I’m a big fan of hard sci-fi, so I’m the perfect audience for the new Alfonso Cuarón film ‘Gravity’. The trades had been abuzz for months with the camera techniques that were using during filming to create a true “zero gravity” effect and the IMAX 3D was supposed to be amazing.
And yet, when I finally saw the film, I found it rather boring.
It’s not that the special visual effects aren’t amazing, but because somewhere along the way film director Cuarón forgot some of the basic elements of a good movie, like a storyline. Like tension. And the ending? Rather predictable and unbelievable after what seems like a reasonably accurate sequence of events.
The film opens with astronauts Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Kowalski (George Clooney) preparing to launch a satellite from the Shuttle Explorer’s dock while orbiting the Earth. The Russians launch a rocket to destroy one of their dead satellites on the other side of the world and it produces an unexpected sea of fast-moving space debris. The problem is, in space, things are trapped by the Earth’s gravity so Stone and Kowalski are warned by mission control that the debris field is heading their way and it’s going to be a big problem.
Moments later it arrives and destroys both the unlaunched satellite and the shuttle itself. The two astronauts barely escape with their lives and are now marooned in space with little hope of rescue and, predictably, no working communications link with mission control back on Earth.
Fortunately there’s the International Space Station a few dozen kilometers away and it might just have an escape pod they can use to safely return to Earth before the debris circles the Earth again and rains more destruction on them. If they can get there.
Problem is, there’s surprisingly little tension for a film that could have easily been framed as a sort of floating ‘High Noon’. In fact, Stone and Kowalski very rarely even check their watches to see how much time remains before the next wave of debris will arrive (it’s a 90min orbital cycle), so instead of having the orbiting debris as a constant threat it’s more of an afterthought.
A comparison with the tension and psychological exploration featured in the otherwise dated 1969 space film ‘Marooned’ shows the problem: In ‘Gravity’ we never see ground control or anyone else not in space. Not a single shot of people on Earth struggling to solve the problem as the astronauts try to survive and retain their sanity in a terrifying situation.
Another comparison: ‘Apollo 13’. Part of what makes that a great film is the narrative constantly switching between NASA working like madmen trying to figure out what’s gone wrong on the Apollo craft to come up with a solution that’ll bring the astronauts safely home and the astronauts themselves trying to remain stoic as they face a horrible death.
- None of that is in ‘Gravity’. Indeed, for all its technical beauty — and it really is a beautiful and technically amazing film — it’s just not much of a narrative movie at all. When the daft last scene played out and the credits began, I felt like I’d watched a slightly fictionalized “IMAX Space” rather than a gripping hard sci-fi film.
And truth be told, I’m really disappointed.
I like Cuarón as a director and have to give big kudos to Bullock who turns in a splendid performance as the neophyte astronaut Stone. The film really rests on her performance and she shows yet again why she is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. By contrast, Clooney is always the same cool, gravel-voiced character in all his films. Likable, but he has no range whatsoever as an actor.
I will recommend you go see this film in IMAX 3D or at least on the big screen. It’s not gripping, it has a number of narrative flaws and is definitely slow paced, but it’s also stunning on screen, truly offering a feel for what it would be like to be in space, in orbit above our planet. To the point where I won’t be surprised when the special effects team wins an Oscar for Technical Achievement.
That’s definitely worth the price of admission. My overall score for ‘Gravity’:
The visual effects, however, get: