One thing that can easily be said about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is that it is an absolutely bold, groundbreaking and engaging cinematic proposal that will definitely keep you breathless and pinned to your seat until the very end, and perhaps even a little beyond as well. It is certainly another great accomplishment in Cuarón’s track record, which includes Children of Men (2006), Y tu mamá también (2001) and Solo con tu pareja (AKA Love in the Time of Hysteria, 1991). It will come as no surprise that Gravity has been very well received by the media and general audience, scoring excellent reviews and grades in almost every major news outlet out there, reaching an outstanding Metascore of 96/100 in Metacritic, and finally scoring 7 Academy Awards, including Best Director Best Cinematography amongs others!
The first time I became aware of this space thriller’s existence was through its trailer, and I remember thinking immediately afterwards: “Boy, if this movie is half as good as this trailer is, I’m going to love it!”). Let’s watch that trailer again, shall we?
It’s quite an experience, isn’t it? Here’s what I’d like to say about it, after watching the actual movie:
- It reflects the movie’s overall atmosphere and storyline remarkably well, without giving too much away.
- The movie is ten times better than the trailer!
Regarding the first point, the trailer seems definitely in line with the director’s philosophical approach to movie-making, according to which the actual watching experience can play a fundamental role in the process, as evidenced in an interview he gave to Rotten Tomatoes:
I would much prefer audiences first to just experience the film very fresh, from the standpoint almost of ignorance, of not knowing anything about it.
Let’s honor that philosophy, cut straight to brass tax and answer the question that’s probably been on your mind since you started reading this review: “What’s so special about Gravity? Why should I bother?” Well, in my humble opinion, it is not one single “what” or “why”, but rather a very thoughtfully orchestrated composition of a variety of “whats” and “whys” (dear English teachers: please refrain from murdering me with a dull spoon. Thanks, I appreciate it!). Let’s break this composition down a little, to try to make sense of it all. I’m sure Alfonso won’t mind!
What I loved about Gravity
There’s so much coolness and mastery involved in this movie that it is very hard to choose one aspect to start with and focus on, but let’s try nonetheless.
Astounding visuals and cinematography
I guess a safe first start would undoubtedly be the movie’s jaw-dropping visual effects. If you are into SFX and believe esthetics and visual realism should constitute an important aspect of every film, then you are definitely in for a treat. The most impressive visual accomplishment of this movie has got to be how well it manages to render Sandra Bullock’s “lost in space” experience, so much so that it actually feels remarkably real, almost like you are there along with her. Of course, the movie’s highly innovative cinematography (for which it has received an Academy Award) and first-person perspectives truly help delivering that extra quota of dramatic realism. Every technological piece of equipment used throughout the film, be it highly sophisticated control panels, space suits and helmets, space shuttles, the international and Chinese space stations, the Soyuz escape modules, etc. seem carefully crafted and are shown in great detail. Moreover, the cloud of space debris that hits the protagonists time and time again (due to the fact that it is orbiting the earth faster than the protaonists are), as well as the attention to detail that goes into portraying how it wrecks and destroys the equipment around them are absolutely unique and, IMHO, bear no equal I can think of in the entire industry.
In this sense, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that Gravity won the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, even though it was competing with other equally worthy visual accomplishments, such as Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Iron Man 3. However, what I find really interesting about Gravity, compared to its Oscar challengers, is its relatively small 100 million U$D budget (that is, “small” for a movie of these characteristics), and a very high profit/budget ratio, making it by far the most profitable enterprise of all five 2014 Best Visual Effects nominees. You can easily check out the data for yourself by moving the mouse over each of the movie ads below, 😉
Engaging action-packed storyline
It would be extremely hard (and unfair) to write a review about Gravity without featuring the movie’s rich and action-filled plot. Earlier, we did not hesitate to categorize this movie as a “space thriller”, although I must admit that the movie commentaries and reviews I have read about it seemed more focused on the film’s “space” part than on the “thriller” one. Said choice seems rather strange to me, considering how exhilarating and suspenseful the storytelling can get. Paradoxically, though, the entire plot could be summarized in just one sentence: a biomedical engineer trying to survive a cloud of space debris during a routine spacewalk operation. So, you must be wondering where the thrill in that is. Well, put like that, nowhere really, but you should certainly not let appearances full you.
Indeed, what’s different about Gravity is not the story itself, but how it is narrated and put together, intelligently intertwining increasingly thrilling scenes with comedy- and sentiment-driven buffer scenes, allowing the viewers to periodically release some of their built-up tension while keeping them completely hooked to the very end. If you are a little of a movie aficionado (like yours truly), then you probably know how very difficult such a thing is to accomplish.
Another incredibly original aspect of the storytelling that separates Gravity from the pack is how the director relies not just on external dramatic triggers but on internal ones as well, cleverly appealing to the main character’s past, psychology and pathologies to keep the plot moving forward. Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock’s) loss of her daughter constitutes a fine example of such plot development technique.
Lively and genuine performances:
Lastly, all the aforementioned qualities the movie has to offer would fall short if it weren’t for Bullock and Clooney’s extremely solid, heart-reaching and genuine performances. Clooney interprets veteran astronaut (and aspiring comedian?) Matt Kowalski, who is commanding his last space mission before retirement, and Bullock, medical engineer and space rooky Dr. Ryan Stone, who has been brought in to the mission to help service the Hubble Space telescope. Bullock and Clooney both accurately and elegantly deliver the clear contrasts and interesting dynamics that exist between the two characters, which in turn significantly contributes to the internal story-driving mechanism I have mentioned above. However, I could not agree more with the Academy’s decision to give the statatuette to Cate Blanchett for her sublime performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
What I didn’t love so much about Gravity
Despite of all the positive aspects and qualities Cuarón’s latest piece has to offer, it seems to miss the perfection mark due to a few annoyances and inconsistencies, some more open to interpretation than others. Let’s discuss them together see what you think.
