Spoiler Level: Safe
Watching a big-budget, CGI-heavy adventure movie becomes a completely different experience when there is an actual artist at the helm. The visionary director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) proved that when he showed us that a Harry Potter movie could actually be good (with 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and he proves it again now with Gravity, a narratively simple but visually stunning tale of two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) stranded in the vast emptiness of space.
"Life in space is impossible," the film's epigraph tells us, and though Gravity is mostly free of self-congratulatory chest-thumping about American ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit, those of us who already feel romantic about the space program find plenty to ennoble our souls even before the inevitable crisis kicks in. Gravity opens with a remarkably long tracking shot that begins high in orbit around the earth, eventually moving in on just a few specks in the pockmarked blackness that turn out to be tiny people doing a job that would be mundane in any other environment. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a doctor and neophyte astronaut, recently trained by NASA so she could adapt some software she developed for use on the Hubble telescope. (The details of this mission are hazy, and quickly become irrelevant.) Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is a veteran astronaut on his last mission, telling tall-tales about his previous adventures on and off Earth, and grumbling about how he's going to miss the record for longest spacewalk by a mere 75 minutes. Their workplace banter (with each other, and with a somewhat too-cleverly-cast Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control) is unremarkable, except that it takes place in a zero-gravity vacuum 350 miles above the earth, around a machine traveling 25,000 feet per second.
It's an amazing reminder of what human beings can do when they set their minds to it, and so—in a different way—is Gravity. Though the (almost entirely digital) special effects are extraordinary, and immerse us in this infinite and unforgiving environment more convincingly than any previous film, the real stars here are Cuarón's directorial eye, and the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, longtime collaborator of both Cuarón and Terrance Malick. For—absolutely in fitting with its locale—Gravity is a brilliantly three-dimensional movie: I'm not referring simply to the stereoscopy—which is both impressive and non-intrusive—but to the camera work itself, which properly recognizes no static frame or orienting directions, but instead dances gracefully and seamlessly around the people and objects from every angle. I saw Gravity in IMAX 3D—which I highly recommend—but on any screen I suspect it would provide the same breathtaking experience of not just watching a movie about space, but of being in space: the disconnectedness, the emptiness and free-floating isolation, the knowledge that the slightest nudge can send you careening off helplessly into the void.
I would have been fascinated just to watch an ordinary workday in this extraordinary office—if it were rendered with the verisimilitude and beauty Cuarón and Lubezki achieve here—but of course this turns out to be no average day: an exploding Russian satellite has created deadly debris, and this sets off a chain-reaction of destruction that leaves Stone and Kowalski stranded, cut off from communications and untethered in a sea of stars. If Gravity has a weakness, it's in this narrative engine, which is both too conventional and too implausible. As Clooney and Bullock attempt to make their way to the safety of another space station, and the possibility of hitching a ride home, the science becomes less and less convincing, the survival story becomes harder and harder to swallow, and the narrative beats become a little too easy to predict.
I suspect that keeping the story—and characterization—simple was a conscious choice, and perhaps a wise one: the visual elements are the real draw here, and both the effects and the choreography of the action are state-of-the-art. But the fine line Cuarón (who co-wrote with his son Jonás) walks here between art film and crowd-pleaser too often errs on the side of action-movie cliché and heart-tugging schmaltz. (A bit of expository pathos about Bullock's daughter is a particular misstep: a woman stuck alone in space and running out of air already has my sympathy, thank you; I don't need a tragic back story to seal the deal.)
Similarly, though Gravity is easily one of the most beautiful films of the year, there are some disappointing aesthetic choices that keep it from being as good a film as it might have been. The score by Steven Price is lovely, but it's also gratuitous and counter-productive: for being set in the emptiness of space, Gravity is a remarkably noisy picture, and even in the quiet moments we are almost constantly distracted by music. (An early scene in which Bullock's character says that what she loves about space is the silence might have been more effective if it had actually been silent, but instead we get swelling chords to undermine her point.) The immersive experience Cuarón wants to provide would have far better served by true quiet: if the only sounds we heard were what the characters hear—staticky communications and the panicked rasps of their own breathing—Gravity might have achieved a little more poetic wonder and sympathetic terror. It might have been a less viewer-friendly film, but I think it would have been a more artistically rewarding one.
Of the performances, there is little to say: Clooney and Bullock are both good, but neither are required to range very far from their well-established screen personae. Clooney, with the lighter load, is required simply to be amusingly charming and decent, which is not a stretch, but he does it well. Bullock, on whom the movie really depends, gives a fine performance, but one that draws on the same shallow strengths she demonstrated in her breakthrough role in Speed: she is required to be endearing, and she is required to be scared, and she is required to be the plucky heroine who pushes herself further than she thinks she is capable of doing. It is not her fault that there is little depth of characterization in the screenplay—the aforementioned sub-plot about her daughter being a weak attempt at some—but neither she nor Clooney ever stop being Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, Movie Stars in Space. (More inwardly-turned—or even unknown—actors might have made this story more effective. It is perhaps an unfair comparison, but watching Bullock I found myself retroactively marveling again at Sigourney Weaver's performance in the first Alien:it was a similarly limited woman-under-pressure role, but Ellen Ripley felt like a real person in a way Ryan Stone never quite does.)
Still, ultimately none of this really makes Gravity a bad movie: it just makes it a very good example of a different kind of movie. I confess I went into the film hoping for a more lyrical, profound work—perhaps a more philosophical meditation on the human experience back-dropped against this overwhelming emptiness of creation. But—though he's certainly capable of it—that's not the movie Cuarón set out to make this time, and it's unfair to judge him on the movie I was hoping to see. What he has delivered instead is a tighter, technologically amazing action film, a taut survival story that provides a unique and exciting experience without provoking much thought. Gravity provides the width and breadth of space: you have to bring your own depth.