REVIEW SYNOPSIS: More technically adept and visually breathtaking than emotionally compelling, Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to Children of Men immerses without ever fully engaging.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Two astronauts in near-earth orbit find themselves stranded and in need of a way back home when debris from a destroyed satellite collides with their space shuttle.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Impressive concept; well-executed suspense and genuine sense of danger; outstanding special effects; striking visuals.
CONS: Unnecessary introduction; clichéd approach to character and theme, hampered by undemanding performances from its leads; heavy-handed (yet still effective) symbolism and philosophy.

“Life in space is impossible,” a caption reads at the opening of director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, something, perhaps, the audience should know but that Cuarón and his brother Jonás (who co-wrote the screenplay), perhaps, do not trust his audience to fully comprehend.  Forget what they should, by now, have learned in seventh-grade science class, or though common sense and logic, or even through fifty-plus years of space programs since the Soviet Union lobbed Yuri Gagarin around our pale blue dot.  Surely moviegoers, many of whom have spent countless hours watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marooned, or even Apollo 13, understand a setting like near-earth orbit enough to know that space has no air (and therefore no sound), that temperatures bounce between too cold and too hot, and that lack of friction turns even the smallest piece of debris into a high-powered bullet.  Regardless of intent, this simple setup seems like a misstep.

But only a small one, for Gravity unfolds in the manner of Kubrick’s groundbreaking space opera, full of long takes, especially in the opening, where a camera silently pans across the curve of earth, its stillness broken first by NASA radio chatter, and then by a space shuttle drifting into focus.  It continues as it introduces mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as he orbits the space shuttle in a thruster pack, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she performs diagnostic work on a satellite.  The shot introducing the leads is breathtaking (incredibly so if seen on an IMAX screen), and the banal dialogue feels genuine, all despite the preponderance of digital effects and Clooney’s nearly constant wisecracking.  One could almost mistake the first moments of Gravity for a documentary, and a compelling one.

And then Houston reports of debris from a satellite causing a chain reaction that appears to destroy much of the world’s communications web.  (“Half of North America just lost their Facebook,” Kowalski quips as the wreckage speeds toward them.)  It demolishes their space shuttle and the crew within, leaving Kowalski and Stone adrift and looking for a way to return to earth.

As a high-concept blockbuster, Gravity fulfills all of the requirements: two likeable actors (though, admittedly, in the mano-a-mano between outer space and the team of Clooney and Bullock, a part of me rooted for outer space), an exotic landscape (where a few hundred humans have gone before, though none have taken permanent residence), and an ultimately simple premise (stranded astronauts fight for survival).  And, on a strictly technical level, it surpasses them.  Taking a page from Kubrick (and perhaps Joss Whedon’s Serenity), Cuarón keeps the laws of physics…grounded, let us say, meaning that sound does not carry throughout much the movie’s running time (save for Steven Price’s ethereal, and occasionally eerie score and a moment when Bullock uses a fire extinguisher as a means of propulsion, the flame retardant loudly gushing from the nozzle), nor does simple friction hold sway; susceptible audience members should consider keeping a space sickness bag next to their popcorn tubs when Bullock spins along the earth’s horizon.  How often do most movies strive for such realism?

Or to so impress visually and technically?  Cuarón presents amazing images every chance he gets, from the incredible shots of an abandoned International Space Station (its corridors filled with the floating detritus of daily life) to the Aurora Borealis glowing in the earth’s atmosphere, a spectral vision filling the viewer with awe and wonder.  More impressive, and more resonant, are smaller moments, as when a camera follows a pinning Stone, hyperventilating as she ejects from a demolished space shuttle’s arm, and moves inside her helmet to her point of view. Unfortunately, at other times Cuarón can’t help but inject ham-fisted symbolism into the semiotics.  When Stone, her suit’s oxygen completely depleted, squeezes through an airlock, she removes her suit and drifts, tired, naked save for an undershirt and shorts, into a fetal position—an incredible shot, but also an unnecessary one.  (And Cuarón must visit birth imagery again at the film’s end, and as clumsily.)

As technically adept as it is, as suspenseful as it is (and it is very suspenseful), Gravity unfortunately never connects with its audience on a human level.  In attempting to tell a more human story, it relies on clichés.  Stone (an ironic name for someone who spends the movie away from earth’s surface), it seems, had a daughter who died several years before, and sees space as a method of escape, a place where nothing can hurt her.  It’s a forced bit of motivation, and at times unconvincing.  As Stone acknowledges that she is going to die in space, she muses that no one will pray for her, and that she never learned how.  Is Cuarón suggesting that someone who comes from a nation where 90 percent of its citizens identify as Christian will never learn prayer because she’s a scientist?  Moreover, did Stone, obviously alive during the explosion of the Challenger and the Columbia disaster, never know of prayer services for the lives lost?  Kowalski never rises above cliché, either.  Yes, Clooney, with a twinkle in his eye, looks and sounds the part of a seasoned astronaut, yet the incessant wisecracking saps tension from the movie when it could use it most.

None of it may matter.  Even in its faltering moments, Gravity never remains less than watchable, and immerses its viewers with its visuals, even if it never engages on the levels that would make it truly satisfying.  Had it done so, it might have soared.  Fortunately, it never plummets.

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