Does ‘Gravity’ Live Up to the Hype?

"Gravity" Movie Poster
Gravity Movie Poster

Written by Amanda Rodriguez
Spoiler Alert

Alfonso Curon’s Gravity is primarily an experience. It’s an edge-of-your-seat survival tale set in the vastness, the darkness, the solitude of space. I was eager to review this film because I love sci-fi, and I love women in sci-fi flicks. I can take or leave Sandra Bullock (mostly leave her), but her performance in Gravity‘s opening sequence sold me:

It’s silent in space. Astronauts are working on the exterior of a space satellite. George Clooney as astronaut Matt Kowalski  is floating about making pleasant conversation. We can hear the labored breathing of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Her heart rate is elevated, and she’s not taking in the majesty of space because she’s too focused on her work, too focused on keeping herself under control. Dr. Stone is not an astronaut. She’s a civilian medical engineer who’s designed some special program that NASA wants to use. Trained solely for this mission, she’s fighting not to have a panic attack while perched outside the world, and then she is violently wrenched from that perch, from that narrow margin of the illusion of safety into…chaos.

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone desperately holds on as a debris storm destroys everything around her.
Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone desperately holds on as a debris storm wreaks havoc.

No other film has communicated to me the desolation of space the way that Gravity does. Dr. Stone’s vulnerability and lack of awe translate into a visceral feeling within this audience member of the true terror and anxiety of being in space, the smallness of the human animal, and the rawness of her grip on survival.

Gravity‘s cinematography is stunningly beautiful. The film is shot with such a unique style, and its zero gravity environments faced so many challenges that the movie’s innovations are being lauded as “chang[ing] the vocabulary of filmmaking.” They used puppeteers for Christ’s sake! How cool is that? Some shots did seem indulgent, perhaps trying too hard to convey Cuaron’s metaphor. The best example being when Stone makes it into a damaged space station that still has air. She disrobes in slo-mo from her suit, and the exactness of her body’s poses are anime-esque in their echoing of the fetus in the womb and birth metaphors.

Though in booty shorts, Stone is never stripped to her bra & panties.
Though in booty shorts, Stone is never stripped to only her bra & panties.

I liked Ryan Stone’s vulnerability and her constant battle with blind panic (that she sometimes loses). It made her and her experience more accessible. It’s iffy whether or not Gravity, though, manages to be a feminist film. Gravity certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but to be fair, there are very few characters at all in the movie. The only personal detail we’re given about Stone is that she was once a mother who lost her daughter to a tragic accident. This irks me because it casts Stone as the grieving mother archetype. Boooorrriiiinggg. It too simply explains her unhappy adventure beyond the ends of the earth. It forgives her for being a woman who would give up familial ties to go into space because she, in fact, has already lost those ties. Because her loss consumes her, Stone’s despair and lack of connection, in fact, justify her trip.

Clooney's Kowalski calmly tows an oxygen deprived Stone to safety.
Clooney’s Kowalski calmly tows an oxygen deprived Stone to safety.

Veteran astronaut Kowalski is a bit too perfect, too in-control, and too optimistic. When we contrast his cool command with Stone’s panic attacks, freezing up, and bouts of giving up from which he must coax her, Kowalski seems like more of the hero. That leaves Stone to be the basketcase woman whom it is Kowalski’s chivalrous duty to rescue. Stone finally encounters a situation that seems unbeatable, and she resigns herself to death. She hallucinates Kowalski comes to rescue her and gives her the information lurking in the back of her memory that she needs to save herself. He is her savior even within her mind. Not only that, but as she rouses herself from her hallucination, she says something like, “Kowalski, you clever bastard.” This leaves open the interpretation to spiritual types that she may not have, in fact, hallucinated; instead she may have had a supernatural experience in which her friend’s ghost did save her life from beyond the grave deus ex machina style. Frankly, that is just poop. Either way, Clooney as the noble, infinitely calm and self-sacrificing astronaut dude is just spreading it on a bit too thick for my taste.

Kowalski helps a flustered Stone speed up her slow work.
Kowalski helps a flustered Stone speed up her slow work.

Gravity survives on the merit of its spectacle. It is beautiful, terrifying, and gripping. The characters, while feeling real, are underdeveloped. The story itself is one big metaphor for Stone’s journey into isolation and despair after suffering personal tragedy. It is an epic allegory about the journey toward life, toward connection with the earth, which is a poignant, compelling story, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of card player Stone is or what made her want to become a doctor. Her life is a blank because she’s not an individual; she’s an archetype. If Gravity could have accomplished its visual feats, told its epic story about survival and rediscovering the self all the while giving us rich characters, I would have loved this movie. Instead, I merely like it for its grandness of vision and its ideas; I like it in spite of its tepid storyline and lukewarm characterizations.