'Gravity''s brilliant meditation on survival and rebirth is offset by a conspicuously off-key screenplay
Gravity Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 31 minutes
October 4, 2013
(out of four)
The backdrop of Gravity is nothing less than the unforgivable emptiness of outer space, but contained within it is something startlingly intimate. With the specter of death surrounding Dr. Ryan Stone - whose first mission in space has taken a decidedly disastrous turn - director Alfonso Cuarón treats the experience not only as a fight for survival but as an experiential rebirth.
His images make this abundantly clear, and his climactic final shot can almost be seen as a micro, individualistic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey's iconic closing shot, itself a moment of regeneration and rebirth.
The fetal imagery follows Ryan (Sandra Bullock) throughout the film, from the tether that connects her to the shuttle (or to her fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski, a veteran on his last mission) like an umbilical cord, to the womb-like canal of the International Space Station where she finds temporary respite, to the pivotal shot of an exhausted Ryan curling, weightless, into a fetal position as she drifts off to sleep, an on-the-nose but nonetheless lovely replication of an ultrasound photo. (This, too, is reminiscent of the 2001 shot, not to mention the poster for Cuarón's previous effort, Children of Men, another film that touches on rebirth - and, incidentally, the best film of 2006.)
The way Cuarón takes a story of such massive scale and keeps it focused on an intimate character struggle (however symbolic it may be) shows an impressive amount of discipline, but also, I think, contributes to the film's worst decisions. Almost all of those bad decisions come from the screenplay, which is littered with the kind of cheesy, tone-deaf dialogue that seems completely at odds with the grandeur and primal fear of the rest of Gravity. Co-authored by Cuarón and his son Jonás, the script seems to be in large part a gross miscalculation of how to build character. The writers somehow feel the need to not only have the characters engage with one another through light, flirtatious banter, but also to manufacture a convenient sob story for the main character, giving presumed dramatic weight to a story that, frankly, wasn't lacking any dramatic weight. The situation sells itself - one person, in outer space, trying desperately to survive.
The Cuaróns don't seem to have enough confidence in the material to let the premise speak for itself - or an appreciation of the fact that character can be revealed through action and struggle. Everything else - the backstory about Ryan's daughter, her struggle to cope with it, and the inexplicable reason why this is all brought up and hashed out at the very last moment you should be distracting yourself with personal demons - is entirely superfluous.
Strip out 80 percent of the dialogue and Gravity may have been something of a masterpiece (and I know many believe it to be one anyway), its maximalist visual scope contrasted nicely by its minimalist exposition and writing. Instead, the film is unnecessarily punched up with cutesy banter that strikes the entirely wrong chord. This is the least appropriate time for George Clooney's legendary charm. Beyond that, it just seems so canned and forced. Even during the film's extraordinary opening - a single extended shot as Emmanuel Lubezki's camera evocatively roams around the nooks and crannies of the space station as the Earth shines brightly below - the dialogue is an anachronism, like a bad one-act play. For a film so overwhelmingly, capital-C cinematic, the dialogue makes it feel conspicuously stagy.
Gravity has generated a lot of attention for its use of 3D, though I confess I have yet to see it in that format. What I've noticed, however, is how often the films most notable for their 3D tend to have pretty glaring screenplay issues. Avatar's screenplay was cringe-worthy, Life of Pi's was simplistic and shallow, and even Hugo - as much as I liked the movie - had some pretty rough patches in the script. And now Gravity, another remarkable technical achievement whose script gets in the way.
That said, I don't want to take away from what Cuarón, Lubezki and others have accomplished, which is a largely spectacular sensory experience (although I also suspect it may be diminished to a certain extent on Blu-ray and cable, which is where it will ultimately live on). The camerawork alone - the way it navigates in and around the shuttle and the space station, the way it confronts, then turns away from, the debris shower that tears the shuttle apart, the poetic starkness of how Lubezki frames bodies floating in space against a landscape of virtual nothingness - is the kind of immersion (and I'm speaking of the 2D version) that few films replicate*.
* However, I do take issue with Cuarón's unfortunate penchant for jerkoff 3D shots, like a single tear floating in the foreground, or a screw that inexplicably floats toward the screen so Sandra Bullock's arm can REACH out into the audience to snag it. A completely unnecessary and childish application of 3D.
Perhaps even more vital to that sense of immersion is the sound design - buoyed by the brilliantly foreboding electronic score from Steven Price, which gets under your skin in a way that reminded me of both Vangelis and Trent Reznor - which appropriately gives us no sound in space (another contributor to the overwhelming sense of aloneness that permeates the film's events) but makes great use of the characters' desperate breathing and the inflections of their voices in moments of panic. As a bird's-eye type of experience, Gravity is nearly flawless.
Due credit is owed to Bullock, who gives probably her best dramatic performance while carrying most of the movie on her shoulders. What's a shame, in such a good performance and in such a singular piece of filmmaking as this, is how easily the Cuaróns reduce her "character development" to a collection of contrived background details and sophomoric dialogue. She makes for a rather grand physical emblem for the film's meditation on life, death and rebirth, and she's the absolute incarnation of human strength; but what that has to do with her past tragedy or George Clooney's brown eyes is beyond me. Too often Gravity's screenplay turns a magnificent spectacle into a cheesy (if effective) thrill ride.