The trouble with Gravity begins when you get a piece of direct mail that invites you to a ‘private shopping event’ at Jordan’s Furniture which includes two free tickets to the IMAX Theater, and you mistakenly believe that this ‘exclusive’ event really is exclusive, and not open to enough people to cause a traffic jam that extends out of the Jordan’s parking lot, down the road, up the off-ramp and about a mile back on the interstate. Then, because you’ve already gone through the trouble of getting a babysitter, you turn around and go see it in the regular theater, not in 3-D, and not for free.
But once that whole debacle is behind you and you settle into your regular, old movie seat, shaking off your resentment for Jordan’s Furniture and the suburban hordes swarming its grounds on the promise of discounted home furnishings, the trouble continues. Perhaps because you are not quite as dazzled by the film’s sheer visual spectacle as you might be at the IMAX, you are free to ask yourself a question like, “What kind of movie is this?” Not that you need to obsessively categorize movies into genres, but the question nags nonetheless. It’s not really science fiction. It’s more science reality. Or at least that’s what it strives after. And although it has plenty of action, it doesn’t really feel like an action movie because none of the carnage is caused by the characters, or any on-screen presence for that matter. Action movies tend to feature opposing forces duking it out. Even the unfeeling asteroid in a movie like Armageddon is more or less personified as the villain of the film, and the heroes actively do battle against it. There is no such ambition among Gravity’s protagonists. They are simply trying to survive against unforgiving forces.
That’s why I think Gravity, when it comes down to it, is a horror movie. There are lots of nods to Alien: The claustrophobia-inducing spaces, the looming, unseen dangers, right down to Sandra Bullock’s skimpy let-me-slip-out-of-this-spacesuit leisurewear. A note at the opening of the film informs us, “In space, you do not have the ability to speak,” an echo of Alien’s tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
But the alien in this movie is space itself, which Alfonso Cuarón seems to realize is more frightening in real life than the most monstrous extraterrestrial our imaginations can conjure. The claws of this monster are the laws of physics themselves. For instance, if you and a friend were sitting in space and he was to give you just the teensiest little shove, you’d start floating away and never ever stop. That’s scary.
And so while astronaut, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), and medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) serenely bob around their craft, working against an exquisite backdrop of earth and stars, they get word that a Russian satellite has exploded, sending a whole lot of space debris their way at a velocity of roughly 50,000 mph. Given this information, they concede that it’s probably time to head back to earth. But soon the debris is upon them, destroying their ship, cutting off their link to Houston, and effectively stranding them in space.
The horror of Gravity relies upon putting yourself in the place of these characters. And here, we have to imagine ourselves in a state of utter helplessness, a place where the two things that can usually get us out of a jam, our muscles or our speech, are equally useless. Cuarón does a good job of demonstrating the astounding range of ways to die in space, including, but not limited to, burning alive, being impaled, and slowly suffocating while performing an infinite series of unintentional backflips.
But the real trouble lies with the characters, starting with the cast. Cuarón goes through all the work of creating an outer space that is bleakly realistic, then populates it with two of the biggest, most recognizable movie stars you can name. So just when you’re really starting to feel the horror of being stranded there, here comes film and television’s George Clooney. Heck, this is the guy who robbed the Bellagio. Surely he’ll get us out of this pickle. Sandra Bullock does a slightly better job of helping you forget that she is Sandra Bullock. She gets the raw dread of her predicament across effectively, especially during some lengthy stretches in which she is alone on screen with no real lines to deliver. But despite both actors’ best efforts, their presence disrupts the realism Cuarón is shooting for. I kept thinking that if the filmmakers had just a bit more courage, and had cast lesser-known actors or at least the sort of actors who we can readily forget are actors, they might have achieved stress levels approaching those of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
The script doesn’t help either. Once we get into those little details like ‘dialogue’ and ‘character development,’ the ham begins to fly like so much space junk. How could the man who made his name directing a character-driven film like Y Tu Mamá También put forth such hasty caricatures? Clooney as the yarn-spinning, country-music-listening, Jack Burton of astronauts, and Bullock as the brilliant (yet helpless when she needs to be), single, career woman with an overly bleak and underdeveloped past. Their stories lurch into the film, and totally disrupt the action.
Then the question of whether there is a God out there in that vast, indifferent infinity comes out of nowhere in the final act with Ryan soliloquizing about spirituality and lamenting that no one ever taught her how to pray, as if ‘please God don’t let me die in outer space’ is a prayer that needs to be taught. It’s like the film was almost completely finished and then someone thought it would be neat to add a theme.
The best parts of Gravity remind you in a majestically horrifying way that this is how space really is and this is how you would really die out there. But the filmmakers seem to have lacked the nerve to trust that this would be enough for audiences. And so the worst parts scream at you, “You are watching a movie!” There is so much getting down to the very last bit of fuel and the very last bit of oxygen and grabbing the very last possible thing there is to grab pushes the boundaries of believability. And it doesn’t really need to. It’s harrowing enough on its own. Likewise, we don’t need some slapdash backstory and generic dialogue to tug at our heartstrings. Simply being a human in such a nightmarish scenario is enough to make us empathize with the characters. What Gravity succeeds in telling us is powerful enough: that the universe is equally mesmerizing and terrifying, as deadly as it is beautiful. Our very power to explore it serves as a stark reminder of just how powerless we really are.