There are highly anticipated motion pictures, and then there is whatever the latest film from Alfonso Cuaron has become, since originally bowing during this year’s fall festival circuit. As hotly talked about a film as we’ve seen come across the big screen in a handful of years, Cuaron has marked his return to the silver screen after 2006’s masterpiece Children Of Men by taking his love for boundary-pushing aesthetic feats to the very next level.
Too bad his storytelling couldn’t come along for the ride.
Entitled Gravity, Cuaron’s new film tells an oddly intimate story, given the bombastic visuals laid upon it. We are introduced to fresh faced medical engineer Ryan Stone as she is in the middle of her very first space walk. Opposite her is the seasoned veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who tries to help the crew get through what will ostensibly be his final space walk. However, things couldn’t go much more wrong. When a Russian satellite is destroyed, debris makes its way into their orbit, sending the pair of Ryan and Matt hurling across space. In what is most certainly the year’s most bombastic and inspired visual feasts, Cuaron is able to not only craft a film that is legitimately a groundbreaking bit of cinema but also craft a film that is painted in such broad and unsubtle strokes as to turn it into something verging on becoming simply forgettable.
Since its debut, the main talking point surrounding this film has not only been its impeccable visual craftsmanship, but moreover the overall experience that this film immerses the viewer within. A genuinely tense and action packed “adult blockbuster,” Gravity finds Cuaron in full control of his aesthetic powers. From the opening, lengthy, introduction to these characters and ultimately the event that spurns the narrative forward, Cuaron is not only deeply assured in cinematic voice, but has found this film to be his biggest spectacle yet. While many will find the direction here to be a bit pretentious, it is in complete service to the film, as it adds such a great deal of tension and momentum to a film that, otherwise, is as poorly drawn as any blockbuster-style picture you’ll find this year.
The film marks the real beginning of the fall film season, so while the idea of it being a “blockbuster” style picture may be odd, it very much follows the creative structure of films you’d see during the summer season. Written by Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron, the film is as broadly painted a screenplay as any from earlier this year. With heady themes being bluntly espoused upon with the subtlety of a wrench to the skull, there are lines found within this film that would be laughed out of the theater if given to a less thrilling and breathlessly crafted film. One could argue that Cuaron isn’t interested, truly, in drawing characters any deeper than the ones we see here. Look at how we’re introduced to this group. In the middle of a seemingly mundane space walk, we don’t know a damn thing about anyone involved outside of broad character aspects (Bullock’s character is a “green” doctor while Clooney is a charming veteran), yet we are asked to be scared for these men and women’s lives.
And it ultimately works. Cuaron’s film is a masterpiece of dizzying action filmmaking. While he may not have the characters to make this film a classic (or even something one would venture to watch a second time), there are set pieces here that are bewilderingly intense and engrossing. I saw the film in 2D on a relatively small screen at a local theater, and it still absolutely packed a wallop, so one can only imagine what the 3D could be like here. There are shots obviously shot for the format, but the overall style of the picture, from the endless space of, well, space to the intimate and claustrophobic interiors of various space stations, seems to be perfectly suited to show off just what 3D can really do.
Yet it’s still a film truly hard to get an emotional grasp on. Bullock is ostensibly the only face we see for much of the film, and while she’s fine, she doesn’t have the range to really make this character feel vital. Again, she isn’t given much help, what with a laughably mundane screenplay, but there are a few moments where she holds her own. Particularly in the opening sequence, which is without a doubt the film’s strongest moment. Her chemistry with Clooney is interesting, but Clooney really adds his own level of charm to a role seemingly written just for him. When things go south, he not only keeps his calm but also takes charge while never seeming to break. It’s a really solid performance that deserves to be recognized.
It’s just too bad the film isn’t interested in letting us connect to these two in any real emotional way.
Gravity is a good film that attempts to be something “great,” but becomes something far less. With a director at the very top of his craft behind the camera, a film this beautiful deserves to be equally well drawn out behind the pen. However, instead of getting a heady meditation on overcoming grief (rebirth, shall we say?), we get a solid action film that is best described as being a purely visual cinematic experiment. With every single emotion one feels being instilled in us via Cuaron’s aesthetic choices, this is a bizarrely broad action blockbuster. From a handful of bizarrely eye-rolling directorial choices (there is a sequence involving a person crying near the end that is laughably awful) to a screenplay that deserves to be jettisoned into space, Cuaron’s picture is a fine action blockbuster spearheaded by set pieces that will never be forgotten, but one that is about characters and themes that will be impossible to remember.