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.