Perched on the edge of audacity, like a teenage boy preparing his first cliffjump, Gravity promises a wondrous spectacle, crafting a fantasy of outer space’s weightless and seamless solitude; promising the camera’s liberation from gravity, and VFX’s deliverance from a better existence than mere superhero scaffolding.
Without gravity, DP Emmanuel Lubezki can free the camera from the pull of logic to explore the universe’s sensorial wonder, the vast emptiness of an imagined space bordering on the metaphysical. And when the Lubezki/Cuarón camera slides seamlessly from the objective iciness of space to inch its way behind Dr. Stone’s helmet arriving at her fearful and illuminated subjectivity, promising a link between the anthropocentric and the cosmological, in a shot that could have been inspired from Virginia Woolf, is the moment in which Gravity reaches its apex.
Unfortunately this high water mark arrives in only the 20th minute, and there are still another 111 which must be filled, rather than take that leap into the dangers of the unknown, Gravity clings white-knuckled to fossilized clichés of tension and event.
In a post-existentialist, post-Solaris cinema why can Cuarón (or Warner Brothers) never muster enough faith in the cinema for itself? As if the sensual wonders of outer space and the insignificance of a miniscule terrorized body measured up against this incomprehensibly immense emptiness were not sufficient to fill a film. In terror of this void, knees buckle, compromises are made and the screenwriting gives way to the event – something must always happen (which in Hollywood terms more often than not means something must explode). Fair enough. This will not be the first nor last time. And explosions can be very entertaining. But why this something (another explosion, another countdown, another terror-inducing chord), must be repeated time and after time can only be explained by lack of courage (or admittedly, by the attraction of billions of box-office dollars).
Why, after Dr. Stone was impossibly rescued by a thick-jawed Clooney (in a role so full of heroic grace and massive chin-ness that it would shame Buzz Lightyear), after impossibly accessing the ISS with her final breaths of oxygen, after impossibly escaping from the immanent explosion, after impossibly jetting over to the Soyez in the last remaining capsule, after freeing the capsule impossibly from its parachute cords, after impossibly making it to the Chinese space station Tiangong, after magically figuring out the Chinese touchpad and after impossibly landing on Earth safely, why in the world does she have to open the capsule door in the middle of the sea and be put in danger of drowning?
Is not Dr. Stone’s salvation enough, or her literally in-credible return to planet Earth and the glories of a return to living nature? Besides the suite of ridiculous last-second rescues à la James Bond, why does Dr. Stone need to have the hokey screenplay trope of a dead daughter in order to disconnect her from the world (remember the dying daughter in Elysium, in which Matt Damon saves not only the entire world, but the cute daughter of his childhood love as well?)?
Isn’t the psychological, existential, material and sentimental disconnect enough? This constant and mediocre desire to explain all through the personal history of a protagonist is figurative of a philosophy which rather than blooming the human experience out towards the unknown cosmos, shrinks this potential and generous movement of universality to the mere insignificance of an individual pain.
The action, the explosions, the explanations ultimately only rid the image and sound of their potency, and rather than revealing a cinematic force, exposes a lack of courage or faith in its own potential grandeur, and the constantly hurtling particles, objects, body parts become little more than the ease of premature VFX ejaculation(s).
Nonetheless, Gravity did take that first step. Cuarón may have lacked the moxie to jump off that high cliff, but at least he climbed up its side, and Gravity, rather than being the revolution it is touted to be, is but the hint of a step towards something: the possibility of using imaginative composited universe as something more than shop dressing; the beginning of a movement of conceiving the Green Screen as a White Canvas, filled here with the universe’s immensity, the lightness of being, the terror of solitude, the wonder of light. All of which becomes tainted tainted by the insistence on visual and musical happenings. The sobriety and the splendor of a white suit tumbling headfirst through star-studded void turns gaudy when this space becomes but a vehicle the thousands of particles shooting through space threatening the heroines’ life.
And we, the humble viewers are not granted trust enough to have our own sense of wonder at the craft of cinematography, and thus must be cajoled towards it through music, astounding for its precision and as effective as robotic surgery, where every note hits nowhere else but exactly where it should.
Gravity, in fearing to confront the metaphysical significance of its art remains but plastic expression (although a beautiful expression at that), which in liberating itself from the earth’s pull, nonetheless fears its own limits. Stripped of its insecurities, of the shiny varnish of its events, Gravity could be sublime.
Although Cuarón’s movie never does reach its promised heights at least it does resensibilize us to our conception of space. When Gravity calms itself from the buzz of hyperactive tension, we catch anew a glimpse of the lost innocent of our technological existence: 40+ years after we first landed on the moon, we accept for granted not only the technological prowess to build the machines but also the imaginative burst it took mankind to arrive in the endless unknown of space in the first place, and we are granted this as well as the relief from the terror of the void in Dr. Stone’s return to the lush embrace of the Earth, the elemental link to the mud and water which sustains us, although we always must forget it.