Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

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Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has received an exceptional amount of critical acclaim for a science fiction film, more so for any other I can remember since Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.   This may be because, as with Weir’s film, many don’t recognize it as belonging to the genre. Yes, it takes place in outer space, the most familiar setting for the science fiction film, but since it (like the 1969 film Marooned) deals with events that could conceivably and possibly happen in the immediate future, it’s probably not unanimously regarded as such by mainstream critics, who don’t realize that the depiction of possible futures is precisely one of the main goals of science fiction. That may be why I’ve found myself less enthusiastic about the film than so many others after viewing it. As was the case with the wildly overrated Moon (2009), over-familiarity with the genre seems to greatly diminish my ability appreciate what others find to be so novel; on a purely visual and cinematic level, it’s certainly a tremendous achievement on the part of Cuaron and his crew, but on a story level, Gravity is (no pun intended) somewhat of a letdown. Not only will it also be overly familiar to other fans of written science fiction, but those well-versed in its cinematic equivalent will also find themselves recognizing various visual and story motifs. In addition to the aforementioned Marooned, everything from the rescue-with-oxygen-tank scene from Destination Moon to the horrifying image of the burnt-up skull face of a freshly-killed astronaut peering out its helmet in Riders to the Stars (also the consequence of a collision with space debris) seems to echo throughout the film. Even the very premise of the film itself evokes a key scene from a guilty pleasure of mine, the 1954 movie Conquest of Space, which coincidentally featured an appearance from George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary but was considerably less acclaimed, with no less than Forry Ackerman calling it “The Bomb of The Decade”.  This story could just as easily been cut to an hour or half-hour format, and then presented as an episode of the early Sixties show Men Into Space.  To be certain, a quite gripping and involving film has been built from a standard storyline; however, the almost unanimous, at times hyperbolic acclaim the film has been receiving need to be tempered by informed criticism.

Some science fiction fans have compared Gravity‘s storyline to Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “Kaleidoscope,” but it actually bears a closer resemblance to some of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short stories such as “Breaking Strain,” “Summertime on Icarus” and “Transit of Earth,” as well as the vignettes that make up The Other Side of the Sky. In these stories, Clarke tried to credibly and convincingly depict the sort of life-and-death situations future astronauts might encounter “out there,” and they more often than not involved problem-solving based on the application of scientific knowledge and practical engineering. A more important conceptual breakthrough was Clarke’s focus on the personal experience of space exploration: The thoughts and emotional states of astronauts as they work their way through technical crises is a primary concern of these stories, many of which are written in the first person, and the story and presentation of Gravity is very much in this vein. The film is not so much about outer space than it is about the lead character’s experience of it; nearly every directorial choice reminds us that this story is being told from the perspective of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut. Remarkably, the sort of premise most science fiction writers would restrict to the size of a short story or at best, a novelette, is effectively expanded to the length of a feature film, and one of the best aspects of Gravity is the efficiency of the plot, so that it still feels like a short story in terms of time expended. A lesser director than Cuaron would have dwelled endlessly on shots of the empty void or used a succession of quick cuts in a desperate attempt to keep the film moving, but since Cuaron rightfully views both visual effects and the 3-D Imax format as tools for telling his story instead of accessories to spectacle, he uses them to involve us so deeply in it that we don’t notice the passing of time. The opening sequence is especially bravura, as the camera, in a seemingly unbroken five-minute cut, moves across various characters working on the surface of the space station, fully establishing a credible setting and immersing us in such a manner that we fully embrace the illusion of being in a zero-gravity environment. Particularly important to a film where the characters spend nearly the entire duration in free fall, Cuaron is one of the few directors to recognize both the importance and usefulness of camera movement in the 3-D format, and there’s also a thematic significance to his doing do so, as a means of emphasizing their isolation in an environment where movement is free in all three dimensions.

Equally important as Cuaron’s direction in selling the story is the performance of Sandra Bullock in the lead. Some viewers may find the life-and-death situation she finds herself to be in this film to be not unlike that featured in her breakout film Speed, and her astronaut can be seen as a more mature version of her character from the earlier movie. While this time she may only be trying to save her own life instead of a busload of passengers, she faces even greater challenges, not just physical (in Speed, she merely had to pilot a bus linearly across a horizontal plane; this time, she must fully navigate her way through three-dimensional vector space!) but psychological and emotional as well, and she must prove that she has not just fulfilled the survival training expected of her, but what she expects of herself as well. It’s a remarkable, cerebral performance, and Bullock especially handles herself well in those long silent passages where we are only supposed to be able to understand her thoughts and emotions through the subtlest facial expressions or body movements.

It’s a shame then, that so much time is expended on the far less interesting and more poorly handled character played by George Clooney. It’s not entirely his fault, as he’s handed most of the film’s clunker lines and the character as written comes off as overbearing and patronizing, but his performance still comes off as overly smug and phoned-in. Another actor (maybe Gary Sinise or Clive Owen, the star of Cuaron’s Children of Men) might have been able to give the veneer of professionalism without pomposity, but better yet, the character could have been written out entirely, since he’s not really essential to the film. Not only would that have allowed the film to concentrate more fully on Bullock’s character, and charted her development, her survival strategies and inner conflicts,  but it would have eliminated the film’s absolute worst scene. I will not say anything more about it except that the audience I was with first laughed at the stupidity of it before they realized what was happening, and when they did realize it, they collectively groaned that the movie had stooped to not just one of the worst cliches in the business but one of the worst cheats in cinema, one that completely destroyed the illusion of real time the film had built up to that point.

Of course, without the Clooney character, the film would have run even shorter than its ninety-minute running time, and an already swift-moving film would have felt even briefer. Mainstream critics have so fallen over each other in praising the visual audacity and innovations in Cuaron’s film, that they haven’t taken the time to examine the story very closely. As science fiction, it’s very ordinary; it would have been sent into most editor’s slush piles years ago, although it would have certainly worked as a chapter in a larger novel or novella. Even though the film will undoubtedly lose much of its visual impact outside of the 3-D and Imax formats, it should probably be screened in film and science fiction literature classes just to illustrate the difficulties and challenges in making a movie in the genre, and the differences between the cinematic and the literary art forms. A key example of the difficulty can be seen in how the movie tries to compensate for the complete absence of sound in its “exterior” shots. While it is certainly admirable that Cuaron and his crew made this commitment to scientific realism,  composer Steven Price has seemingly tried to compensate for the lack of sound by creating one of the most annoying scores of recent years, punctuating every emotion and movement with overbearing intensity. It’s nonetheless certainly a relief to find a science fiction film that takes its science seriously. What a vast difference over the awful Mission to Mars, which opened with a scene where the illusory “Martian Face” was revealed as an actual sculpted visage and went downhill from there, accumulating a litany of errors and “artistic licenses” (including loud sounds in the empty vacuum of space), hurtling towards an idiotic ending that pandered to the Intelligent Design crowd!

Although Gravity may indicate that film techniques and technology have advanced to the point where cinematic science fiction can finally approximate its print equivalent, I would hesitate before taking it and the recent Europa Report as harbingers of a new dawn of hard science fiction movies. In the late Nineties, I had great expectations for things to come with the likes of The Arrival, Contact, Gattaca and Dark City, only to find the genre sink back into the morass of brain-dead action films. Even as film technology advances, the science fiction cinema’s future will be limited by the stories the filmmakers themselves choose to tell. Gravity is a superior example of filmed science fiction, but it is not the space film to end all space films some claim it is.

 

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