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See this movie. See it in the theater. See it in 3D. It is meant to be an experience and you will regret not seeing it in the theater.
Nearly all of the critical reception for Gravity has boiled down to the same argument: the movie is your typical thriller with some hokey dialogue but is visually arresting and must be experienced in the theater. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment so I won’t bore you by rehashing things you’ve already read – except to say that the visuals are incredible and it definitely seems like they are out in space, which is no small feat. Instead it is the movie’s often odd balance, both tonally and pacing, that really makes Gravity a bit of a head-scratcher.
Because Gravity is a thriller the most important goal for the plot is to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. And Gravity largely achieves this, especially if you are emotionally invested in Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone. However, what ends up happening is that the plot is too jammed into the very compact 90 minutes Gravity is. While the very quick pace in which the events unfold helps to create the thrilling stress that the movie so desperately needs, it also careens too quickly from catastrophe to catastrophe not allowing the audience to catch their breath or reset emotionally. Alfonso Cuarón made a trade off by utilizing the breakneck speed at which the events unfold. In hopes of making more of an experience – think amusement park ride instead of a movie – he sacrifices some dramatic tension and some suspension of disbelief. Even though your heart will be racing as you shuffle out of the theater the finer points of the journey may be lost.
Unfortunately, when Cuarón does slow it down the movie falters because of some of the trite character backstory and hokey dialogue. At one point in the movie Stone finds herself seemingly with nowhere left to go. As this scene plays out she hallucinates George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski returning to her, giving her a pep talk and also a hint as to how she can continue her journey. In what should be the most emotional part of the movie, where Stone is meant to grow, just turns out to be uninspired. The tried and true dream/visitation that ultimately pushes the main character into a life altering decision is so clichéd that the moment loses all significance. Having Stone somehow come to push herself instead of getting a pep talk from an imagined Kowalski would have felt like a more poignant moment. And that doesn’t even mention the first slow moment of the movie, which includes some very hackneyed backstory for Stone in order for the audience to empathize with her while also setting up the “dilemma” she must face during the moment just discussed.
But perhaps it is because of the often-corny dialogue that Stone’s turning point doesn’t resonate. There is nothing wrong with Kowalski being a lighthearted, thrill seeking, flyboy. In fact it is almost necessary to balance out Stone’s uneasy and generally down demeanor. However, Kowalski becomes too much of a caricature. His constant mood lightening becomes distracting and seem unrealistic given the current situation. Not to say some of his jokiness isn’t needed to balance out the very grave predicament the two astronauts are in but he never flinches from this persona no matter what is happening around him. The fact that Stone repeats some of his lines later in the film only shines the light even brighter on the lack of quality in the dialogue/spoken words of the film.
Graivty would have worked better had the audience known nothing about Stone. Early on in the film the camera slowly tracks in towards an aimlessly floating Stone, continuing to get closer and closer until the point of view switches from a third person to Stone's first person. It then releases her point of view and she floats away from the camera. This shot could have been amazing for the story. It allows the audience to become Stone for a brief moment, giving the audience an imprint of what they would feel like and what Stone feels like in this situation.
Once Cuarón does this, allows the audience to become the main character, it gives a sense of intimacy that most movies don’t allow. That level of intimacy should have continued throughout the film and could have created a more profound experience. Allowing the viewer to imprint their own emotions, their own desire to fight for their survival, onto Stone would have continued the intimacy established by the aforementioned shot.
Instead when she regales Kowalski with the backstory of her four-year-old daughter’s accidental death, which ends up being yet another disappointing cliché of the mother unsure of whether she wants to survive, it forces the viewer to give up much of their personal impressions in order to adopt Stone’s mentality. Going to a more traditional narrative took away some of the experiential magic that Gravity had already built up while also focusing more on what ends up being fairly clichéd material. Although Kowalski looking back at her space suit through his wrist mirror as she tells her emotional backstory was a wonderful touch.
So what does this all mean? Basically it means Gravity, while a great movie going experience, is not in itself a great movie. It is beautiful on the surface but offers little depth. Cuarón achieves his thrill ride through space but some of the trade offs he makes end up keeping this movie, as a whole, from true greatness.
I do have an addendum to this critique. I didn’t want to go too much into the visual spectacles the movie offered as most everything out there makes sure to discuss them. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of the aesthetic wonders that Gravity offers. First and foremost is how large Earth looms in the background. Not only does it work on the level of pure size, showing just how small humans and our spacecraft are in comparison, but it also is a constant reminder to the audience that Stone is so close yet so incredibly far from the safety of Earth.
Last, the indelible image of Stone curling up in the fetal position after boarding the International Space Station was a beautiful shot that was unfortunately cut too short because of the pace of the movie. This is one of those moments that should have been allowed to breathe and really allow the safe feeling of being in the womb of man-made technology after having been a mere spec in the vastness of space to envelope the audience and allow for an emotional reset. Instead the moment was abruptly cut off and, again, while the feeling of it being all too short was most likely the point it would have helped the dramatic tension. Although the womb metaphor continued throughout her stay as each time she passed into a different compartment it felt like her being born, or reborn, back into this world were everything was going wrong.
image: Warner Bros.