The publicity machine for the new movie Gravity bills it as some sort of existential action thriller, a sort of human vs. the infinite abyss, and a meditative look at the ends of the universe using the best visual technology of our time. Critics, apparently hungry for an intelligent hit, took the bait using superlatives reserved for revelation to describe the greatness of the film. If you went into the movie expecting some religious confrontation, even for the atheist or materialist among us, you would feel fulfilled, apparently.
And indeed, I felt this way for the first ten minutes. I didnt want to blink my eyelids for fear of missing something overwhelming, immersive and beautiful. Each second rushed into the next awaiting the chance to let go of my breath as I felt part of that foreign air where sound cannot travel. Then came the speeches and simplistic and heavy-handed narrative that felt hastily written and poorly executed as if the compelling visuals would absolve the need or desire for a semblance of a gripping story. Because by the end the movie felt like a visually stunning but crude video game with levels of increasingly challenge and adversity, until its final moments of release.
The movie suffered from many of the common flaws from of our big name, big budget, big technology directors, specifically, from the flaws of Christopher Nolan and James Cameron. Nolan, the contemporary master of mood and action, is also a shameless indulger in his lack of subtlety. Speech after speech about insight and wisdom and fear and bats and ghouls and darkness and resilience and America etc. came vomiting out of his characters until you began to simply root for just the Joker, throughout all of the movies. Nolan's style works under the assumption that we fear ambiguity, or any real uncomfortable challenge in our art. Both Nolan and Cuaron betray a belief that explicitness can substitute for intelligence, and end up sounding like whiny sensitive teenagers writing in their angst journal.
James Cameron generally feels so damn certain of the importance and magnitude of his technical and visual achievements that he doesn't seem to see a need for an actually well-written and crafted story (Sorry, but Terminator 2 is largely a stupid stupid story). Of course, nothing can take away from these real achievements in the craft of film, but neither Avatar nor Gravity could ever be a great movie, a self-contained masterpiece. Both will always be important steps onto the new stage of technologically driven movies. Even in these movies, the experience fights an inherent shelf-life in the freshness of imagery. You can only sustain the high of inspiration for so long until, naturally, the human mind will acclimate, will harden against even the most beautiful of images.
Past the general boring nature of the actual story, Cuaron ventures into sad territory in the clear failures of his overweening ambition. Two visuals stick out as just flat and pathetic. Both feel more heavy-handed than Lenny from Of Mice and Men dealing with a wee rabbit. These two images document the path of reentering the womb, huddling in the comfort of nonaction, into the rebirth, the redemption of mankind - a fine idea if not bludgeoned into our faces. The first image finds Bullock in a vessel shaped in the circular look of a womb. Bullock huddles into herself, returning to fetal position, and the camera pans in and the lighting follows accordingly, so like Neo in the last Matrix we know for 1000% sure that he is the one, and that Bullock will be reborn.
Cuaron tops the heavy handedness of this scene only with the final complementary scene. Bullock now out of the womb of space, lands in the water with atrophied muscles. She can barely crawl to the shore, but slowly, and magically, her muscular ability returns as she runs the gambit of evolutionary development. She swims from the water, then slides on the sand, then, at the apex of the movie, ultimately becomes a human being, standing on her own two feet!!! (Hazaaah, and the crowd goes wild!!!) A beautiful underlying motif is made lame and offensive by the inability to tread lightly.
Let us marvel at long, drawn-out shots of beautiful and terrifying space, leave us alone in the silence of endless time and space pondering our insignificance, confronting our most basic and visceral fears. To think that we need more than that when staring into the infinity of space betrays a meagre vision of mankind. Heavy handedness. especially about something so basic so built into our experiences (who needs explanations or reasons to fear the abyss of space?), starts to feel pandering and sort of cheap and easy. What does it say when a director feels the need to use neon bright signs of dialogue to tell us how to think and feel? Do we really need a manufactured enemy to blame (it's the Russians, of course) in the face of the abyss of existence? Every single foray past the procedurals of surviving is both lame, reductive, and degrading to the visual quality of the movie.
As with Nolan the alternating of beauty and sentimentality of the movie not only grates but ought to frustrate because the experience always hints at transcendence, always point to greatness but from afar (You can always sense the potential genius in Nolan, waiting to emerge from out behind his grand schemes. Inception is the best example of that.). This dynamic, of a talented director not giving his crowd enough credit, ought to make us sad in the way of missed opportunities.
Because there are hints of real genius. Bullock floats away from Clooney, forever, and at that moment of tragedy, floats right into the viewing field of the intense beauty of the Aurora Borealis painting a large swath of earth. After the moment of horror, facing loneliness and death Bullock can't help but confront the majestic beauty of nature in its full force. This could have been pure Terrence Malick, wondering about the absurdity of human pain against the royalty of natural beauty. Yet Cuaron moves on quickly to the next video game level and the movie begins to rest on its laurels assuming that the same visual images will not wear off.
Coming in I felt scared of this movie. No one likes to confront their mortality, the true and abiding loneliness of life, our insignificance, but that Cuaron chose to make this a simplistic and unsubtle movie about the human spirit, about the redemption of mankind in our resilience, left me feeling considerably more sad than inspired, wondering what real genius could do with this technology.