Alfonso Cuarón is part of a group of technocentric directors committed to pushing the envelope. If it’s large enough to require the efforts of several men one wonders how big it is. A fellow member of that group, James Cameron, has the director’s thanks at the tail end of Gravity’s credits. One’s left to reflect on the irony that Cuarón’s always been much more successful, particularly in this century, at mercurially balancing an innovative visual schema with storytelling fundamentals, yet here that talent’s devolved to a level of Avatarian simplicity. Here the story and characters are bolts in the machine. It’s a jaw dropping feat of engineering but that thank you seems misplaced; it’s like Cézanne taking tips on painting from the boy who sold him his brush.
When the wow factor recedes, as it surely must, then Gravity may come to be regarded as a 21st century cousin of Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans: magnificently built with a fallow scenario. Cuarón’s two humans exist to bolt humanity onto the tech but you can see the join. Clooney’s awe-strewn astronaut is there to humble us in the face of this eye-widening spectacle, in case Framestore’s hard work doesn’t quite connect with the seen-it-all-before cynics in the audience. Well they haven’t see it – not like this; and one feels that if they’re not impressed there’s no talking to them and Clooney’s wasting his oxygen. Then there’s Sandra Bullock; the philosophy plug-in. She’s death, rebirth and faith in one panicked package. That’s not to say we’re ungrateful – expanding humanity’s horizons is an expensive sideshow without the humanity but Cuarón’s screenplay is too clunky to be profound and sentiment never connects when you can see the maker’s mark.
Gravity isn’t really interested in character; it’s a movie built for spectacle and scale; a monument to visual effects artistry and the possibilities of digital filmmaking. Until now space on film, with the exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, has seemed strangely grounded but here, thanks to the craft employed in capturing its physical reality, it becomes a character in its own right. The quiet and weightlessness of the expanse is eerie and frightening. There’s the sense of being utterly alone in a void where nature’s the enemy and life, so clumsily supported by technology, hangs by a thread. The detail and simulated physics of the facsimile is such that this is to space what Jurassic Park’s computer generated dinosaurs were to stop animation models. A virtual camera floats around the actors, instead of merely framing them like an operator on terra firma: it’s the perfect synergy of technique and environment.
In fact Gravity would convince on every level had as much love and hard work gone into the screenplay. Given it takes the least R&D it’s perhaps surprising that Cuarón and son Jonás didn’t spill as much creative juice making a script that could withstand the twin threats of scrutiny and time. The result showcases the dangers associated with creating a showcase; a movie where the story and characters are there to facilitate technical experimentation. Blessed be the innovators but those interested in timelessness need to hire some writers and restore the basics to their rightful place in the cinematic firmament.