A heartbreaking fact about the past seven years of cinema has been the deep void left by Alfonso Cauron, who had last surfaced with one of the best films of 2006, Children of Men. Cauron finally returned to the silver screen this year is with another massive cinematic vehicle and has received an inordinate amount of approbation. Despite setting his tale on possibly the biggest stage there is, the cosmos, his new film Gravity is one that only works on the surface. With its flat-out amazing cinematography, effects, editing, and music Cauron’s mastery of the medium is irrefutable. However the human drama at the heart of his cosmological playground is so banal that it threatens the very legitimacy of the entire production.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts in space, performing work on the Hubble Telescope. Clooney is a veteran astronaut – gregarious, flippant, at ease floating amongst the heavens. Bullock is a newbie, a medical professional who for whatever reason has been pulled out from Mother Earth for a mission to do what looks like industrial repair work on the telescope. The opening sequence of Gravity is brilliant; there is really no other way to describe it. It features a long, unbroken shot, where Cauron’s camera drifts down to the astronauts where they are working, swooping in and around the telescope and capturing the wide, infinite expanse that is space. We don’t glean much from the opening sequence. Clooney’s character is a bit of a motor-mouth. He loves to tell stories. From his communication with mission control in Huston (Ed Harris – which could be a possible nod to Apollo 13?) we learn that he is soon set to retire.
His Matt Kowalski is the polar opposite of Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, who is morose, morose, and, did I mention morose? Her emotional spectrum is evoked during this opening shot, yet is soon tabeled when a Russian satellite explodes, sending debris smashing into the Hubble, and casting Stone and Kowalski out into the black ocean of the stars. From this point on Gravity turns into almost a non-stop thrill ride, with Clooney and Bullock having to deal with how truly unforgiving the climate of space is.
Their struggle to survive is riveting stuff. There probably has never been a film which encapsulates so strongly the powerlessness of humankind in the face of the universe’s astral apathy. The various technologies developed for the film, which were designed to help pull off the impression of weightlessness, are remarkable. The shot of Bullock initially being thrust away from Kowalski and the remains of the Hubble showcases this perfectly. You really feel her disorientation here, with her ragged breathing. Cauron’s camera also contributes to this keeping the camera close to her face and even occasionally entering into her helmet so we can read her oxygen levels.
Sequences like this also get you in touch with the accomplishment of each of the tech heads. For example, it is evident that Cauron’s long-time collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki, has continued to push himself, rising to meet the challenges of Cauron’s ambition. His camerawork is one of the main factors which contribute to the visual marvel that is Gravity, no small feat due to the prevalence of CGI. While not entirely rising to the level of genius demonstrated by Children of Men, Lubezki’s framing of the spectacular outer space vistas capture not only its inconceivable vastness, but also the human being’s terrifying inability to adequately control something like their own bodies in this environment. Another factor which contributes to the overall intensity of the experience is the sound design. It finds exactly the right balance between the inaudible vacuum of space, the rambling dialogue of the human characters, and the ominous, rattling music by Steven Price.
Cauron’s seemingly preternatural ability to seamlessly interweave these elements into an enormously affecting whole is beyond reproach. That is why I was utterly dismayed at the shocking banality of the film’s storyline and the insipid nature of its thematic structure. As mentioned above Bullock’s character is mopey. Cauron however is never able to use her character’s emotional malaise, which revolves around the death of a loved one. He doesn’t provoke anything revelatory about the grieving process, or even hint at anything existential about how our small personal problems fit in with the vastness and complexity of the universe.
There is no connection of the inner life of Bullock’s character to the film’s setting and situation. The story that Cauron created barely justifies the grand spectacle of its location in space. If he just wanted to make a story about survival in a hostile environment he could have just set it on the soil of Earth. There was no need to move into the heavens because Cauron seems completely uninterested in exploring anything about what space means, aside from the fact that human life can’t exist there unaided.
Yet perhaps this is forgivable when one’s visual aesthetic is functioning on such a high level. There is so much going on in Gravity, so many sensory experiences to take in, that you’re never bored, even if the film is not operating on a deeper level than visual. For example, while I have leveled criticism at the emotional predicament of the Bullock character, the actress is extremely impressive here. She transcends the character’s tiresome and one-note personality, achieving some very moving results in the process. It’s a performance that indicates how strong of an actress Bullock has always been. Her ability to overcome dialogue and so expository that it would make even Christopher Nolan’s head spin is proof enough of her abilities.
At one point her character Ryan Stone says that its time to go home, meaning back to Earth. This is a sentiment that should also be communicated to Cauron. We should all implore him, now that he has stretched his visual muscles, to return to making work about this planet, and about complex, three-dimensional people. Because sadly for as much as Gravity works as eye-popping escapism, all the CGI and seamless camerawork cannot compensate for a lack of palpable, complicated human drama.