“A celebration of the primal pleasures of movies.”

“One of the most stunning visual treats of the year and one of the most unforgettable thrill rides in recent memory.”

“Gravity, a thing of transcendent beauty and terror. It’s more than a movie. It’s some kind of miracle.”

Gravity Trailer

The hype for Alfonso Cuarón’s ambitious new movie Gravity has been . . . well . . . out of this world. In addition to predictions of (another) Oscar for Sandra Bullock and (another) Oscar for George Clooney, critics have fallen over themselves praising the film’s extraordinary (or should I say extraterrestrial?) special effects. Understandably, I went into the theater expecting very big things indeed.

I hate to say this, but . . . I didn’t love it.

This admission puts me in a distinct minority, I realize. Gravity has a rare 97 percent approval rating on rottentomatoes.com (the closest runners-up right now are Enough Said, at 95 percent, and Captain Phillips, at 93 percent). This means that 97 percent of my fellow critics have given it a thumbs-up (or, more specifically, a ripe red tomato). And, the movie is certainly a giant accomplishment. I just wish the awe-inspiring cinematography didn’t overshadow the human story quite so much. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of human story there—a little too much and a little too clichéd, actually. It just isn’t handled with the same grace and elegance that Cuarón reserves for his setting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Gravity begins with what we have to assume is a fairly ho-hum shuttle mission. Rookie astronaut/accomplished medical engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock) is diligently repairing a panel on the Hubble telescope. Veteran astronaut/“space cowboy” Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is darting about with a jetpack, cracking jokes, re-telling long-winded stories and cranking country music. A third astronaut with them, one Shariff, won’t last long. This isn’t exactly a spoiler. (Quentin Tarantino once observed that in episodes of Star Trek, when a landing party consisted of Kirk, Spock, Bones, and a heretofore unknown lieutenant with an ethnic name, you could predict with surety who the mission’s first casualty would be.) Good-night, Shariff.

There are two other characters as well. Mission Control’s “Houston” (as in, “Houston, we have a problem”) is voiced by Ed Harris in a clever directorial nod to the actor’s work in the earlier films The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. It’s as though Cuarón  is acknowledging his space-centric cinematic ancestors even as he prepares to blow us away with the absolutely latest and greatest digital effects. Which leads me to the film’s final character and true star: space itself.

In this respect, I do agree with the majority of reviewers and audiences: Gravity is truly magnificent. It is a spectacle beyond anything I’ve ever seen onscreen, at once breathtakingly beautiful and unspeakably horrifying. We’re told that in space, life is impossible. But, against its immense grandeur, life is also practically irrelevant. And, despite its inhospitable nature, space is not the enemy here; the crisis that faces Stone and Kowalski is brought about by man. The Russians have destroyed a defunct satellite, creating a chain reaction of space debris orbiting the Earth at deadly speed. In essence, the astronauts are the victims of careless Soviet litterbugs.

With oxygen diminishing, their shuttle destroyed, and crewmates dead, the two survivors must reach the International Space Station. This gives them time to tell their stories, or rather for Clooney’s character to pull Bullock’s out of her. A brilliant loner, she mourns the death of her only child in a senseless playground accident. With the odds decidedly against them, Kowalski attempts to convince Stone that life is worth living—or will be, if they can survive. Of course, he does this with charm and a wry blend of boyish arrogance and self-deprecating humor. I say “of course” because he is . . . George Clooney.

Again, I’m probably in the minority, but I’m getting a little tired of George Clooney just showing up and playing George Clooney. Yes, he’s smart; yes, he’s sexy (People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” more than once). But is that really all there is?

Sandra Bullock, on the other hand, is giving us her all, and then some. I was actually glad when Kowalski drifted away and the movie became Stone’s story. Besides the sheer physicality needed (I always thought you just sort of floated through space, but apparently not; one hurls into things often and with great force up there), the actress delivers a powerful, hour-long, life-or-death inner monologue. And it’s most successful when it remains “inner.”

Racing against the clock to repair a module before the next wave of deadly debris hits, Stone hums to herself inside her helmet. This feels real; she’s trying to stay focused, trying not to hyperventilate and use more precious oxygen. Later, she gives herself a superhero pep talk before making a last-ditch effort to survive.

“I’m either going to come back with one hell of a story, or die in an explosion in the next 10 minutes. Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride.”

This seems less believable, and—frankly—unnecessary. Early in the movie, we’ve heard that what Stone likes most about space is the silence. How much more powerful the movie’s climax would have been without, or at least with far fewer, words! And I have no doubt that Bullock could have pulled it off.  See Gravity, and second only to the awe you will feel for the universe is the awe you will feel for Ms. Bullock. Wow.

Gravity’s script, written by the director and his son Jonas, is not very good, but in the greater scheme of things, this is easily forgiven. The movie is built on a grand vision of space and man’s place in it. In this, it is extraordinarily successful, and it owes much to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. You don’t actually watch Gravity; you experience it. In fact, you may want to take a Dramamine first. Outfitted with (very uncomfortable) 3-D glasses, I had a flashback to the first time I went on Space Mountain at Disney World. There’s something bigger—much bigger—than us out there, and Cuarón  (like Walt before him) is giving us a taste of it.

Partly due to the iconic nature of the story and partly due to Bullock’s bravura performance, we do root for Ryan Stone. And we’re willing to overlook clunky dialogue and layers of implausible plot twists if they’ll help her get home. Love it or not, Gravity is one “hell of a ride.”

 

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  • Roz Warren October 26, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    This is my idea of a perfect movie review. Not only is the writing fun and engaging, but it gives me enough of an idea of what seeing the movie would be like so that I can decide if that’s how I want to spend a couple of hours of my life. AM, I am SO GLAD that you’re reviewing movies for WV.

    Reply