I like movies, obviously. I try to keep track of major technological advances, as well as filmographies of actors and directors, but I couldn't exactly teach a class. For example, I forgot (or maybe I never knew) that Alfonso Cuarón directed The Prisoner of Azkaban. It's my favorite of the Harry Potter movies, despite the considerable handicap of being the first of the series without Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I haven't seen Y Tu Mama Tambien, or any of his other films.
I finally saw Cuarón's Gravity, and it is a remarkable achievement. Remarkable, though, is a loaded word. Passenger Seat Mom and College Kid despised it, and voiced their displeasure repeatedly while I expressed my admiration for the skill on display. They weren't wrong, but it's not like I was just going to agree with them! Spoilers ahead....
Make no mistake, enormous technical and directorial skills are on display here. Gravity is an intense film-watching experience, one of disorientation, isolation, fear, exultation, and every other emotion that its main character experiences. It is spectacularly beautiful. Even on a living room plasma, it projects vastness. It is also nauseating, and possibly seizure-inducing, because half of the movie is spent with the background literally spinning behind the characters in the foreground.
First things first. Sandra Bullock is a wonderful, and more important, extremely likable actress. That's a good thing here, because if Sandra Bullock wasn't playing Dr Ryan Stone, this may as well have been an iMAX attraction at a theme park. Written as a novice astronaut scientist, she has a tragic backstory with psychological implications, as well as a weightlessness nausea issue. NASA must have been completely desperate for candidates to even have allowed her in the building, let alone in a space shuttle. Her inability to follow direct commands leads to her being jettisoned from the shuttle and its crew, which of course inadvertently saves her life from the Crisis!-In!-Space!
The Crisis! here is an ultimate "MacGuffin," as the great Roger Ebert would have said. A rebel Russian missile strike, or whatever, has destroyed a Russian satellite, and a debris field, or whatever, is hurtling through space at 50,000 miles per hour, or whatever, shredding everything in its path. Mission Control in Houston casually informs the Shuttle crew about the debris field, but doesn't issue an abort (GTFO!) order. This is apparently only for the purpose of leaving the crew and shuttle exposed just long enough to be mutilated by the flying debris field. (No, it is not good when another astronaut can see the earth directly through your face, in case you were wondering.)
Conveniently, the debris field will also damage the "nearby" Russian space station just enough to allow Stone to inadvertently cause a fire from which she must escape at the last possible minute. Also the next space station over (it's crowded up there!), which is Chinese, but not enough to destroy the re-entry vehicle that Stone will ultimately use to save herself. Stone, naturally, is able to survive not just one, but two separate encounters with the destructo-field while she is free and exposed in open space, protected by nothing but a space suit. Well, okay, but only because Harry Callahan never got shot either.
But I jumped ahead. Stone is initially and subsequently rescued by the only thing that I really liked about this movie -- George Clooney. His divorced Astronaut Kowalski, on his final mission (naturally), exudes the easy confidence of a guy who has been there, done that, seen everything, and enjoyed the ride. He rescues Stone in open space, and then tether drags his oxygen deprived and barely capable companion to the Russian space station. The trip is conveniently just long enough that we get to hear Stone's story of random tragedy, and timed perfectly to allow for her second fortuitous encounter with the orbiting debris.
Kowalski, however, is not so lucky, and neither are we. As they reach the damaged Russian space station, low on oxygen, their speed is too fast to control. Stone becomes entangled eversobarely in parachute cords that restrain her. Kowalski doesn't, and his momentum threatens to drag them both off into deep space. So ta-dah, he cuts himself loose to save her.
Really? That's all the George we get? Kowalski's been on a gazillion space missions, he just rescued Stone from deep space, and that's the best he could come up with because her oxygen is low and oh, right, The-Debris-Field-is-Coming?
I don't think that this was only so that we couldn't expect a Bullock-Clooney space-skivvies hookup. Thinking back, the story needs the weight of losing Clooney after what seems like about 5 minutes (yes, he is that cool). We need a reason other than Bullock to fully invest in the annoying, depressing, and borderline competent Stone. We can't allow Kowalski's sacrifice to be in vain, so we root for Stone to survive, which we all know would be impossible without him.
Just to hammer it home, Kowalski returns just as Stone has decided to waste his sacrifice and allow herself to drift off into suicidal oxygen-deprivation inside the Russian escape capsule that she has somehow been able to get herself into, despite having set the space station on fire and having to disentangle the escape vehicle from the very same parachute cords that saved her. He reinvests her with the Will-To-Live, reminds her of his earlier lesson how to operate the capsule, and sends her on to the Chinese space station with an additional nugget of wisdom that will allow her to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and successfully "land." Except... he isn't actually there! Of all the script gimmicks that I despise, the hallucination cheat is at or near the top of the list. At least in something like Braveheart or Gladiator, the hallucinations of dead wives just serve as illustrations. Here the hallucination actually advances the storyline significantly. I hate that!
When Stone finally splashes down in a pristine mountain lake (rather than the vast ocean or, you know, the side of a mountain) after an unplanned descent trajectory in a damaged re-entry vehicle, she swims to shore, stands and walks. (And no, Nolan-lovers, from what I have read, we are not meant to question whether she has survived.) So... Exactly how many completely unrealistic situations do we need to accept? I'm not talking about the minutiae that space nerds (apology!!) would research, like whether or not a fire extinguisher could propel a human through space. It's just, I mean, come on! Alone in the empty outer void, it really doesn't require a gigantic MacGuffin and a Murphy's Law succession of completely improbable circumstances to create isolation and terror. Watch Ron Howard's Apollo 13 for a tense, infinitely more believable (and at least nearly true) space disaster movie. All it takes is a little engine or life support system malfunction. Or, you know, this.
Look, I get it. The whole film is beautiful, and it closes with a powerful final image. A woman resigned to losing everything is able to save herself physically via her own spiritual rebirth. I just think that the same ending, as unlikely and unrealistic as it is, would have been more effective if the combination of Stone's insecurity, psychological baggage, and inexperience had been less pronounced. This isn't some determined, plucky woman proving her abilities in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This is a psychological wreck of a character in a situation that she is completely unprepared to handle, who has to be rescued once by a more seasoned and competent male character and then a second time by a hallucination of the same cool dude.
So yeah, Gravity is a technical and visual achievement. I'm just not sure its story is worth the nausea.