It’s the classic tale of a bored mother out to replace a motherboard...in space! How can that high concept lose? If initial box office receipts and word-of-mouth are a gauge, Gravity is a blockbuster hit. If storytelling and sensibility are a gauge, then this Alfonso Cuarón directed film falls to Earth and burns up upon entry.
Disaffected, distant and detached -- the perfect characteristics for an astronaut, right? NASA picks ‘em all petulant and purdy these days, if one is to believe that a passionless woman (portrayed by Sandra Bullock) named Dr. Ryan Stone (yeah, her dad wanted a boy) can make her way to the International Space Station and do some “genius” work on the Hubble Space Telescope, while the boys get their kicks out of spinning and jetpacking around. Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), for instance, is trying to set a new record for spacewalking on his last mission, whilst listening to Hank Williams, Jr. in what is clearly the vapid vacuousness of space -- that is, the space that exists within this 91 minute film.
Certainly there are psychological tests and training one takes before going into orbit -- and being all nihilistic, apathetic, suicidal and such are probably not keen attributes for an astronaut -- even a woman who’s a genius. But Gravity weighs on you to accept that, almost like it’s a trope. Let’s see, who can we get to go into sub-space and make this necessary secret modification to the Hubble? How about bio-medical engineer Stone (get it, Stone -- cold, emotionless, like a rock in space), who loves being isolated and alone -- alone like only a stone can be. Hey, can you turn that music off, Kowalski? Music, you know, is pure emotion. Stone wants to be alone. Music is so -- intrusive.
Frankly, the best female-empowering space adventures are the ones with a showdown between a sweaty ripped Ripley and an awesome Giger-designed queen-bitch alien. Then there’s this one, which has evidently arrived on the movie scene at just the right time. In Gravity, the empowered heroine is one who has no joie de vivre because her 12 year-old daughter senselessly lost her life in a kiddie game accident -- that’s about as senseless as it can get. Now Ryan is all business, no play, and not real fond of following orders from a man, even when satellite space debris is hurtling at her and her colleagues. Damn those Russians for shooting down their own satellite!
And don’t it make your brown eyes blue when neither Ryan nor Kowalski pay enough attention to one another to notice the true color of their eyes? They only have eyes for views of how beautiful the Earth and sun are -- together. Like they were meant to be together. To point up how tragic dying in space can be, we get to see through the face of their East Indian colleague (it is the International Space Station, after all) while he floats dead alongside a photo of his family. Poignancy has never been so in your face -- or, uh, in his face.
Meanwhile, our super girl is saved from tumbling through infinity and beyond by Kowalski. Now, he’s got a very cool, hi-tech Man Maneuvering Unit that has gimbals and works like a charm to change direction in untethered space. Ryan, however, has the remarkable ability to reverse her tumbling in the vacuum of her own despair. Well, it doesn’t really matter: there’s plenty of POV shots and disorienting weightlessness to make the scene mighty impressive. There’s almost enough visual feasting that your brain forgets the story is thinner than air. (Possible movie tagline: You’ll believe a woman can float.)
But to give Ryan the chance to be the hero, Kowalski decides to be the man and unlatch her from him once they get close to a possible safe haven -- the Soyuz. Hysterical reactions aside, Ryan delivers the movie’s powerful tagline, “Don’t let go” in rapid-fire succession. But Kowalski does let go, because Ryan must be alone -- remember? She’s an isolationist. Once she courageously finds the will to live and makes it to the vessel, all hell breaks loose again. That space debris has orbited around once more and it’s pelting her ride. And because the Russians are so -- irresponsible yet responsible for everything (it’s like Murphyski’s Law at work up there) -- Ryan discovers there’s no fuel aboard. She decides it’s time for hypoxia and induces herself into an unconscious hallucinatory stupor, but not before realistic visions of Matt Kowalski inspires her to think outside the box (or space pod, in this case) to creatively conjure up a plan to save herself. Yes, this powerful female gets rescued by a dreamy Kowalski who insists that life is worth living. In space, no one can hear you dream. The moment resonates as an epiphany -- and now we have someone to root for -- finally. (Incidentally, the film pays homage to a litany of other sci-fi films, too many to mention, but one curiosity is whether the Kowalski name is paying tribute to platitude-spouting, Leon Kowalski in Blade Runner. As Kowalski says to Deckard, “Wake up! Time to die.”)
Speaking of homage, did you catch the embryonic pose Ryan coils into when she finally gets aboard the first stage of her multi-stage self-rescue? Yes, yes, and then she floats through the fallopian tubes of one craft after another, like she’s on some...spermy journey...or space odyssey. Could it be that she’s the star child -- rebirthing herself from a life of monolithic meaninglessness and despair into a life that has value because -- well, it just does. Trust me on this.
But what, you say, about all the pro-Chinese propaganda -- totally expected if it comes from China. But this comes from Hollywood. Looking for an audience of a billion folks to pay for the stunning special effects of this $100 million dollar extravaganza? True, China has done remarkable things over the past fifty years. One of them was launching a space station, the Tiangong-1, into orbit. Apparently, secretly, they also included a very well-constructed space pod as part of the architecture -- because that’s how Ryan gets home: A landmark achievement for the Chinese space program, to be sure. That’s gotta make distribution in Beijing pretty much a done deal.
This outer space offering is a movie with themes, but little story. Some of the themes are intriguing, compelling, thought-provoking -- even ironic and substantive, like early on when Ryan has to detach herself from the shuttle arm in order to save herself. Now that’s pretty deep space stuff. The best theme among the lot, though, is that life, as we know it, is impossible in space. But our hero, Ryan Stone, finds her will to live within that dark void of being and nothingness. That’s a lovely existentially potent theme. But ‘tis not the stuff of storytelling. Gravity pulls you in, then leaves you suspended, like the astronauts, hopelessly waiting for those elements of storytelling to kick-in. It mistakes sentimentalism with telling a cogent tale.
Indeed, the positive buzz for Gravity is justly deserved -- as the movie masterfully immerses the viewer into feeling the black buoyancy of space. But if you’re looking for story, you’ll soon be tumbling frantically. When it comes to story, Gravity falls flat.
Is it wrong to want Ryan to drown at the end? After her impossible trek back to terra firma, the ultimate retributive justice is delivered: She splashes down, sinks, escapes the capsule, but can't swim upward, entangled in kelp and seaweed, tethered and anchored to Earth, her final lonely resting place. Now there's a story!
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