Surprisingly, only a single image in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity truly harkens back to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Adrift through the reservoirs of space amid satellite debris, spinning out of control with only her gasping breath offering comfort, astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) secures safe passage back to an American space station. Stripping herself of uniform in zero gravity she drifts in a fetal position, with Cuarón pulling away, allowing the Earthly light to encapsulate her form. Of all the visual sights that Gravity provides, it’s this moment of maternal rebirth that suggests a momentary lapse in the film’s hyperactive movement, giving a shout out to the Star Child imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But whereas Kubrick’s worldview ridicules humanity’s universal intervention and penchant for destruction, Cuarón embraces those very same ideas, with questionable results.
The pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón adopt for Gravity suggests a measure of humanism but it’s marred by overt simplicity. For all of its many technical flourishes, from its long takes to the impressive sound design, Gravity’s narrative is of Earthly conceit. The ideas rarely expound upon items of larger thematic concern nor is there a sense of real gravity to its celebration of life. Simplicity for simplicity’s sake is never something to hold against a film and often times striving for a measure of calculated simplicity can benefit a picture. But in Gravity’s case, the unusual dichotomy of technical wonder only accents the problematic scripting. It’s largely highlighted by George Clooney’s shmoozing as Commander Matt Kowalski.
By interjecting comic notes to the cosmic aura, the jarring disconnect between the two worlds is never reconciled. Is this an attempt to alleviate the otherworldliness of the picture’s cosmos and its humanistic intent? Or perhaps Cuarón is adopting Kubrick’s mentality by suggesting that humans and space ought to be mutually exclusive? This might have been the case if there was a sense meditation involved in its structure - a little breathing room. But the aforementioned imagery of Bullock in the fetal position offers only the slightest glimpse into a larger framework. The remainder of the picture is largely an exercise in action filmmaking. Not meant as a slight, but to suggest that Gravity is benchmark in introspective filmmaking is laughable.
But as it is, Gravity is essentially a construct of perpetually thrilling action set pieces. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to see a bit of Buster Keaton in some of the action choreography. Hell, there’s even a sequence where Bullock skins the edge of a satellite with her fingertips, clinging on at just the nick of time that briefly recalls Harold Lloyd dangling for dear life in Safety Last!. But with so little in the way of thematic cohesion, Gravity has more in common with a recent Steven Spielberg outing, The Adventures of Tintin.
Back in 2007 when Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu were dubbed “The Three Amigos” following the commercial and critical success of Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Babel, they sparked comparisons a trio of filmmakers from the 70s - notably Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Cuarón embraces much of Spielberg’s cinematic tendencies - Gravity is as narratively propulsive, overly sentimental and intellectually bankrupt as some of Spielberg’s efforts. It works in spurts, with Cuarón’s relentless pacing working within the confines of his 90-minute runtime.
Amid the sensory overload, it’s Bullock who is the picture’s true saving grace. One of cinema’s great action heroines (look no further than Speed and Demolition Man to see her tower over her co-stars’ masculine bravado), she diffuses much of the narrative constraints through subtle touches, punctuations in her voice, and a kind of sensual physicality. She runs through trenches of domineering masculine narrative exposition and, unfortunately, quite literally pulled along by man, but the fact that she’s capable of overcoming these circumstances and turns her character into something substantial is a credit to her skill. Gravity has and will continue to be hailed as a great this and stellar that but my biggest takeaway was seeing a filmmaker at his most thematically bankrupt and an actress at her very best.