I’m such a fan of what we science fiction fans call “hard sci-fi” that I’m the perfect audience for the new Alfonso Cuarón film Gravity. The trades had been abuzz for months with the camera techniques that were using during filming to create a true “zero gravity” effect and the IMAX 3D was supposed to be amazing.
And yet, when I finally saw the film, I was bored.
It’s not that the visuals aren’t amazing, because they are, but because rather surprisingly Cuarón forgot some of the basic elements of film language, like a storyline. Like tension. And the ending? Really rather predictable and hard to swallow after such a technically accurate sequence of events.
In the film Shuttle Explorer astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are doing some EVA work while orbiting the Earth when the attempted destruction of a dead satellite on the other side of the planet produces an unexpected massive sea of debris. The problem is, in space, things are trapped by the Earth’s gravity so Stone and Kowalski are warned by mission control that the debris field is heading their way and is going to be problematic.
Moments later it arrives and destroys the shuttle. The two astronauts barely escape with their lives and are now marooned in space with little hope of rescue and, predictably, no working communications link with mission control back on Earth.
Fortunately there’s the International Space Station a few dozen kilometers away and it might just have an escape pod they can use to safely return to Earth before the debris circles the Earth again and rains more destruction on them.
Problem is, there’s surprisingly little tension for a film that could have easily been framed as a sort of floating High Noon. In fact, Stone and Kowalski very rarely check their watches to see how much time remains before the next orbit of debris will arrive (it’s a 90min orbital cycle), so instead of building anxiety it’s more of an afterthought.
And in a stark contrast to the tension and psychological exploration featured in the otherwise dated 1969 space film Marooned, we never see ground control or anyone else in Gravity. Not a single shot of people on Earth struggling to solve the problem as the astronauts try to survive and retain their sanity in a terrifying situation.
Consider the superb film Apollo 13. Again, part of what makes that a great film is the switching between NASA on the ground working like madmen trying to figure out what’s gone wrong on the Apollo craft and come up with a solution that’ll bring the astronauts safely home and the astronauts themselves trying to remain stoic as they face a horrible death.
But none of that is in Gravity. Indeed, for all its technical beauty — and it really is a beautiful and technically amazing film — it’s just not much of a narrative movie at all. When the daft last scene played out and the credits began, I felt like I’d watched a slightly fictionalized “IMAX Space” rather than a gripping hard sci-fi film.
I’m really disappointed. I like Cuarón and have to give kudos to Bullock who turns in a splendid performance as the neophyte astronaut Stone. The film really rests on her performance and she shows yet again why she is one of the most underrated serious actors in Hollywood. Clooney? Ah, he’s always the same cool, gravel-voiced character in all his films. Likable, but with no range whatsoever.
And so, finally, I will recommend you go see this film in IMAX 3D or at least on the big screen. It’s not gripping, it has a number of narrative flaws and is definitely slow paced, but it’s also stunning on screen, truly offering a feel for what it would be like to be in space, in orbit above our planet. To the point where I won’t be surprised for the special effects team to win an Oscar for Gravity. That’s worth the price of admission for this critic.