Gravity arrives in the midst of mass critical acclaim with worlds like ‘masterpiece’ and ‘revolutionary’ being thrown around – James Cameron (Avatar) has called it ‘the best space film ever done’ – but I’m here to tell you that it might be worth adjusting expectations. Make no mistake, director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) has created a technical tour de force that signals the ever-increasing march of technology, but it’s a film lacking narrative depth.
How quick we are to forget Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 – now there’s a movie which tells a powerfully dramatic story where truth is stranger than fiction. By comparison, Cuarón develops a similar but less compelling plot in Gravity about two astronauts stranded in space who must struggle to find a way back home. That’s pretty much all there is to it – there are literally no other actors on screen aside from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Apollo 13 has real depth and realism to its drama, where tension is high and crises are overcome through human ingenuity, whereas the stars in Gravity are hamstrung by the isolated setting (the film’s biggest strength and weakness). Hurdles are mostly overcome by getting from A to B rather than through creative problem solving under pressure. Moreover, to overcome the fact that there are only two characters, anecdotes are used to keep the story engaging. Clooney’s easy charm as Matt Kowalski makes him ‘anecdote guy’, and these asides while drifting through space are intermittently interesting and keep the visuals front and centre but fail to engage on a higher level.
Bullock’s performance as Dr Ryan Stone is sure to get Oscar attention, but the character isn’t one we’ll be talking about for long. There are times when the story is reaching for those transformative character moments. It’s a desperate effort and doesn’t convince because the monologuing feels manufactured and not totally earned by the screenplay.
When it comes to the visuals however, Gravity is a whole other beast. This is a cinema experience that should absolutely be seen on the biggest screen possible in 3D – it’s the best use of the third dimension since How to Train Your Dragon. The computer effects are stunning, with painstaking attention to detail, so much so that there’s little doubt whom the Academy will be rewarding next year. Cuarón and frequent collaborator five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also employ beautiful long takes that create a startling sense of place and weightlessness.
And yet I’m still brought out of the experience at points. Be it an incredibly cheap jump scare, tacky and obvious use of foetal imagery or the laboured attempts at serious emotional drama. The acting is great given the material, the effects are out of this world and the sound design – which utilises silence to great effect – is stellar, but the story which targets pure thriller doesn’t reach the same heights.
Gravity is an incredible visual and auditory experience, but lacks substance in its Apollo 13-lite plot.