Does ‘Gravity’ Live Up to the Hype?

[caption id="attachment_3898" align="aligncenter" width="575"]"Gravity" Movie Poster Gravity Movie Poster[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_3937" align="aligncenter" width="592"]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.[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_3943" align="aligncenter" width="606"]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.[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_3954" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Clooney's Kowalski calmly tows an oxygen deprived Stone to safety. Clooney’s Kowalski calmly tows an oxygen deprived Stone to safety.[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_3961" align="aligncenter" width="460"]Kowalski helps a flustered Stone speed up her slow work. Kowalski helps a flustered Stone speed up her slow work.[/caption]

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.

 

 

 

20 Comments

  • Chad Schoenauer
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Great review! I am hoping to see this film just for the idea, scope and cinematography.
    I wouldn’t expect Clooney to give up his typecast (or Bullock for that matter) but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the male role was the anxiety riddled/somebody-save-me person and Bullock was the calm assertive one? They missed an opportunity for an empowering performance on many levels.
    Sounds like another great sci-fi idea with a flattened story that was dumbed down for mass appeal. I hope Hollywood is reading this. I, for one, have no need to see any more booty shorts in space.

  • Anthony Rodriguez
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Great review! ! I really want to check this one out!

  • beetjuice021
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Great review, but to be fair to the film Kowalski’s character had a good plot reason to be the calm confident one– as the astronaut with the second most hours in space and a mission leader. At most I thought he was actually a sort of pixie dream girl for Stone- an unrealistic supporting character who was there mainly to push forward her character’s development arc. Even in his reappearance in Dr Stone’s hallucination, it was only to push her along. And it’s explicitly mentioned that the landing boosters were told to Dr. Stone in her training- this comes from Kowalski’s mouth during the hallucination. I interpret that as a clear indication that shes doing all this thinking herself. I also thought the character underdevelopment was deliberate– it fits in with the feel of the rest of the film: the emptiness and sterile beauty of space.

    • Julian Cheslow
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      I remember reading Cuaron wanted audiences to be able to insert there own experience with despair when watching,which i think is why Stone is a bit underdeveloped.

      • Braddles74
        Posted October 17, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        The movie plays like a first draft of a screenplay. I found it to be a terribly undercooked story and script, with 2 dimensional characters and quite patronising to women.

        • R.V
          Posted December 28, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          Quite patronising to women….

          Wow. Talk about completely missing the point of the movie.

  • nothingness168
    Posted October 16, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I thought the characters were as well developed as needed given the dire situation they were in. The fact that they were able to give some emotional heft to this amazingly technical and beautiful film was quite genius. I would have never thought in a million years that someone could make a touching and emotional sci-fi movie, ever, these guys were brilliant.

  • Braddles74
    Posted October 17, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    This aint no feminist movie! The female character is depicted as hysterical, panic stricken and incapable of rescuing herself without the help of a man. What an insult to our truly brilliant female astronauts who no doubt have had to be BETTER than their male counterparts in order to make it in their profession.

    To make matters worse, when Bullock just can’t take it anymore, Clooney comes to save her, berating her for being weak and a quitter. Gravity puts the women’s movement back about 50 years. I think it’s really sad to hear film critics, both male AND female, gushing about how wonderful it is that we have a “strong” female lead in a movie, when in fact Gravity doesn’t depict this at all. Go and watch Contact with Jodie Foster where you’ll see a highly intelligent, competent and determined female protagonist.

    • Matrim Cauthon
      Posted November 9, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Obviously a feminist will be so strong that she will not feel any emotion nor panic for the first time experiencing disaster on her first mission 124 miles above space! Nothing can possibly rile her or destroy her, and she doesn’t need no stinking man to save her!

      You are describing a robot, not a human. If that’s what a feminist movie is like, I’m glad this ain’t one!

  • Braddles74
    Posted October 17, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Great review. I’ve been a bit gobsmacked that so many respected film critics have been giving this movie full marks, when it so badly misses the mark in depicting a 3 dimensional strong woman, in addition to such a preposterous story and poorly developed script.

    • Matrim Cauthon
      Posted November 9, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Obviously having a 3-dimensional strong woman is the only criteria of a great movie! We can forget about plots, suspense, character development (if you have a perfect being – what character development will you have?), etc.

