If we judged cinema by the quality of its special effects alone, then Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ would, indeed, be worthy of the huge praise that critics have almost universally bestowed upon it since the film opened Venice earlier this year.
Never before have we seen such expansive use of cinema’s resources, the overwhelming sense that the cast and crew have metaphorically relocated to outer space and filmed this sci-fi thriller high above earth, which we see, intermittently, drifting into view in all its incandescent wonder. So emphatic is the insistence of unexpected reality, it enters the realms of the surreal, an extreme hyperreality that is both unsettling and enticing at one and the same time. And setting out his store, Cuarón opens with a masterfully choreographed exposition in the form of a 17 minute long take, which is a technical triumph by anybody’s reckoning.
And yet, a cheesy script, cliché plotting and predictable performances ground the film in the past – the mainstream world of pastiche – which imposes a blockbuster entertainment mentality on a new cinematic reality that rejects anything blatantly contrived. It creates an unwanted tension at the heart of the film that nags away throughout and, at best, comes across as faintly ridiculous. Others have chosen to ignore it – arguing that the stylistic wizardry in some way subsumes all else – but they know – don’t they – how film form works and it is not that way.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts Dr Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalsky, a formulaic pairing of a nervy rookie and experienced old pro familiar to us from the cop genre in particular. It is one hell of mission for a first timer, you might think, as Stone goes about her business carrying out important work to a space telescope, with Kowalsky aimlessly drifting around on a spacewalk, engaging in quasi-smart conversation with Houston control – trade mark Clooney stuff – and listening to Hank Williams jnr – honest – on his headset. Imagine one of those Deep South road movies with country music radio stations providing the soundtrack suddenly transported to outer space.
One of the film’s most successful moments sees things take a dramatic turn for the worse when Russians have a catastrophic accident with their equipment, causing a storm of debris to hurtle towards the Americans; one of those post Cold War incidents, post modern style, where old habits never quite die when it comes to portraying the old enemy. It is spectacular stuff; objects smashed to smithereens in seconds, space apparatus spun around uncontrollably and the frantic astronauts spiralling helplessly towards the void without the gravity of the film’s title to save them and with Stone’s oxygen running dangerously low. The camera is in hot pursuit, performing breathtaking cinematic gymnastics of its own, first swinging this way, and, then, swerving the other – as if avoiding the rapid-fire shrapnel bullets itself – and totally engulfing the audience in the chaos.
And there is a well judged change of perspective, when we find ourselves inside Stone’s helmet, looking – as she does – at her shell-shocked translucent reflection in the glass and listening to her fast breathing break the terrible silence of doom. It is the briefest of moments that somehow fully encapsulates her plight and the awesome power of nothingness.
But, having set the scene for something on a huge cosmic scale, Cuarón inexplicably returns to matters terrestrial with a backstory for Stone, who, we are told, had lost a daughter in a freak accident. Shamelessly obvious ‘mother and child’ symbolism – there is even a foetuses position set-piece alongside umbilical cord metaphors all over the place – serve a sub-plot that barely reaches beyond the ambition of an afternoon TV drama and hits an embarrassing low point with a hackneyed dream sequence that threatens to tip the film over the edge in the gravitational sense. Later attempts to tie it in with a rebirth theme lacks depth and, hopelessly, misfires.
That said, none of this should come as a surprise. Cuarón already has form with the strangely overrated ‘Children of Men’ for failing to find a workable balance between innovation and commercialism. Cuarón is an excellent filmmaker when he remains true to his indie roots and sensibility and ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ was easily one of last decade’s most engaging films. It begs the question as to what kind of ‘Gravity’ that Cuarón would have made but the more he continues with a Hollywood career and chasing award season success, the harder it will be for him to make uncontaminated films that endure in the real sense. Time will tell whether Carlos Reygadas, who has resolutely avoided Hollywood like the proverbial plague, will make more of a mark on film history than his better known contemporaries in the Mexican new wave.
This was a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding all of the jaw-dropping spectacle that ‘Gravity’ offers, David Jones’ small budget low-fi ‘Moon’ gave us far more to ponder during and after the film. That’s the point.
And as for the 3D debate, a film should be capable of standing up to a normal screening without the aid of a gimmicky pair of glasses that compels us to watch it in a strange artificial twilight. Clearly, ‘Gravity’ doesn’t.