“Gravity”: A Reaction
Seven years after Children of Men (my reaction to which can be read here), Alfonso Cuarón has returned with Gravity. In Gravity, a foreign country blows up one of its own satellites. That apparently happens (as China destroyed one of its own in 2007). However, in Gravity, this sets in orbit debris which destroys an American spacecraft and leaves several astronauts adrift in outer space.
Like Children of Men (and every other Cuarón picture), the services of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have been employed. Lubezki, who has also collaborated on the last three films of Terrence Malick, has a penchant for the visually stunning. He has been called a “weaver of visual miracles” and Gravity continues in this tradition. In Children of Men, a well-known and complicated single-shot scene lasted some twelve minutes and left persons curious as to how it could possibly have been shot. Cuarón jokes – I think he was joking – that Lubezki has had him promise secrecy. People are similarly baffled by Gravity. How do you manufacture, for example, the appearance of persons floating around in an atmosphere where gravity is so differently experienced? On reaction highlights the innovation at work in this picture: “There are levels of Hollywood trickery in service to this film that I am pretty sure involve classified technology.” That is a fairly high compliment to this picture.
Because it is difficult to reveal much of the plot of Gravity without also offering that which viewers would not wish spoiled, perhaps I can offer something of a weakness or strength that I perceived in this picture. This reaction will not, however, be entirely free of plot identification.
As for details which might be experienced as weaknesses, there is a question of what is plausible in Gravity and what is not. All sorts of articles by all sorts of supposed experts have been written on this matter and I have no interest in summarizing their contents. I do not want to be unreasonable though. For example, when astronaut Stone – played by the actress Sandra Bullock – removes herself from her spacesuit and floats about in a compartment in which she has found temporary refuge, she looks very … perfect and not the sweaty mess she supposedly would be. As a concession to Cuarón, I am more than willing to accept this implausibility. As I said, I do not want to be unreasonable.
More seriously – moving, here, beyond the concession of having to stare at a perfectly-bodied Ms. Bullock – my opinion is that the implausible itself is not such a great crime but that it does play, to some extent, with the viewer. The viewer, at very specific points, is not only left to experience the implausible but will be conscious that what is being experienced is implausible. As that viewer follows a character slowly being poisoned by carbon dioxide (and therefore prone to hallucination), I wonder how helpful it is for viewers to be constantly distracted by questions of plausibility and whether, even, what is happening is really happening. More than one reaction I have read questioned whether the narrative of Gravity is itself a dream sequence and I do not know how helpful it is to have viewers wondering if they themselves are hallucinating.
This is simply an identification of my own ambiguity and I do not intend it to be interpreted as an objective failing of Gravity. A second consideration that might be interpreted as a weakness surrounds the character Kowalski. Over the last ten years, actor George Clooney has delivered some very fine performances (in Syriana, Michael Clayton, The American…) and perhaps it is not fair to compare those performances with the one he gives in Gravity – because this is not one of those great performances – but I found his clichéd character a distraction. For example, Kowalski references the possibility of breaking the record of a rival for total time spacewalking and the implication is that this is going to be the last mission of Kowalski. In terms of predictability, it does not get more obvious than this as to what lies in store for him.
In contrast, although similarly clichéd, I felt that the performance delivered by Bullock, as astronaut Stone, was strong. As suspect as the insertion of Stone’s personal history into Gravity could have been, I admit I found it somewhat affecting. There was great interplay, I felt, between the way in which Cuarón images his scenes and the way in which those images serve symbolically. For example, when the debris dislodges Stone and sets her adrift beyond the contact of potential survivors, I found the image of her spinning beyond those who might help her to nicely anticipate how the viewer will learn that, emotionally, Stone has already detached herself from the contact of others.
Despite that which makes this picture over-esteemed, I most appreciated the tenderness of Gravity. Stone is relentlessly challenged – as characters in the films of Cuarón and his Mexican contemporaries tend to be – but interspersed are moments of beauty which point to meaning in life. That potential might exist for her to be reborn – not literally of course – points to a movement in her life which, however short-lived that life might be, I found enriching.
I also write at Musings on Film where this post first appeared on 12 October 2013.