Gravity review

Gravity sucks! Devoid of atmosphere, character and tension it’s a spectacle that’s as vacuous as the vast, airless ocean that’s its biggest star.

It’s also an essential viewing experience on the biggest screen and best sound system you can find. Hell, splash out, see it in IMAX where it’s unsubtle pleasures can best be appreciated. It’s a beautifully composed, ambitious, at times jaw-dropping, piece of cinema that shoots for the stars but fails to soar, a visual and aural feast that leaves you still hungry. But, having already debuted in the US with a $56 million opening weekend to almost universal widespread acclaim that had the critics tripping over their tumescence in their rush to splaff their hyperbolic love for it all over t’Interweb, it’s also worth noting that mine is a minority opinion, the lone voice crying out in the wilderness. A bit like Bullock’s character in Gravity.

You know Gravity’s story already, how could you not?  We’ve been waiting years for it to finally be released.  While on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the horse pucky hits the proverbial rotary ventilation unit for rookie astronaut Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and wisecracking seasoned veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney), leaving them marooned when debris from a Russian missile strike (them no good, pesky Russkies!  Grrr!) on a defunct spy satellite unleashes a high-speed tidal wave of debris that smashes into their space shuttle, destroying it and killing the rest of the crew.

Adrift in space, their communications lifeline to Mission Control lost, Stone and Kowalski’s only hope for survival lies in reaching the distant orbiting International Space Station and it’s Soyuz escape capsule.  But Stone’s quickly running out of oxygen, Kowalski’s jet pack’s almost out of fuel and they’ve got just 90 minutes before the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet field of wreckage whips back around the Earth and tears them apart.

Leaving aside the glaring scientific inaccuracies which plague the film that you can find itemised on leading astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed if you’re curious, as technically proficient and visually dazzling as Cuaron’s Gravity may be, capturing the visceral experience of zero-gee, the camera spinning and zipping through space as it chases falling (not floating) astronauts smashing into space stations and wreckage, each impact and collision ricocheting them off in the opposite direction, the film crucially fails to engage on a human level despite its bombastic, emotion-by-numbers score. Its heavy-handed, the dialogue clunky, the characters ciphers, the script plodding, lacking both tension and depth.   

Gorgeous George’s astronaut is simply a Dudley Do-Right riff on his Danny Ocean; Bullock’s traumatised scientist, still mourning a dead child, a schizoid mix of her familiar hysterical persona from movies like Premonition and her familiar buttoned-down workaholic from Miss Congeniality. We know Bullock is a genius because Clooney keeps telling us she is repeatedly. We know Clooney is a true blue American hero because he listens to Hank Williams as he jockeys around in his jet pack telling tales of Mardi Gras and ex-wives and mispronouncing Soyuz. You already know these characters, they’re the same ones George and Sandy always play.  

The special effects are ingenious but hardly groundbreaking. 3D adds little sense of immersion and there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen in the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the wonderful Europa Report or Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and, while they’re lovely to look at, Gravity’s CGI vistas fail to inspire the sense of wonder in us as an audience that they do in the characters who despite their predicament keep taking time out to tell us how beautiful it all is. Yes, we know space is magnificent and the Earth majestic George, but shouldn’t you be getting your arse in gear and getting to that space station before the killer debris comes back? Why did you go to all the trouble of introducing that particular ticking clock plot device into what is essentially an existential tale of survival against the odds if you’re just gonna kinda forget about it for long stretches? And it’s pretty hard to feel too much jeopardy for characters marooned in space when they seem to have their pick of space stations sporting escape pods.

In fact, space stations seem to be like buses in Cuaron’s film, if you miss one, another will be along in a minute. At its heart Gravity’s a simple shipwreck story, Open Water in Orbit (but without space sharks), which jabs unsuccessfully at your emotional buttons like a three-year-old at the control panel of a glass elevator. Every one gets pushed, every floor gets visited.

Never attempting to grapple with the philosophic themes and existential melancholy of films like 2001, Solaris or even plane crash survival flick The Grey, like Life Of Pi with George Clooney’s astronaut as the tiger, Gravity displays an almost missionary zeal to make God-botherers of us all.  Bullock’s Stone is just that – a damaged woman who’s lost hope long before her space shuttle gets turned to Swiss cheese, at the start of the film blind to the beauty of creation all around her, later gasping the line “Nobody ever taught me how to pray!” Clooney’s Kowalski exists merely to do just that, to instill hope, to teach her to pray, to lead her to God with pep talks about never giving up and how important it is to keep talking (praying) to the silent Mission Control (God) as they may just be listening and sending you help.

It’s Judy Blume goes to Space Camp – Are You There God? It’s Me, Sandy! Floating in the foetal position in the womblike safety of the International Space Station, Bullock is reborn through her experiences, squeezing and squirming through hatches and airlocks and just in case you’re not quite getting the spiritual point, Cuaron also throws in some Russian icons and a statue of Buddha acting as a dashboard ornament in a Chinese space capsule. There’s even a cheeky evolution metaphor. Subtle Gravity ain’t.

It’s far from a failure, but Gravity’s also far from the game-changing, life-altering experience many critics have gushed. Mechanically effective rather than involving and, at times (the Wall-E inspired fire extinguisher EVA), laughably stoopid, Gravity is a lot like the Space Station 3D movie you used to see at IMAX theatres, visually awe-inspiring but a little bit tedious. In space, no one can hear you yawn.

Gravity at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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