One Giant Leap: Gravity Is a Thrilling Breakthrough

One Giant Leap: <i>Gravity</i> Is a Thrilling Breakthrough
Warner Bros. Pictures
Seriously, it looks this good.

Some movies are so tense and deeply affecting that they shave years off your life as you're watching, only to give back that lost time, and more, at the end. Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is one of those movies.

She speaks, but Houston may not hear--an apt metaphor for prayer.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts—one a medical engineer, the other, as he puts it, the guy who "drives the bus"—who find themselves adrift in space, cut off from all (or almost all) Earth communication. This is Cuarón's first movie since his stunning dystopian fantasy Children of Men, from 2006, and his first in 3D. After several years of 3D pointlessness, I'm thoroughly sick of the format, and you may be, too. But instead of attempting to make us believe 3D is a new language, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use it simply to expand the emotional vocabulary of filmmaking, to explore both wonder and the thing that makes wonder possible: despair. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max–colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin' at ya: To see Clooney and Bullock floating and circling one another, nearly drifting into oblivion only to be reeled back, all captured in takes so long it's as if Cuarón's camera can't bring itself to look away—this is what 3D was made for.

Gravity is remarkable because it's both a spectacle and a platform for its actors, especially Bullock. Cuarón has some fun with stock 3D effects: Wrenches, bolts, fountain pens, a little Marvin the Martian figurine complete with scrub-brushy helmet all float by at some point in that optical neverland between the screen and our fingertips. As astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, Bullock and Clooney float, too, but it's a different and generally more marvelous thing. In the early moments, the duo have left the comfort of their space station: She's intent on installing a very important whatchamacallit into a thingie—doing so successfully will give her a chance at better funding for her research back home. He, on the other hand, is just fooling around, trying out a new jet pack—he resembles a toy, a human Buzz Lightyear who, thanks to NASA technology, really can fly. While Stone sweats, perhaps literally—she's not feeling well on this particular day—Kowalski busies himself with being a goofball, entertaining ground control in Houston with tall tales and general waggery. (The voice you hear from the home planet belongs to Ed Harris, who played John Glenn better than anyone else could have in Philip Kaufman's superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff.) The setup makes sense: Clooney is the clown, Bullock is the grind. It's a match made in heaven, or at least the heavens.


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Warner Brothers
Opens October 4

What follows is a romance, with elements of romantic comedy and dream logic mixed in. If Clooney's is the encouraging voice you want to hear when you're trapped in the vast nowhere of space, Bullock's face is the one you want to see. An early scene shows her drifting farther and farther from everything she knows, tetherless, possibly losing oxygen. She's terrified but also astonished at what might be happening to her, and she has never looked more beautiful—Lubezki renders her skin as luminous as platinum. Even the sound of her breathing, strained and intensified, draws us close to her.

For all the dazzling technique, this really is Bullock's movie. Stone continues to talk even after contact with home has been lost: Kowalski has reminded her that even though she can't hear Houston, Houston may be able to hear her, which is as apt and unsentimental a metaphor for prayer as I can think of. And so she takes us, if not some unseen and unheard God, into her confidence with her soliloquies—we might be the last human beings to hear them, but Bullock treats them like casual conversation. She's the perfect opposite of a grand dame actress: Instead of making pronouncements, she strives to connect.

Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. In Gravity's vision of space, all the whites are whiter and the darknesses darker: From the astronauts' point of view, the world looks like a kind of sky, a bright bowl of day turned upside-down over night. It's gorgeous, but it's also a solemn reminder that these two are just one small step away from eternal isolation. The score, by English composer Steven Price, captures that tension perfectly. Its tones are broad and low, the province of the contrabassoon and of undersea monsters, except we're not just talking about the sea or the musical staff. To go deeper into space means going farther out, and Kowalski and Stone find themselves at the edge of an ocean with no bottom, an infinity of unimaginable loneliness.

No space movie arises from a vacuum, and while there may be a mad rush to compare Gravity with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cuarón's vision is a world apart from Kubrick's. Kubrick approached space with a cool, confident master plan; Cuarón proceeds with awe. Gravity has more in common with The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma's sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn't so much about space as about the space program, and Cuarón—who co-wrote the script with Jonás Cuarón, his son—likewise captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates human beings to leave the Earth's atmosphere. And Cuarón, just as De Palma was, is alive to the empty-full spectacle of space and to the workaday poetry of the words astronauts use to describe it. To this day, detractors of Mission to Mars make fun of the picture's allegedly stiff dialogue. But have you ever heard astronauts—who are usually men of science, not Iowa Writers' Workshop grads—speak when they get that first long-distance view of Earth as a glowing orb? They grab for the simplest words, which are often the best.

