Space: the current frontier.
Science fiction is once again in vogue at the multiplexes. This is a welcome change from the usual pre-award season autumnal offerings of face-smashing buddy comedies and hackneyed stab-a-thons tailor-made to cash in on Hallowe’en hype.
Revered director (and in this case screenwriter, producer and editor) Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is the genre offering du jour and has been met with near unanimous critical and commercial success. Expectations were high and rumours swirled of the game-changing visual style that would be unleashed.
I, like many other fanboys, chomped at the bit.
The film quickly commences with a jaw-dropping, how-did-they-do-that single 17-minute take that sets a moody, foreboding tone.
Distant voices and spectral dust gradually become clearer and we settle in with a routine round of exterior repair being conducted by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) while her mission commander, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), benignly oversees.
Clooney’s suavely grizzled veteran is on his final expedition — predictably, one day before retirement — while Bullock’s wispy novice is anxiously experiencing her first plunge into the deep dark.
Needless to say, things don’t go so well. Mission Control (Ed Harris) urgently reports a minefield of debris is heading in their direction. When the blitzkrieg inevitably collides with the small space station, calamity ensues — detaching Stone from her tether and sending her spiralling into space.
What follow is an absolutely breathless (and refreshingly short) 90-minute rescue mission that sees our protagonists face the most extreme conditions imaginable in a desperate bid for survival.
Along the way, we are treated to some of the most seamless and engrossing uses of 3D ever developed. If only the emotional undertow could come close to matching it.
And trust me, it tries.
The film’s chief issue is its misplaced emphasis on familial sincerity. Given the terrifying nature of its nightmarish situation, the narrative clips along at a blistering pace only to become mired in pseudo new age muck that wouldn’t seem out of place as an inspirational meme. Heartfelt diatribes regarding Bullock’s character’s deceased daughter are so heavy handed that I half-expected a billowing American flag to be projected over her relentlessly earnest face.
Enveloped within the dazzling effects lies a classic desert island scenario where we are all alone and have nothing to depend on but our primordial instincts — though Cuaron strives for a more meaningful experience than “Castaway in Space.”
From the initial emergence of the trailer, tongues began to wag about Gravity’s striking similarities to Kubrick’s all-conquering 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The allusions may have been deliberate (particularly when Bullock is alone, almost fetus-like, tumbling through the black abyss towards a moment of existential discovery), but they only expose the film’s cracks even more. Inviting comparison to one of the most respected and ambiguous artistic achievements of the 20th century is hubristic folly.
Cuaron has enjoyed a varied and fruitful career. Having spent the nineties crafting sublime emerald-hued fantasies in America (A Little Princess, Great Expectations), he embarked to his native Mexico to helm the art house crossover smash Y Tu Mama Tambien. Riding high on a wave of acclaim, Cuaron returned to English language productions with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the immaculate Children of Men. Only now (with Gravity) does the studio pressure begin to tarnish his otherwise unimpeachable cannon. A long, problematic production involving numerous studios, budget disputes and several casting alterations ensured that the film’s transition from script to screen was an arduous one.
One can’t help but imagine what could have been if Cuaron had been granted his initial cast.
Preliminary negotiations saw Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. to star — both actors who possess infinitely more range and presence.
Instead, we’re subjected to George Clooney’s typical phoned-in smarminess and Sandra Bullock giving it her absolute all, in yet another desperate bid to be taken seriously. Bullock hung up her action plaids for a more suitable rom-com tiara nearly 20 years ago.
She is spread wafer-thin in a role that obviously attempts to pay homage to Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Last Woman Standing, Ellen Ripley.
The scientific accuracy of the film has become the subject of much scrutiny as well. Cuaron has claimed these “mistakes” as deliberate liberties taken in the name of entertainment. And that’s good enough for me.
If a viewer seeks factual accuracy, then I would recommend something narrated by David Attenborough which is likely playing in the IMAX cinema next to Gravity.
If you seek a spectacular roller coaster that leaves you with nothing, then this is the ride.
Most science fiction ultimately fails, but credit must be given for the supremely ambitious undertaking of taking us somewhere where we haven’t been before.