound like Stone is making it all up. It’s enough to make you cry out for renegade robots and little green men.

© 10 Franks 2015

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