In Children of Men (2006), adapted by five screenwriters from a P. D. James novel and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the sociopolitical element of James's novel has been subordinated to the protagonist's progress from detachment to purpose. The entire film carries a blunted impact, because much of the story's context is blurred or has been dissolved away. At times it's hard to understand or even to believe what's going on around Clive Owen's character. At least he has a life history and relationships, and the challenge he adopts takes him through stages of development.
Children of Men represents a species of anti-realistic filmmaking in which people are abstracted from much of their world, leaving a presumed essence: someone facing the situation of the moment, which is often rendered virtuosically. In one unbroken sequence, a car in which the main characters are riding is attacked on a country road for no apparent reason except that, gosh, the world has become a bad place, and besides, something needs to happen to one of them for the sake of the plot. The scene is nearly pointless but also a true technical marvel.
In the current film Gravity, Cuarón has taken the process of abstraction much further. Here he works again with cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki, from a script he wrote with Jonás Cuarón, his son.
The world has now literally been removed to the background, along with all but two specimens of humankind. The film transpires in orbit, with the great globe itself (to borrow from Prospero) not dissolved but put firmly in its place, as Cuarón seems to think, somewhere beneath us. The situation is simple but desperate: two astronauts, deprived of their shuttle-shelter, must find a new vehicle that can take them home. As in the road sequence of Children of Men, bad things happen; reasons are given, which appear to satisfy many viewers, but they're almost all scientifically dubious. The real reason for much of what happens is that Cuarón and Lubezki want a chance to show some tricks. They can make you believe that they do impossible things before breakfast. But their movie is little more than a kinetic thrill ride, the newest thing in an amusement park.
What happens next? Clooney comes to a halt, but the movie shows that some mysterious force keeps trying to pull him away. The zero-G environment is irrelevant (though the eminent Neil deGrasse Tyson implied otherwise); this wouldn't happen on an ice rink any more than it would happen in space. The mysterious force pulling on Clooney is only the screenwriters, who want to force a climactic decision on him. Many more absurdities having to do with physics and astronauts working in space occur in Gravity.
Beyond that, it has lightweight characters, flimsy plotting, and some clunky dialogue. What's to like?
In a way, it's naïve to complain about Gravity's scientific-technical cheats. But some remarkable works with which it might be compared -- for instance the novel Moby-Dick (there's a fine LA Review of Books essay here, though I disagree with it) and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey -- have told their astounding tales without abandoning realism. Yes, 2001 turns mystical at the end, but as long as it's operating in the known universe, it follows the rules of physics. Fact need not be opposed to enchantment.
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