      My friend – you should be a movie producer yourself, that way you can produce the perfect movie with perfect 3-d woman.

      Talk is cheap – make a movie and let’s see how you do.

  • Posted October 18, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Really, sometimes there’s just a bit too much philosophical heavy breathing at this site. Why can’t it sometimes just be about telling an age old story in a new cool way that does something just a little different? We have a minimal number of characters falling into archetypes, Jungian or otherwise (you be the judge): the novice who has a journey which transforms and with the water crossing replaced by space, the experienced teacher who sacrifices for the novice, and the goofball who gets the shaft.

    Not to mention, here we see Sandra Bullock, an elegant over 45 getting the role of a lifetime that women in her age category in Hollywood’s not too distant past would never be granted. Brava to her for a wonderful performance!

    • Posted November 19, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      I agree that casting a so-called “older” woman is a great thing, and I hope it signals a trend in Hollywood that recognizes that women don’t suddenly lose their talent when they hit a certain age.

      You’ve also got to remember that this is a feminist website, and we do reviews of film and TV through a feminist lens. And my idea of feminism, of course, might not be the same as the next person’s. My primary questions when writing a review are: how does this depict women? how does it serve women? is it saying something that takes us forward or backwards? Media can be a lot of things: intelligent, moving, epic, cerebral, frightening, etc, but as wonderful as those things are, that doesn’t always make it feminist, which is what I’m always hunting for.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Thank you for your reply. I will address this somewhat elliptically, my apologies.

        The intial problem with Freudianism as a perspective was that it rapidly became a caricature of itself. Marxism fared better, splintered into competing yet dynamic and complex variations on a theme – structural Marxism, instrumental Marxism, and so on. I take these two ideologies as typologies not because I agree or disagree with them. Both share having had a difficult time in praxeological terms. The question for contemporary Feminism as a larger ideology or in practice on websites like this is will it serve to become an ideological straight jacket or have the flexibility to encompass competing visions and wisely know the limits so as to not become deterministic? Of course the struggle for women’s rights is a human struggle and will continue no matter what ideas enable or constrain its engagement with the world of ideas (just as economic justice and sexual self understanding continue with or without this or that particular ideology to encapsulate).

        When as a writer you feel like you have shove everything into a prefabricated metaphor, well that’s when you need to go read some Heidegger and understand the fundamental problem of trying to fit what is inherently dynamic into a static format. Read Heidegger’s discussion of aletheia, and his Poetry, Language, Thought to better know what I’m talking about.

        • Posted March 28, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the mansplanation.

          • Posted November 4, 2014 at 5:39 am | Permalink

            The problem with such responses is that they bite back. If my argument can be dismissed as mere function of gender then the same applies to the observer. Aristotle proposed that we accept for our interlocutor the same degree of autonomy we wish to be granted for ourselves. This is a first principle of dialogue. Otherwise we might as well just hide in our inter-textual closets.

  • Mimi
    Posted October 27, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Oh yes a “strong, powerful woman” is exactly what EVERY woman is. Please. She’s a) not an astronaut b) only had 6 months of training. How would you expect her to react in that situation? I know what I’d do- FREAK OUT.

    Just because you’re hysterical in a scary situation doesn’t mean you’re not strong. She lived. She was the sole survivor. She could’ve given up and died but her brain produced the little bit of knowledge that saved her life.

    We don’t need lots of strong women in media. We need REAL women.

    • Matrim Cauthon
      Posted November 9, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Finally a sane voice in this place! Bravo for REAL women!

    • Posted November 19, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

      Actually, in the review, I talked about how much I liked her vulnerability and struggle with anxiety. That makes her and the terrifying experience of being in space more accessible. For me, it wasn’t a question of strength or wanting Stone to be a “stronger” woman; I just wanted her to be more fleshed out. I know more details about Kowalski, who is a supporting character, than I do about Stone, the lead.

  • Matrim Cauthon
    Posted November 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    You might want to ask people who experienced rebirth to see if they “saved” themselves, or if they feel a higher form of experience via either a dead relative or God directly.

    While those experiences are highly subjective – your “fantasy/wish” that Stone would have been able to “save” herself just don’t match human experiences given her particular predicament.

    You mind want to think whether films should be made to match reality or your feminist wishes.

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