As a feat of filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an impressive accomplishment. Set in orbit above Earth and looking eerily real, his technologically-boosted camera (overseen by The Tree of Life’s Emmanuel Lubezki) weaves through space stations with a grace hitherto unforeseen in a NASA-centric feature. Establishing his command with an opening unbroken 10-minute “take” (the result of seamless computer stitching) that casually transitions from serene to calamitous, followed by a five-minute cousin that’s nearly as impressive, Cuarón casts a spell of cinematic wizardry that few directors can match. From there, the edits become more frequent as the narrative kicks in, and though the excitement remains high, the film grows less innovative.
The calamity is courtesy of a wrecked Russian satellite, the debris of which ignites a chain reaction that horrifically rains down on the featured American crew. Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) survive, and while the prospect of arguably Hollywood’s two most likable stars in such promising parameters is dynamite on paper, the acting is almost negligible. Special effects and the overall frantic tone are the clear stars, and with Cuarón frequently shooting from an unidentifiable distance, nearly anyone could be inside those space suits. If anything, the participation of Mrs. and Mr. Movie Star is almost a distraction as each bring with them certain expectations that don’t necessarily fit with this sensory experience.
Indeed, story and characterization aren’t Gravity’s strengths. Co-written with his son Jonás, the Cuaróns’ script takes its share of convenient turns and botches both a jump scare and most of its attempts at humor. Spectacle really may be all that the film has going for it, yet by consistently holding one’s attention and keeping the camerawork fluid, Cuarón’s interpretation of spectacle is exemplary. Amplified by Steven Price’s unsettling, cacophonous score, the eye candy carries with it an undercurrent of danger and the next threat feel like it could come from any direction.
Despite these highs, there remains the feeling that Gravity missed an opportunity to push the spectacle even more grandiose. Since the film is all special effects, it seems plausible that the story could be contained within one long “take” (or, more accurately, the feel of one), which would not only merit the “game-changer” status so many critics have affixed to this film and warrant the years it took to complete, but which truly feels like its destiny. Instead, by chopping up the goods and relying almost solely on computers, the work loses some edge and ultimately lags behind Elysium, The Great Gatsby, and The Lone Ranger in its overall CGI mastery. Furthermore, the long takes of Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) remain more impressive for their occurrence in the physical world and incorporation of tangible components into the shots. Stuck in its purely digital environment and unwilling to reach its full potential, Gravity can only be a step back by comparison.
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
Gravity is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
Even restricted to two dimensions, this movie was a thrill. And for my money, Russian Ark can have its one take novelty while Gravity claims the distinction of not being a complete bore. (I’m not a history buff.)
I think that with the exception of a sequence toward the end which felt rushed (100,000 ft above sea-level *cut* Zero feet above sea-level *cut*) Cuaron found the right pacing here, balancing longer mesmerizing shots and more traditional and rhythmic patterns. It all worked well enough for me that I’m interested in seeing it again, but this time with 3D RPX bells and whistles.
At times I did feel that the script detracted from the spell cast by the movie. The “hell of a ride” self-directed pep-talk was overdone and that’s just one of a couple different instances where I felt it a shame that Cuaron didn’t trust his approach and his audience a bit more.
Not all movies can be Pacific Rim, I guess.
Thank goodness for that.
So glad to get your take on this film! I heard a reviewer say that the plot is super cheesy, as in B-grade 80’s film cheesy, but that the visuals and sound were stunning. I don’t know that all that low quality plot is worth it. I’ve also heard that Gravity has the best use of 3D yet. Do you agree?
One more thing – I loved your point that a film SO digital could have gone all out in the innovation category, but didn’t. I never thought of it that way.
I’ve heard a few critics talk about the cheesy factor, but other than the dog/wolf howl scene (which, other than going on for too long, wasn’t that bad), I never thought it got too corny.
Unless there was something wrong with our projector, the 3D didn’t seem innovative at all. I still think Life of Pi is the best traditional use of 3D, but there’s still nothing quite like the 48fps of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
In terms of novelty, even with a single take it would have been outdone by the film Russian Ark, itself done in a single steadicam take (with no CGI) through the Hermitage with a cast of hundreds.