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Gravity has all the individual parts of a film rated high, near a 10, but once the parts are assembled, the whole is not equal to the parts. Even though the film is shot in space, and is set to depict a realistic portrayal of how events like these could take place, the film is really just about Ryan, a single human’s struggle to survive, and then with this revelation the epic space setting becomes incidental. It might as well have been set in the forest

Problem: Ryan is not an interesting character. She seems ill prepared for such a dangerous space mission, and when she talks about her daughter, in a moment that I assume is used to attempt to ground the film in reality by showing us the why, we don’t care about her daughter. The current situation at hand is much more interesting. Including this talk about life back home was a mistake that took me out of the moment. I don’t care about Earth here; I care about this amazing crisis taking place just above Earth. A space movie should emphasize themes bigger than the individual. The mission should be more important than the life of the astronaut. Simply making it back to Earth alive is not an exciting enough conclusion.

Although maybe the best of her career, Bullock still delivers a subpar portrayal of a character that is herself subpar. I loved Cuarón’s Children of Men and I feel here Cuarón’s work is great. From a technical perspective, Cuarón’s filmmaking is incredible, the cinematography stunning, the portrayal of space amazing, so what went wrong? Besides a storyline that fails to transcend human matters, a factor that Cuarón may have been able to gloss over under different circumstances, when a film centers on a single actor, and that actor is Sandra Bullock, to quote Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”



Comments from knowledgeable film fans and astro-phycisist's will be ignored --- if not outrightly demonized --- as those on the slow-bus to zeitgeist continue gushing.  "This is what 3D was made for!"  Well, at least we can agree it wasn't made for all that blue-cat and superhero fantasy crap they've been trying to force-feed us.

Sappiest film I've seen since FORREST GUMP, with the prettiest effects since that first dinosaur movie.  So, this is what nostalgia for 1994 is like?


i normally respect writers from the village voice and here im impressed that the writer does not fall into the same discursive slump when talking about mission to mars which is brilliant and has been lauded by most of the european film community.  but why such a sophisticated writer with clearly an impressive knowledge of cinema is gushing about a movie that is really a drug movie disguised as a space movie (ohhhh stars perty...) is beyond me.  anyone who has logged enuff screening hours or marathon watched dexter breaking bad or mad men could have predicted every story beat in a film that technologically is much less sophisticated than it appears to be.   it makes nolans work on inception seem genius by comparison.   as soon as clooney tethers himself to bullock we know we are gonna get her story in the form of obligatory exposition.   we know we are going to get the theme handed to us with a bow.   this is a case where the syntax or the style of the movie is enuff to distract from its semantic emptiness.  cuarons work is meditative in the worst sense of the word.  it doesnt matter what any of it means as long as you feel something.  in that case why make a movie? just go film giant tibetan bells ringing in tandem and you have the same results.  and dont get me started on clooneys ghost...who didnt see that entire moment coming the instant clooney was lost to the void? 


"Gravity" is not something of a revelation or a visionary breakthrough.  Those comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey are doing a disservice to Kubrick and showing their superficial understanding of that movie. 

Firstly, Kubrick helped pioneer effects photography on 2001 LONG before computers created CGI and before ILM ever existed.   His visual trickery is without a doubt a milestone in cinema.

As  visual effects artist myself, I can say without a doubt that the CGI environment in "Gravity" is minimalist at best.  There is no real challenge here depicting space within the confines of a computer.  Do some motion tracking with faces that are attached to 3D models, and then reverse the technique and add real bodies where people least expect them.  It does not take a lot of work to create bump maps or texture maps to create the visuals in "Gravity."  

The miniature photography was far more complicated in 2001 to simulate orbiting and transit in space and at the same time to execute a convincing lighting scheme.  Kubrick would have killed to have had a computer that could have generated the models that he used.  It would have taken way less time.  But seeing his reaction to importing real rocks from Vietnam to England on Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick probably would have rejected the use of the computer anyway unless it ultimately meant his inability to shoot a movie.

Kubrick also rigorously studied the physical laws of space with Clarke as his guide to depict realistically conditions in space.  Cuaron who is supposed to be the son of a Engineer doesn't even seem to pay respect to basic laws of motion and force.  Wherever he feels like subjugating physics to emotion, he does so -- including the shot of Bullock standing up on a beach after many hours of weightlessness and escaping a module that surely would have caused her to have experienced the bends. 

Kubrick did not do this.  He grounded man's encounter with the fantastic within the construct of known physical laws.

In the end, "Gravity" is a predictable, elaborate, and expensive screensaver which strives to invoke awe and mystery while duping its audience into thinking it has a shred of physical reality.   It doesn't.   


@villagevoice I saw "Gravity" 3D IMAX..WOW..what visuals! Ducked many times..things coming at me! I recommend IMAX.


@villagevoice just the preview fills you with apprehension worse than riding the coaster on the stratosphere in vegas

Dorine Walski
Dorine Walski

Agreed. Have seen it twice already. Can't get enough.


@villagevoice @kingkroba saw the premiere...insanely mesmerizing film to watch. Story lacked but the film itself was pure eye candy.


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