GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: Gravity (2013)

Gravity (UK/ USA, 2013)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen 

IMDb Top 250: #68 (11/12/13)

Praising a film for its technical accomplishments is often an underhand way of saying that its story isn't up to scratch. We've all heard the phrase "style over substance" and can readily think of many examples of films which fit that description. Many of the films which belong in this category don't merit too much by way of disappointment: it's so easy to see where the money went that we have very low expectations of depth from the outset. Gravity, on the other hand, does merit some disappointment, being such a fantastic visual experience that it is almost perplexing why its story isn't better.
Normally in my reviews, I would devote a couple of paragraphs to discussing the visuals before concentrating on the thematic and intellectual properties of a given film. To allot any more weight than this would wrongfully give the impression that I outlined in my introduction. But there is so much to say about the way that Gravity looks, and the visual world that it constructs, that I simply have to take more time to examine it regardless of my attitude towards its substance. In other words, indulge me a little, even as you know the overall thrust of my argument.
For starters, the cinematography is quite extraordinary. 'Pushing the envelope' has become one of the world's biggest clichés, but that is exactly what Emmanuel Lubezki is doing here. He is every bit as much the auteur of this film as director Alfonso Cuarón, with whom he has collaborated for over 20 years. His lighting choices, camera angles, lens choices and blocking are absolutely incredible, capturing the panic of the astronauts in vivid, vertiginous detail.
There are any number of moments in Gravity where the camera does something which makes your jaw drop. At one point early on, the camera zooms in on Sandra Bullock's face, passes through her helmet, looks out to see what she is seeing, and then passes back through her helmet into space - all in one take. Shots like these blur the boundary between physical effects and CGI more seamlessly than anything before. You won't be looking for the joins since you'll be engrossed in the action, but even if you do go looking, you won't find them.
The camerawork and look of Gravity is designed to disorientate and unsettle you. I spoke in my review of Captain Phillips about how Paul Greengrass shoots a film as if the camera and crew are constantly reacting to the drama unfolding: nothing feels artificial or obviously choreographed, and the natural tension from the story is magnified by the growing visual panic. Gravity takes this approach to new heights, putting the camera in a seemingly weightless environment where we are at the mercy of even the tiniest force. Even without the 3D, you do feel like you are really there, alongside the astronauts and feeling just as helpless when the trouble comes.
The visual effects of Gravity are stupendous in execution. Even with the sheer number of shots, particularly the debris from the damaged satellites, they all have an extraordinary physicality to them. Not only does the camerawork put you right there in the midst of everything, but the film benefits from proper sound design. So many films set in space which have action elements lose their bottle when it comes to set-pieces. and give us explosions which we would never hear. Cuarón, however, sticks to his guns, giving us only what the astronauts can pick up through their helmets or when they are in oxygenated environments. The combination of intimacy, size and silence produces something truly terrifying.
To top off the visual exhilaration, Gravity also comes with a great soundtrack. Steve Price is used to action-packed stories, having assisted Howard Shore on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and contributed to the soundtracks of Batman Begins and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In his second full score (following The World's End earlier this year), he gives us a cunning blend of traditional classical suites, which emphasis the elegiac nature of space, and more intimidating synth-driven themes which put us on edge. It's a thoroughly impressive score which keeps the film driving forward even in its stillest moments.
The other really big plus about Gravity is its efficiency. Having clearly established itself as something which is technically ground-breaking, one would expect a film which is long and languorous in its storytelling - a film like Avatar, in other words. But again, Cuarón resists the obvious temptation, bringing the film in at around 90 minutes and delivering a story whose scope is well-suited to that time-frame. We do not feel that we have been deprived of spectacular visuals, but neither do we feel like the visuals have overstayed their welcome.
There can be no denying Gravity's status as a visual and technical masterpiece. Watching it in the moment, on the biggest screen possible, it is impossible not to be taken in, captivated or impressed by it in some way. Frankly the only aspect of its visuals which could be altered is the 3D. The film is scary enough without it, and while there are fewer conscious uses of it than in other films of this scale, it still feels gratuitous and alienating.
But once the initial rush is over, and you have more time to think about the construction of the film, the less satisfying it becomes as a piece of narrative. As I stated in my review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, "cinema is both a visual and a narrative medium, and the best offerings in any given genre are a delicate balance of the two." While Gravity's technical brilliance cannot be in doubt, its weaker storyline prevents it from being called a masterpiece.
Like James Cameron before him, Cuarón waited for the technology that existed to develop to a point where he could adequately realise his vision. He has demonstrated himself to be a brilliant storyteller, whether in huge blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or smaller, edgier works like Children of Men. It therefore seems doubly odd, having all the time and talent, to have delivered a screenplay which so often drifts into pastiches of much better films.
All-round science fiction masterpieces, like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, manage to be both technically extraordinary and narratively fascinating. The former took a fairly simple promise (Hallowe'en in space) and turned it into a terrifying, multi-layered study of gender, psychology and corporate paranoia. The latter used its dazzling special effects to ask deep questions about God, alien influence in mankind, the evolution of our species and the dangers of technology. The story of Gravity isn't bad, it simply isn't as deep or as well-developed as it could and should have been.
All the potentially interesting ideas that are raised in the script are dealt with in a manner which is all too soft and shallow considering the effort expended elsewhere. The theme of letting go and overcoming fears is an appropriate one, but it's explored in too little detail to hang even a 90-minute film on. There's nothing wrong with pulpy storytelling, and great ideas can be conveyed through having fun, but Gravity is too preoccupied with its visual wonder to allow its themes to come out in a way which doesn't feel tongue-in-cheek.
The most obvious example of these shortcomings is the dream sequence about halfway through. Aside from blatantly ripping off both versions of Solaris (the latter of which also starred George Clooney), the sequence is shot far too consciously and mechanically. The film makes no genuine attempt to disguise that this is a dream sequence, and it therefore fails to achieve the desired effect of disorientating the audience while motivating the character. Even the most expository moments in the original Star Wars trilogy made more of an effort to disguise their true intentions.
The performances in Gravity are capable but do not find the actors straying too far from their types. George Clooney is effectively in Ocean's Eleven mode, displaying that familiar deadpan cockiness and being enjoyable but somewhat empty company. Sandra Bullock starts off typically irritating, but after all the screaming has subsided she does start coming into her own. There's also a very sly piece of casting with Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control, in an appropriate and subtle nod to Apollo 13.
Gravity is a frustrating game-changer, which demands a great deal of recognition even in full knowledge of its flaws. Reducing it down to a triumph of style over substance does a great disservice to all the wonders Cuarón has worked here, but its narrative imperfections ultimately tarnish the experience. It is one of the most arresting, ground-breaking and memorable films of the year - but sadly it cannot be truly considered one of the best.


NEXT REVIEW: The Look of Love (2013)