Following the success of his 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (2013) is his first feature film in seven years. Children of Men was dark, brooding, and shocking with its visceral realism and technical perfection. The camera dollied through broken buildings (and other real environments) as they were being shelled by tanks, and (at times) these shots were over 7 minutes long. Gravity has a similar approach to conveying the intensity and reality of what is seen on the screen, but the end result is much less effective.
Starring Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Commander Matt Kowalski, Gravity begins with a 17 minute shot that starts as a wide as the Hubble Space Telescope and Explorer approach the camera to reveal Dr. Stone, Kowalski, and a third astronaut as they float in space performing maintenance on the telescope. A few minutes pass to establish - through dialogue - that Dr. Stone is new to the shuttle crew, but almost instantly the film picks up speed as trouble approaches. Debris from a recently destroyed Russian satellite is drifting at high speeds in their direction. Unfortunately, there isn't enough time for the crew to seek shelter, and the debris kills the third astronaut and launches Dr. Stone away from the shuttle. Tumbling through space, she is separated from Commander Kowalski and the two now have to persevere to travel to the International Space Station before oxygen runs out or the orbiting debris makes its way back around.
In theory, this should be an exciting film (and it often is), but there is no emotional pay off. The dialogue in Gravity (written by father-son team Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón) lacks depth (it possibly lacks gravity too). Whatever emotional weight or baggage the characters may have is verbally expressed - even as they struggle to conserve oxygen. For a film that is as visually dazzling as this, the visual element of the cast's performances are weakened by the contrived and unnecessary dialogue that begs for audience sympathy. Additionally, the plot becomes a cause and effect (one thing after another) cycle as the surviving crew continuously has to struggle with small problems that keep stacking upon each other as the film progresses.
Furthermore, though the CGI special effects are impressive, there is still a lack of tangibility. The greater crime, however, is the way in which the camera moves. It's interesting to make us (the audience) feel as though we are weightless, but the majesty of outer space is completely lost as a result of the CGI and handheld aesthetic. Prior to Gravity, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had shot Terrence Malik's masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011) which featured some of the most breathtaking space photography in film history (next to Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey). The steady handheld experience in Gravity was unique (and certainly enhanced the 3D aesthetic and interaction with the audience), but if it was going to be like that, the whole film should have been a single continuous shot.
Yes, it is impressive to watch a continuous shot run for 17 minutes, but since Gravity essentially runs in real-time the film could have severely benefited from being a single 90 minute shot (similar to Aleksandr Sokurov's 2002 film Russian Ark). Following the 17 minute opening shot, every cut from one shot to the next (particularly the first one) is extremely painful - almost sloppy. It disrupts the rhythm and made me question why the first 17 minutes needed to be one shot at all. With Gravity being as CGI oriented as it is, it shouldn't have been a problem (and would have actually worked with the way that the narrative plays out) to have the entire film play out as a continuous fluid camera movement. The cinematography, at its worst, occasionally felt like a video game as it transitioned between an over the shoulder from behind Bullock into a POV in which we truly do become her. This particular trick was tiring as it recurred and cheapened the entire film - thus establishing that in every facet of Gravity there is no room for subtlety. The lack of subtlety is only solidified by the frivolous soundtrack composed by Steven Price.
Though the film is narratively and visually flawed, I cannot deny the quality of the imagery and the several thrills that Cuarón throws our way (or hurtles towards the camera lens). NASA is a wonderful program, and a film like this will hopefully inspire young people to look to the stars for adventure and answers to the state of humankind. However, if you're looking for thought provoking answers and the meaning of life in Gravity, definitely stick with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
My ranking 3/5