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Film: Miles Above

by Ross Douthat

A review of Gravity

I am in the minority among film critics in coming away a little disappointed from the movies of Alfonso Cuarón. Before his new one, Gravity, the Mexican-born director made only six: his 1991 debut, Sólo Con Tu Pareja; an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess in 1995; the Gwyneth Paltrow–Ethan Hawke Great Expectations three years later; the Mexican road movie Y Tu Mamá También in 2001; then the third installment of the Harry Potter franchise, Prisoner of Azkaban; and then the dystopian Children of Men seven years ago. Cuarón’s films are ravishing, luminous, visually daring, and I understand why people love them. But there is more to storytelling than showmanship, and, especially when he’s adapting other artists’ work, Cuarón’s plotting and characterization can feel shallow, and his thematic choices confused.

There are no adaptation issues in Gravity — it’s from an original script he co-wrote with his son — but it suffers from some of the recurring Cuarón flaws. It’s a dizzying, terrifying, exhausting astronaut movie that takes full advantage of contemporary movie magic, the natural magic of the world as seen from orbit, and the existential dread summoned up by the abyss of space itself. But it also has a script that often thuds and plods along, too much clobbering symbolism, and a main character, a novice astronaut played by Sandra Bullock, whose tragic back story — a dead child, killed by a fall to earth (get it?) — that feels like it was lifted from The Manual for Lazy Screenwriters.

But this time, in this Cuarón movie, the problems registered for me intellectually but not viscerally. When it came to my enjoyment of the movie, the extraordinariness of what he put up on screen was all that really mattered. The public seems to agree: Gravity isn’t just a hit, but a hit with staying power, buoyed by impressive word-of-mouth. Like some other high-grossing examples (Titanic springs to mind), this may be a movie that simply overpowers its own weaknesses and refuses to be judged on anything except its spectacular immersiveness.

The plot is linear, simple, harrowing. A crew of American astronauts, led by the wisecracking, storytelling veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are conducting repairs on the Hubble Telescope, including some computer updates being performed by Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, on her first trip into orbit. The opening ten minutes, in which Kowalski jetpacks his way around his tinkering colleagues, chattering with Mission Control and admiring the views of Earth, would feel buoyantly awesome if they hadn’t been preceded by a single, menacing line of text: “Life in space is impossible.” So we watch, and wait, for something terrible to happen.

When it does, it starts with the Russians. Our old rivals are shooting down a broken spy satellite while Kowalski and Co. are working, and instead of knocking it back to Earth they accidentally just explode it, creating a vast debris field that starts sweeping around the planet at rapid speeds, tearing through just about everything in its path. This includes the communications array that connects Kowalski, Stone, and their team to Houston, and soon enough it includes the American astronauts themselves. Their shuttle is wrecked, most of their team killed, and Stone goes spinning off untethered, with only Kowalski’s voice, experience, and jetpack to help her back to anything like safety.

And that “anything like” is a bit of a cruel joke, given how fundamentally unsafe, how temporary and vulnerable, every refuge turns out to be. Sometimes with Clooney’s veteran at her side and sometimes on her own, Bullock’s character has to fight, float, swing, and jet-propel her way from one makeshift sanctuary to the next, while every pass from the debris field narrows her options and shrinks the time she has to use them.

All of this happens “in the blind,” with no help from Mission Control below. There are echoes of Apollo 13 throughout the film, and explicit evocations (Houston’s voice, in those first ten minutes, belongs to Ed Harris), but the silence is the crucial difference. There’s no team of alpha nerds working to bring the astronauts back, no watching, hoping, cheering audiences down below. If you feel like reading the two movies as religious allegories — and Gravity does not exactly discourage that interpretation — then Apollo 13 was about watching guardian angels bring their charges safely home to heaven, and this feels much more like a dark night of the soul.

The soul in crisis is Stone’s (Clooney’s role is crucial but clearly secondary), which means that the movie depends on Bullock’s ability to hold her own amid the effects shots and not get lost against the stunning panoramas. And despite the clichéd back story and the occasional cringe-inducing line, she delivers the kind of centered, vulnerable, physical performance the movie needs. Cuarón reportedly considered Angelina Jolie for the part but wanted Bullock most of all, and he was right. The qualities that made her a star originally — the unusual mix of charisma and ordinariness, magnetism and relatability — are perfect for the kind of absolute audience identification this part needs to inspire. After her Oscar win for The Blind Side and this summer’s mega-hit The Heat, this is part of an impressive mid-career run for Bullock. She was America’s sweetheart in the late 1990s, and now here she is 15 years later, middle-aged and no longer quite as adorable, but suddenly Hollywood’s biggest female star. That takes luck, but also smart choices — and entrusting herself to the force of Cuarón’s Gravity may be the smartest one she’s made.

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