The Most Terrifying Thing About “Gravity”

The most terrifying thing about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, has been its reception.

“In two days, this movie has become a cultural phenomenon,” states Dan Fellman.

Read almost any review of the film and you will find more or less the same analysis: “Gravity is a beautiful tale of survival that has been recorded masterfully in terms of visuals and cinematography, however has very little to say overall and what it does say is mostly done through visual and spoken clichés. But did I mention how beautiful it was?” And just for good measure, here are quotes from three of Rotten Tomatoes “Top Critics” list:

In contrast to the movie’s magisterial visuals, the writing is often pinched and conventional: an overwrought, unnecessary backstory; a clumsily executed hinge in the plot; dialogue that bristles with hoary cliché.

Frustrating as this flaw may be, however, it is one that is easy to forgive in light of the genuine wonders the film provides.
The Atlantic

In the end “Gravity” has only the most basic things to say, but it says them so well and presents them so marvelously that it’s a cinematic wonder.
The Detroit News

I only wish the film’s screenplay, co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón, were not so weightless.

None of these arguments should dissuade you from seeing “Gravity,” if only because what’s good about it is so much better than what’s bad. Visually, if not imaginatively, it sends you soaring.
The Christian Science Monitor

This disturbs me in terms of cinematic priorities. Have we so lost sight of cinema that all it takes is two people floating around a pretty picture of Earth to create an overnight “cultural phenomenon”? Certainly a good film should be visually enthralling, but at what point does the art of film become greater than the heart of film? Or have we lowered our standards so much that we can accept even the most banal story if it at least looks good?

In short, the story of Gravity is fueled by overly convenient conflict, repetitive plot structure, forced metaphors, and weak character development. The two main characters – Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the leader of the mission, which happens to be his last before he retires – are the only survivors after their shuttle is riddled with space debris that originates when the Russians attempt to shoot down one of their own satellites and end up shooting down…everyone’s satellites? The shattered pieces of the first satellite fall into the vicious trap of inertia, a phenomenon apparently unknown to Russian scientists, and the resulting debris follows a path along Earth’s orbit that coincides with several other satellites creating a massive cloud of space shrapnel that our characters encounter approximately every 90 minutes, creating an easy way to break up the long stretches of time when our two heroes are just…floating.

During these floating sequences we learn fairly little about the two characters. Dr. Stone has a (by now infamously) melodramatic backstory to which the audience is given little to evoke any kind of empathetic connection. Despite Kowalski’s general lightheartedness, he is a strong and coolheaded presence when calamity strikes which provides a contrast to Dr. Stone who is frantically unsure of what to do in these situations. As the story unfolds we see relatively no arc in either character. Dr. Stone attempts to let go of what she has lost, but we’re not even sure this is accomplished as she constantly brings it back up, sometimes literally.

As Dr. Stone begins to wonder why she should bother returning to Earth, we are forced to wonder the same thing. She believes in nothing, has no one to return to, and the only activities she has to look forward to are work and her daily run from her past. Yet, according to A. O. Scott of the New York Times:

“Much as “Gravity” revels in the giddy, scary thrill of weightlessness, it is, finally, about the longing to be pulled back down onto the crowded, watery sphere where life is tedious, complicated, sad and possible.”

Is this a conclusion that is to be lauded as a “cultural phenomenon”? How terrifyingly melancholy. A desire to return to the place where life, in it’s most miserable form, simply exists. Where is the exhilaration or passion in that?

In all, was the film technically masterful? Yes; undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary displays of cinematography and 3-dimensional prowess to date. And though it did rely too heavily on its musical score, especially for a film that claims to emphasize the “silence” of space, it was also immersive in it’s diegetic sounds. In these respects the film deserves every bit of praise it has received.

I, for one, have no “space fears;” an irrational phobia that I’ve found many people have developed in the last few days. What does scare me though is the fact that film audiences have been trained so well to open their eyes and shut off their minds when they walk into a theater; expecting no challenge to their psyche, simply a beautiful or fun picture to rest their eyes upon. A beautiful image is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking, but hopefully soon we will be able to marry the beautiful stories of old and the beautiful technology of today to create a spectacle for mind and eye simultaneously that will be truly praiseworthy as a “cultural phenomenon”.


What else you could watch:

If you are looking for a beautiful survival story about life, death, loneliness, faith, and motivation, watch Life of Pi.

If you are looking for a revolutionary, terrifying, and mind-bending story about space, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you are looking for another pretty movie with a weak, cliché story, watch Avatar.

If you are looking for ways to pass the time while NASA‘s website is shut down, watch Gravity.

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