Lack of realism
There seems to be a rather big debate among specialists and movie critics about the potentially unrealistic nature and artificial feel of some of the action scenes and situations Sandra Bullock’s character has to go through in the movie. To be more exact, the debate revolves less around the movie’s lack of realism (which everybody seems to agree on) than on the extent of its detrimental impact on the movie’s plot and overall evaluation. While former astronaut Marsha Ivins harshly criticized the movie’s “liberal use of artistic license in violating the laws of physics” in an article she wrote for Time, current astronaut Garrett Reisman as well as former space legend Buzz Aldrin seem more lenient about the film’s artistic licenses and inclined to focus on all the good stuff the movie has to offer.
If you ask me, although I do not think artists (and more specifically film makers) should limit themselves to solely imitating reality in an accurate way and, therefore, withhold from resorting to artistic licenses whenever they need to, I also believe that each viewer has a very real yet subjective and fluctuating limit to how much horse dun they can take before their brains explode. In my own experience, I can honestly say that Gravity did test and exceed that limit repeatedly, and I often found myself begging the director to cut poor Dr. Stone some slack towards the end of the film. Now, as I said before, this may not be the case for you, so I would definitely recommend the movie to everyone who is still on the fence about it.
I have a little confession to make: when I first read about Sandra Bullock being chosen for the leading role in this film, I wasn’t very pleased, quite the contrary, actually. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against Ms. Bullock, but given her drama-oriented professional profile, she didn’t strike me as the best choice for the part. In retrospect, although I think I was being too hard on Sandra since she clearly proved most of my concerns wrong with a performance worthy of a standing ovation, I also think that some of my worries were justified. More particularly, I am referring to the “experience” Dr. Stone goes through in relation to her tragic past towards the end of the movie. To me, it felt like the director dwelled on it unnecessarily in a rather long and overly dramatic fashion that negatively affected the movie’s impeccable storytelling dynamics.
However, I recently read a theory in a Daily Beast article about the movie’s “Darwinian ending” that could help shed a better light into Cuarón’s obsession with Dr. Stone’s past. As a matter of fact, the last scene of the movie shows Dr. Stone’s escape module landing in the Ocean as she struggles to get out of it in order to reach the shore. When she does, she actually crawls to land, gets on her knees and slowly stands tall. The message could not be clearer, although I must admit it completely eluded me at first: it’s a metaphoric recreation of the evolution of life that could symbolize Dr. Stone’s rebirth and newly discovered will to live. Now, I was rather skeptical about this interpretation at first, but after giving it much thought, I started to find other elements that point in the same direction. For instance, consider the fact that Dr. Stone is, in the beginning, always safely connected through a cable or mechanical arm (simulating an artificial umbilical cord) first to the shuttle, then, after the cloud of space debris hits, to Kowalski, and in both times she ends up getting detached during life-threatening situations.
In that second scene, Stone and Kowalski are approaching the International Space Station alarmingly fast and attached to one another, and have no means to slow down their approach. Moments before Stone gets detached from Kowalski (again!), she starts yelling: “What do I do, what do I do?” and, after getting detached, she is literally lost and starts panicking while clumsily trying to reach for anything she can grab on. Now, if that doesn’t remind you of a child being brought to the world, desperately gasping for air and crying his heart out while his lungs fill with oxygen for the first time, there’s obviously something very wrong with you. Just kidding! Although you have to admit the symbology is rather loud and clear in this one.
If you are still not convinced about the recurrence of the rebirth topos in the movie, take a look at this screenshot, which shows Dr. Stone floating in zero Gravity in a perfect fetal position with a cable heavily resembling an umbilical cord in the background.
Last but not least, Cuarón seems to subscribe to this interpretation as well, as evidenced by several comments he’s made since the movie first came out:
Cuarón on the movie’s general meaning:
“That was the point, for us, of the film. Adversities and the possibility of rebirth. And rebirth also metaphorical in the sense of gaining a new knowledge of ourselves. We have a character that is drifting metaphorical and literally, drifting towards the void. A victim of their own inertia. Getting farther and farther away from Earth where life and human connections are. And probably she was like that when she was on planet Earth, before leaving for the mission. It’s a character who lives in her own bubble. And she has to shred that skin to start learning at the end. This is a character who we stick in the ground, again, and learns how to walk.” (Source)
Cuarón again on that last scene:
In this case, it’s about adversity and the possible outcome as a rebirth,” he says. “It’s the optimistic scenario, the Darwinian chart at the end. She comes from the primordial soup, crawling out into the mud, and then she’s on all fours, and then she’s standing up curved like an ape, until she goes completely erect.” (Source)
That being said, the director does remind us there’s never a single dominant interpretation to a work of art, and even tries to encourage us to find other meanings and explanations to his opus:
“I happen to subscribe to that view—rebirth,” says Cuarón. “But that doesn’t mean it’s the only view… Or the prevalent view.” (Source)
I, for one, have taken Cuarón’s word for it and definitely interpreted this rebirth in space concept as a little bit of a humble tribute to what I consider one of the greatest space movies of all time: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with which Gravity holds an incredible amount of points of contact. Which ones, you ask? Well, I invite you to figure that out on your own and post your findings as well as your opinions in our Comments section below!
Gravity definitely ranks among my last year’s Top Ten Movies to Watch, which is why I am awarding it with a final score of 4.5 Geekies!