Worst day ever ... in space.
That's an appropriate tagline for "Gravity," the new film by director Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Y Tu Mama Tambien") that stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. And truly, those two are it, the only talking faces in the 90-minute film, which opens about 350 miles above Earth and outside the space shuttle.
Not to give away too much, but things go wrong.
While utterly stunning as a technical spectacle, the film is hobbled by a weak emotional core that has all the heft of motivational posters hanging on high school walls, the ones with such pithy philosophies as "Hang in There, Baby" and "Believe You Can Achieve." Cuaron drives home these overworked messages with all the nuance of slapping someone back and forth across the face with a wet trout.
The best thing to do is to sit back, turn off most of your mind and let the action play out. Don't reach for deep-well emotions. They aren't there. And don't think too deeply about what's actually happening either because, at its core, it doesn't really hold up.
Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer turned temporary astronaut, who's directing the installation of a piece of equipment she designed for the Hubble telescope. It's never explained what that piece of equipment is, and it doesn't matter. It's not the point.
Locked down emotionally because of a tragedy she experienced years ago, Stone is pretty much just floating through life, just like she's floating around in space - alone, distant, removed. Cuaron visually echoes her sense of loneliness by often placing her as a tiny creature hovering between the Earth below and the universe above. Even her last name holds emotional meaning, as in "Cold as a ..."
Yes, symbolism is heavy in the weightless atmosphere of "Gravity"; subtlety, not so much.
In comparison to Stone, Clooney plays longtime astronaut Matt Kowalski, a glib, chatty guy who is full of life despite his own share of misfortunes on Earth. Clooney essentially plays Clooney and is the obvious flip side of Stone's coin, the vibrant yin to her barely breathing yang.
Even the film's title is allegorical. Gravity keeps us anchored to Earth, but it's also the downward tug of Stone's emotions, her constant desire to stay scrunched up in a protective fetal position as life passes her by. There's even a scene where she actually goes into a fetal position, a foreshadowing of her "rebirth."
Since she's in a spacesuit for much of the film and her character is filled with inner angst, Bullock's performance is subdued and mostly nonverbal, much of it consisting of grunts, cries and heavy breathing. She does wonderfully in a scene in which she picks up a ham radio operator on Earth and hears familiar sounds in the background, but her final soliloquy is a clumsy chunk of dialogue that, while Bullock does her best to rein in its flabbier mawkishness, is full of cliches and trite ideas.
Judging motivations is tricky, but it seems odd that Cuaron would make an emotionally shallow film like "Gravity" after directing "Children of Men," whose bleakness of subject surrounded a firm center about love, commitment and family. He's already done the CGI-heavy tent-pole movie with his "Harry Potter" entry (which had far more heart than "Gravity"), so what's he trying to accomplish here?
Perhaps just a simple roller-coaster thrill ride and, in that regard, he succeeds for the most part. But when all is said and done and you sit back to think, it's hard to swallow that Bullock's character, who says she had six months of astronaut training before heading up to space, is capable of the high-tech actions that she takes on multiple occasions.
On the upside, "Gravity" is a visual triumph, the kind of film that needs to be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate. Noted for the long, single takes in his films, Cuaron goes for broke in the first sequence, a seemingly unbroken 13-minute shot that swerves, swoops and circles around the actors as they spacewalk outside the shuttle. It's an amazing piece of technical filmmaking.
And throughout the film, the physics of space are all accurately depicted, with exacting consequences on the action and the characters. Such attention to detail helps with the suspension of disbelief; the mind doesn't doubt that these people are really out there even if, at times, you wonder why you should care.
Cuaron also does a nice job of developing a sense of claustrophobia even when Bullock and Clooney are drifting in space, clinging to the small pieces of technology that keep them alive, tiny closets of safety in the vastness of the universe around them.
Too bad he couldn't get a firmer grip on the inner universe.
Contact Shawn Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327.