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The Scarlet & Black

Gravity: “It’s, like, a metaphor, bro”

Anyone who has seen Alfonso Cuarón’s latest effort, the 2006 adaptation of P.D. James’ “Children of Men,” is assuredly familiar with the director’s penchant for lengthy, elaborately-staged single shots, and he sticks to form with his latest, “Gravity.”  The masterfully crafted 13-minute opening take begins on astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, in a typically overrated performance), Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and the promptly disposed of Shariff (Paul Sharma), as they perform some kind of esoteric service work on the Hubble Space Telescope—the final leg of a week-long mission, the first of Stone’s career and the last of Kowalski’s. The shot deftly traverses both the physical space of the scene and an impressive gamut of dramatic tenses, shifting effortlessly from charming novelty—as the camera weaves its way between the characters’ various activities, soundtracked by their delightfully mundane radio chatter—to anarchic terror—as a chain reaction of debris, resulting from the misguided detonation of a Russian satellite, rips through the expedition, destroying the team’s spacecraft, killing many of the mission’s members and sending Stone spiraling dramatically off into space.

While Stone is soon recovered by Kowalski, the narrative never quite recuperates the tension and energy of this opening sequence. One critic has described “Gravity” as “a movie about Sandra Bullock trying and failing to grab a series of objects.” And this, admittedly rather pithy, summary is not an entirely inaccurate description of Cuarón’s continued attempts to maintain dramatic propulsion over the course of the film. Following their early reunion, the pair embark on a series of harebrained schemes to escape back to earth’s atmosphere, which seem to invariably rely on the repeated execution of feats of survival involving the kind of temporal/spatial margins of error one might find in an “Indiana Jones” film. Cuarón liberally punctuates the film’s moments of poetic visual revery with these adrenaline-pumping episodes, which usually incorporate blaring sirens, fire and the urgent need to get from one side of a door to the other side of the door.

While it’s easy to subject “Gravity”—and any Hollywood action-adventure, for that matter—to this type of reductionist trivialization, it isn’t entirely fair. Cuarón’s film, for all its formula, exhibits a level of dramatic cohesion extremely difficult to achieve in a narrative so restricted in both duration—the film takes place over a span of a little over three hours—and physical setting. The exceptionality of Cuarón’s eye for detail cannot be overstated—on display in the drastic sonic transformations that accompany the camera’s occasional entry into Stone’s space helmet and the cyclic lighting of an extended frontal shot of the protagonist tumbling through space.

Much has been made of the film’s special effects—and for very good reason. Cuarón teams up here with long-time collaborator and cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki (over the last two decades, they have worked together on “Sólo con tu pareja,” “Y tu mamá también,” “Children of Men” and several others) and the product of their combined efforts is truly stunning. Lubezki—certainly no newcomer to the industry with six Oscar nominations at this point—most recently made waves with his work on Terrence Mallick’s “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity” presents him with a similar canvas, which he fills with sweeping meditative shots—of both space and the few characters that inhabit that void—of a beauty rarely before seen on the big screen. But the comparison with “The Tree of Life” proves ultimately unflattering towards Cuarón’s film. While both push the potential for immersion in a visual cinematic universe, “The Tree of Life”—a film fundamentally concerned with themes of family, nostalgia and spirituality—ultimately transcends its technological trappings in its overwhelming authenticity, whereas “Gravity” feels like a cinematically progressive project stuck in a vacuous action-adventure formula.

While the ever-magnetic Clooney is successful in bringing some energy to his scenes, his admirable effort—fairly limited in terms of screen time—is not enough to compensate for a pretty tepid showing from Bullock and an inexcusably clumsy screenplay. Cuarón’s previously exhibited talent, as both a director and screenwriter, to craft complex characters and emotionally compelling narratives—so clearly on display in the impeccable “Y tu mamá también” and the entirely adequate “Children of Men”—is mysteriously absent here. The few characters are developed with a feeling of begrudging obligation. Bullock’s character’s gradual psychological recovery from past tragedy is clearly intended to be the thematic parallel to her literal fight for survival, but this element is handled with such heavy-handedness as to almost pose cause for embarrassment. Neither Bullock nor Clooney is spared the delivery of the most overtly clichéd commentary on Bullock’s personal growth—“you’ve got to plant both feet on the ground and start living life,” “let’s go home!,” “either way it will be one hell of a ride!,” etc., etc.—which, coupled with some metaphoric visual duncery—namely, rebirth imagery, like an extended shot of a fetal Stone rotating in a zero gravity space chamber, which is repeated throughout the narrative ad nauseam—make for an extremely technically impressive film that lacks the heart, or even emotional believability, to match its sleek exterior.

All of this is not to say that this is a bad film. In some ways, in fact, “Gravity” is a great film. If Bullock’s performance has been treated with somewhat unreasonable favor by critics, Cuarón and Lubezski’s groundbreaking achievements deserve every bit of praise they have received. But for the heights the film reaches in its technical splendor, as a story—as something people will touch, feel, think about and carry with them—“Gravity” remains suspended in space.

“Gravity” is playing in the Harris Cinema at 7 p.m. tomorrow.

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