I saw Gravity several weeks ago, so it’s interesting to reflect on what kind of staying power this box office sensation actually has. Once you’re out of the theater and away from director Alfonso Cuarón’s mind-boggling success in convincing you that you’re actually watching astronauts struggling to survive in outer space, does its spell persist?
The answer is no. If Cuarón, who directed the movie and wrote the script with his son Jonás, had managed to create a rich plot and populate it with interesting characters to go along with the astounding visuals, Gravity would have been among the cinema’s historic high points. But he didn’t, and it isn’t.
Even so, Gravity deserves every 100 million dollars it’s earning. It is, without question, one of the greatest technical achievements in the history of popular culture; and, as the audiences flocking to it demonstrate, its immense visual splendor is more than enough for any one film.
Describing what makes Gravity remarkable is pretty tedious work, as evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of extremely boring words reviewers before me have used. Basically, it comes down to this: Everything is in motion in this movie, as (I gather) it would be if you were in zero gravity. You could probably see Gravity four or five times just to focus on different spots on the screen to watch what’s going on in them. Cuarón says it took him four years to develop the techniques that would make it possible to execute this hyperrealistic depiction of objects and people in orbit. Those were four years well spent.
On the basis of this movie and his previous near-masterpiece Children of Men (2006), Cuarón is the key visionary working in cinema today, with an unparalleled sense of how to depict movement on screen. Oh, how I wish he’d make a musical. Children of Men features the two greatest chase sequences in the history of the talkies. (For my money, the greatest chase sequence ever involves Buster Keaton, 100 women in wedding dresses, and an endless number of boulders in a 1925 silent called Seven Chances.) In some sense, the entirety of Gravity is a silent chase scene, as all the elements on screen are, in effect, boulders chasing Sandra Bullock in the soundlessness of space.
She plays Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first shuttle flight. She is not an astronaut but, rather, an astrophysicist who has figured out how to repair something broken on the Hubble telescope. She is accompanied by a veteran flyboy played by George Clooney, who quips away while she fusses with the telescope and tries to restrain her motion sickness.
But movies have enduring power due to story, not atmosphere; to character, not setting.
Here, story and character merge into one: A catastrophe occurs, and Ryan Stone is stranded alone with only an hour and a half to figure out how to get back to Earth. It is a lot to ask of an actress to carry an entire movie, and it was canny of Cuarón to cast the immensely likable Bullock, who performs without grandiosity or actorly showiness. She is the audience’s stand-in and must represent us in depicting what it would be like to face the unspeakable terror of death in a fathomless void.
But while Sandra Bullock may be “relatable,” to use the obnoxious neologism Hollywood loves, Ryan Stone isn’t at all. As conceived by Cuarón and played by Bullock, she is a depressing mope with a backstory that does not make her seem like us; rather, she seems more like one of those people we barely know on Facebook whose life is marked by senseless tragedy. Ryan is reserved and glum, unable to banter with the cheerful Clooney because sometime in the past she had a 4-year-old daughter who hit her head on the playground and died.
We are, therefore, to understand that Ryan is dead inside, simply going through the motions. This is a silly notion. First, a woman as depressed as Ryan wouldn’t have the wherewithal to get into a spacesuit and be sent into orbit by NASA. And it’s highly doubtful that NASA would clear such a depressive for that kind of mission. Second, if she doesn’t have anything to live for, why wouldn’t she see the calamity visited upon her as the answer to her existential problems and simply let herself go?
Those are more plausible character arcs for Ryan Stone than the one Cuarón chooses for her. He wants the experience to bring her back to life. Indeed, he depicts this almost literally: At one point, she enters a space capsule, removes her suit, curls into a fetal position, and seems to go to sleep—as though she is in utero, waiting to be reborn.