Some films should only be watched once. Gravity is one of those films. When it was released, it received a great many plaudits and there was a lot of hype about its visual effects, particularly (from what I remember) in 3D. The entire film is set in space–about five hundred miles above Earth–and it certainly has some visually striking scenes. Some of the views of Earth and of space are undeniably impressive. Importantly, the film allows these shots enough time for their effect to sink in, giving you long enough to look at them that you actually have a few moments to reflect, rather than just having to take it all in.
Big-budget Anglo-American films infrequently allow the viewer to take a moment to think or reflect on what they’re seeing, and it can be a memorable experience. It’s more common in older films, and in ‘world cinema’ often seen in the work of filmmakers like Leone and Tarkovsky; but rare in Hollywood, anyway. That sort of pacing can sometimes make a film feel profound, but it can just as easily make it boring, which is probably a reason why it’s quite rare. But Gravity’s imagery is enough to sustain these few moments and they are the highlights of the film. The film should be seen once for these moments, and preferably seen on the biggest screen possible.
On second viewing, the film’s fundamental weaknesses start to become clear. Sandra Bullock plays the main character, Dr Stone, and the film follows her struggle to survive in the aftermath of a disaster in space. The problem is, Dr Stone is not at all suited to surviving in space: not only does she lack technical knowledge, but she is in the throes of a deep depression that effectively negates her survival instinct for much of the film. She is only carried through the first stages of the disaster by the gallant actions of heroic astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Clooney here is basically playing the same character he has trademarked since appearing in ER. Kowalski is an improbable fantasy, an irresistible mix of flirtatious banter, charm, good looks, technical proficiency, and self-sacrifice. In contrast, Dr Stone lives up to her name in emotional terms for much of the film, and shows an extreme susceptibility to despondence and despair which you would think NASA would screen people for before blasting them into space.
Considering the events of the film are dramatic enough in themselves, Stone’s preoccupation with a dead child seems an unnecessary plot device. It’s as if having a woman fighting to survive in space isn’t enough, we have to find a way to shoehorn a family in there too. Throughout the film I couldn’t help thinking of Ellen Ripley in the first Alien film and unfavourably comparing the two movies. Being a mother was part of Ripley’s backstory, but she was also technically knowledgeable, self-reliant, brave, and emotionally resilient. For most of this film Dr Stone is none of those things, eventually undergoing a kind of renaissance which is inspired by Kowalski and the memory of her dead daughter. My girlfriend pointed out to me that Ripley’s role was not actually written as a female character, but as a man, and this avoidance of gender tropes is a major reason why the character is so inspirational and enduring–again, in contrast to Dr Stone. Gravity’s cinematography also spends a bit too long focusing on Bullock’s physique, which felt out of place to me. I don’t generally like to read too much into gender tropes and stereotypes in movies, but Gravity is basically science-fiction, a genre known for being quite advanced in that regard, and this feels like a regressive film.
Much has been made of how this film depicts the horror and isolation of being lost in space. That’s partly true; but again, other films have covered the same ground much more powerfully. Interstellar, for example, is a recent film that was streets ahead of Gravity visually, emotionally, and intellectually. Even the little-known European film Cargo, from 2009, communicated the remoteness and vastness of space in a way Gravity failed to do. I wouldn’t normally compare films like this, but Gravity has received a huge amount of critical praise which I really don’t think is justified.
Also, a small point, but sometimes a film’s sound editing can really get on my nerves, and this is a good example. Even with my television’s volume turned up to the max, some of the dialogue in this film is barely audible, while at other times it can practically shake the room. That kind of detail can really interrupt your enjoyment of a film and I don’t know why it’s so hard to get it right.