Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is currently breaking records (most successful October opening ever in the US) and attracting rave reviews (Metacritic calculates that 96% of reviews are extremely positive.) By these measures, it’s an enormous success for Cuarón and Warner and especially, perhaps, for Sandra Bullock, whose performance as Dr Ryan Stone is already being tipped for an Oscar nomination.
The film concerns a shuttle crew who are caught out by a storm of debris from another exploded ship. Two survivors – medical specialist Ryan Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) – try to reach the safety of another ship but find themselves struggling against a lack of oxygen and an excess of space to cover.
Gravity is, unarguably, stunning to watch. James Cameron has credited it with ‘the best space photography ever done,’ and he is not known for flinging compliments around lightly (or ever.) Like many people, I don’t care much about 3D effects , since they seem to add little to most films except an irritating tendency towards throwing things at the camera. In Gravity, however, the 3D is integral to the aesthetic and the beauty of the film. There’s one remarkable shot where it looks like there is rain falling on the lens as we watch Stone grieve for her daughter. Then we realise these are actually tears, falling from her face and floating away; symbolic, perhaps, of the necessity of getting her grief out and putting it far from her. Whatever, it’s a beautiful, wholly filmic moment. Kowalsky frequently draws Stone’s and the audience’s attention to the beauty of space, so obviously the pressure was on Cuarón to make the landscapes stunning, and he did; for a film which is basically set in darkness, the location shots of the Earth are superbly realised, with the position of the two actors used to create perspective, depth and a powerfully unsettling sense of the vast emptiness all around. Not a good film to watch if you’re agoraphobic.
The writing, however, is not up to the same standard as the cinematography and CGI. Clooney’s character in particular is a caricature. He has no depth at all; it’s just George Clooney being his usual twinkly self. Even when in just-about-deadly danger, he is utterly and unbelievably good humoured and upbeat. Bullock gets more to work with – she has a history, problems, weaknesses, an actual character. That character is motivated by guilt over the death of her young daughter and it soon becomes clear that her trip into space is more to do with running away from life on Earth than any desire to explore the universe. There is some schmaltz around this and, possibly unsurprisingly for a Hollywood movie, a positive, life-enhancing moral is squeezed out of it by the end. This seems to cheapen the film, somewhat – as Chris Sawin writes, this need for cheery positivity ‘debunks the whole thing and throws it into lame territory.’ The film had the potential to explore the same questions about identity and desire as Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky in Solaris, and it does borrow ideas and images from those films, but it never comes close to the same philosophical weight or thematic depth.
But it is in the same tradition as those films. Although there are some very good action sequences – the debris raining down on the ship is absolutely shocking – the real power of the movie, like Space Odyssey, is in the quiet parts. It tries to explore ideas familiar to fans of Tarkovsky, themes like rebirth and identity. We see Dr Stone float in the womb of her spaceship, for example, as she begins the process of realising who she really is, and of rebooting her life:
Later, we’ll see her emerge from water, like she’s the origin of a new species. All these ideas and images – birth and rebirth, water, fractured identities, space as a metaphor for the future, are firmly rooted in Tarkovsky’s work, particularly in films like Stalker. But they are much more challenging in Tarkovsky’s hands, the questions are harder and the answers more ambiguous and more universally applicable. Tarkovsky manages to suggest, as does Kubrick, that the future of the human race, our very conception of what ‘humanity’ is or can be, may well depend upon the nature of our contact with the rest of the universe. Gravity, for all its beauty, shies away from all of this and delivers a theme no more complex or unfamiliar than a Disney movie. A wasted opportunity, perhaps, but not every director can be Tarkovsky or Kubrick.
In an earlier post, I suggested that the success of directors like Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino lay in taking ideas from the avant-garde and making them commercially acceptable. Cuarón’s done much the same here; he has tapped into that particular vein of philosophical sci-fi and removed all the difficult parts, adopting the narrative and generic codes to suit Hollywood. In so doing, he has made a stunningly beautiful film which lacks much of a core; well worth seeing, but a little bit empty. So, go see it, enjoy it, then watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker and have your mind blown a little bit instead.