Director Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most interesting and respected filmmakers working today. Two of his previous films, Y Tú Mamá También and Children of Men, are two of the best films of the past decades. I would call both of them masterpieces, but I’m still not sure if someone can make more than one masterwork. That definition of the word “masterpiece” seemed like was going to become an even bigger problem with the arrival of Gravity, his first film in seven years. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and went to on to garner rave reviews from every place it played at. Critics and filmmakers were quick to praise the movie and call it a masterpiece. Now, it’s on theaters and the mere mortals like myself get to experience Cuarón’s 3D extravaganza, which somehow both does and does not live up to what was expected from the festival reaction.
The unquestionably great part about Gravity is the visuals. It’s almost impossible while watching the film to contemplate the idea that this has to have been shot on earth, using filmmaking and computer graphics to achieve the look and feel of floating around in space. While this is superbly done, it’s also not perfect. There are a few moments in which the CG imagery is apparent and considering the hyper realistic style Cuarón is going for, is weird to find moments in which the director makes us aware of the presence of a fourth wall, like when a couple of water drops crash against the camera. But those are just minor flaws that wouldn’t keep the film from being a masterpiece, which sadly, it is not.
In the long wait for Gravity, a lot of rumors arose surrounding what the movie was going to be about. I think a lot of people were awaiting a 2001-like space adventure with philosophical undertones. What Gravity really is, though, is a straight forward story about a woman trying to survive after a catastrophic accident in space. Sandra Bullock plays astronaut Ryan Stone, who is aided by another astronaut played by George Clooney in her quest for survival. The fact that the movie is essentially a thriller is not a disappointment, in fact, its best moments are those that build on the tension of whether or not Bullock will achieve the next task in her quest for survival. The experience of watching the best scenes in Gravity is exhilarating, some of the most thrilling filmmaking of the year is in display here. However, there are two big flaws that keep Gravity for being one of the year’s best movies.
First, Gravity is not content with being “just” a thriller, but it’s also not interested in going in finding the depths that a more intellectually substantial film would require. The first sign of this is when we get a very awkwardly scripted scene in which we get some of Bullock’s character backstory. A backstory that is groan-inducing in its unoriginality. We didn’t really need the movie to take a look at deeper philosophical questions and we especially didn’t need for Cuarón and his son Jonás (who co-wrote the script) to try and deepen the movie in such a half-assed way. And so it is that later, rght after one of the movie’s most poignant and visceral moment (without many spoilers, this is when Bullock’s character has a radio conversation aboard the russian spaceship), we get a terrible, terrible series of scenes plagued with dialogue as clunky as to have been written by James Cameron.
The second problem with Gravity is its use of sound. The movie opens with a title card that tells us there is no sound in space. And it is at its most thrilling when it follows this premise, letting us know how truly terrifying the idea of being trapped in a completely soundless vacuum is. Many other powerful moments, however, are undercut with an overbearing, frustratingly generic and loud score (one of the most tiring trend to come out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception). Not to mention how puzzling and nonsensical the decisions of what does and doesn’t get a sound effect is. Things randomly do or don’t make sound for no apparent reason. These two aspects become increasingly frustrating as the movie goes along, since it opens with a scene that promises an interesting approach to sound and a daring and original aural experience.
Despite the flaws, which are frustrating, the experience of watching the movie is quite something. I’m not a huge fan of 3D, but I’d say that the inflated prize in order to get the IMAX screen is worth it. I would say go watch Gravity and enjoy its thrills, just don’t expect it to be a transcendent experience; but the truth is that there is something incredibly frustrating and sad about the failures of this movie. Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi and now Gravity have been movies praised for the work of their auteurs with the tools and visuals of 3D. And while they are technically impressive, they all lack in the screenplay department. I’m still waiting for the first great 3D movie to be made. And it seems like I’ll keep on waiting.