Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity (Warner Bros., 10.4), which screened twice last night at the Telluride Film Festival, is the most visually sophisticated, super-immersive weightless thrill-ride flick I’ve ever seen. If Stanley Kubrick had been there last night he would freely admit that 2001: A Space Odyssey is no longer the ultimate, adult-angled, real-tech depiction of what it looks and feels like to orbit the earth. Nifty and super-cool from a pure-eyeball perspective, Gravity is certainly the most essential theatrical experience since Avatar. You can’t watch a top-dollar 3D super-flick of this type on anything other than a monster-sized IMAX screen.
Running a mere 91 minutes, Gravity is a tightly constructed, threat-heavy survival saga. One hair-raising “oh, shit!” thing happens after another…crash, bang, boom, clank. But honestly? I’d be lying if I said I felt genuinely immersed in the reality of the story and the inner life of the characters in the same way I did with Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien or Children of Men. I was 100% aware at all times that the “uh-oh” stuff is happening to Bullock and Clooney because an $80 million dollar sci-fi thriller requires wowser visceral excitement or the under-30 ADD types will get bored.
This is the reality of big-time filmmaking today. 2001 could not and would not be funded by a major studio today. Breathtaking visuals and loud, high-impact action whammies have to happen, period. That or your typical Shanghai viewer will start texting.
Gravity is about a novice astronaut, Sandra Bullock‘s Dr. Ryan Stone, and an older veteran, George Clooney‘s Matt Kowalsky, floating around by tether or space pack outside their beautiful orbiting vehicle, hundreds of miles above earth, and then suddenly getting hit by speeding orbital debris (which has been indirectly caused by the asshole Russians) and tumbling head-over-heels and crashing into this and that orbiting vehicles as they try to hang on and basically do everything they can think of to not suffocate and maybe even (hah!) return to earth.
Two things must be said: (1) Gravity is visually rhapsodic and dreamy but not, to be honest, especially deep or thematic or thoughtful — nothing lingers after it’s over save for memories of how cool it looks and sounds, but (2) that wasn’t the shot here — $80 million was sunk into creating the coolest high-end space-disaster movie imaginable, and to ensure quality by handing the reins to the highly respected Cuaron and dp Emanuel Lubezski and a tip-top VFX team. So I have no problem at all with it being a very high-end, down-to-it, knock-your-boots disaster flick that’s trying to sell popcorn.
But on a purely selfish level I wish Gravity was a little more austere and adult-angled. For a movie that allegedly accepts and reflects the aural realities of space by rendering a good amount of silence, Cuaron’s film is pretty damn loud.
I wish the focus had been a little more about possible technical solutions to technical problems and a little less about Dr. Stone’s emotions (terror, panic, lack of confidence, despair, loneliness) which I, frankly, didn’t give a shit about. I only wanted to see how the problems could be solved. Did NASA hire Bullock’s character because she’s a whipsmart, super-dependable, cool-under-pressure scientist or because she’s really in touch with her feelings?
I also wish that Gravity had been made for people like myself and less for the gamers and the general ADD generation. For me the opening shot of the slowly-rotating earth is the most transporting because it’s simple and clean and breathtaking and not trying to punch up the thrills. I wish more of Gravity had been like this…sorry. Not that my expressing this will matter much to anyone.
Is Gravity a Best Picture contender? The fact that there is little in the way of thematic or spiritual undertow makes this an uncertain prospect, in my humble view. It’s been observed that Gravity is a kin of J.C. Chandor‘s All Is Lost, another solo survivalist saga playing at Telluride. The reality is that the latter film, in which Robert Redford gives a brilliant tour de force performance, is filled with poignant metaphor and undercurrents and side echoes — all the stuff that Gravity pretty much lacks.
Little White Lies critic David Jenkins has written that Gravity “operates as a bold (possibly even eccentric) and majestically rendered parable on the wonders of creation, with a very specific focus on the details of reproduction. Imagery of umbilical chords, fetal positions, wombs and characters triumphantly surfacing from the amniotic river sit surprisingly comfortably against a visual backdrop of decaying space stations and an infinite shroud of nothingness.” I didn’t get this at all but I’m glad Jenkins did.