What goes up
(WARNING: film's plot, narrative twists and ending discussed in close and explicit detail)
Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity comes with its own planet-sized hype: about the 17-minute opening shot, about the vertiginous sense of depth (enhanced by the 3D process), about the unprecedented scientific veracity.
The basic premise turns on a frightening demonstration of the Kessler Syndrome: the Russians have blown up a satellite and the resulting debris have pingponged their way across space towards the orbiting space shuttle in a rain of high-velocity scrap (it's a serious real-life problem and collisions between satellites have been recorded). Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are the only survivors and must make their way back to Earth using crippled equipment under adverse circumstances.
More interesting than the premise--or the actors, really--is Cuaron's attempt at telling the story in as dramatic and realistic a manner as possible. Much of the action happens in real time, in lengthy tracking shots; danger when it approaches is spotted quickly--what gives danger in space its unique quality is that you often can't do much about it even if you do see it, or know it's coming (the satellite debris that wreaks havoc on the shuttle will take ninety minutes to circle the globe and menace the shuttle again). Collisions are spectacular but--unsettlingly--occur in silence (well, not total silence; to Cuaron's credit he gives us muffled thuds, presumably conducted through umbilical lines, or through thick work gloves with a tenuous grip on an exterior rung).
For those interested Cuaron doesn't achieve complete realism: Stone would have done better to have the robot arm or Shuttle Remote Maneuvering System (SRMS) lower her (or she could have simply climbed down the arm's length) than to wait for Kowalski to rescue her with the infinitely slower Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU); the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope (and for that matter most communication satellites) are on widely differing orbits, the distances (not to mention velocities involved) impossible to cross using just the MMU; Stone initiates re-entry with a minimum of attitude adjustment (as in none), even if re-entry is actually a trickier and more dangerous process than what you see onscreen. Cuaron himself admits he sacrificed some accuracy for story purposes.
That isn't all Cuaron sacrifices: I'm guessing in its earlier incarnation the film was devoid of music, and Cuaron after a few less-than-positive test screenings was pressured to add a score--more an orchestrated hum, actually--to enhance drama and tension. Big mistake, I'd say; Stanley Kubrick in 2001 (still my idea of most accurate onscreen depiction of space) suggested the depths of space not just through miniatures posed against yards of black felt but through Kubrick's freakishly disciplined mis-en-scene and totalitarian control of details (including a leisurely editing rhythm and overall pace that evokes the sense of vast reaches being crossed): when Frank Poole is lost in space it takes David Bowman long minutes to rescue him--no music to shatter the expectant mood, no cheap hysterics to suggest desperation (at most Bowman's speech grows more clipped and annoyed). Cuaron cheats; there may not be any ambient sound in his version of space but the rather loud and mechanical score guarantees that there also won't be a lot of boredom experienced, especially by the ADHD crowd (a probably significant demographic).
Richard Brody in the New Yorker points out a more serious flaw: the film has no inner life, not much apparent art mediating what the characters see and what the camera sees (actually between what has been digitally composed for the characters to see and what has been digitally composed for the camera to see); what point of view there is is revealed to be blandly heroic and competent. Good point (even if Brody erroneously (least I assume it's erroneous; he's always welcome to explain himself) suggests that Jupiter's massive gravity and not Kubrick's mysterious monolith triggered the mind-bending space trip in 2001), though you wonder at his attempt to connect the film to documentaries.
Yes, the film is a shallow concept; it isn't meant to be anything more than shallow, and is hardly the first film to be so. Films about survival are a somewhat varied genre (recent examples off the top of my head: Danny Boyle's hyperbolic--and not in a good way--127 Hours; Kris Kentis' efficient Open Water; Robert Zemeckis' idiosyncratically humorous Cast Away) but Cuaron's picture has less in common with them (for one thing the protagonist--and why haven't more people thought of this?--is female) or with documentaries than with the kind of gimmicky projects filmmakers concocted to challenge themselves: Hitchcock's Lifeboat (movie set entirely in a lifeboat), Rope (movie apparently composed of a single unbroken shot), and (most effectively) Rear Window (movie set entirely in an apartment); Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (I suppose I'm stretching now), which someone once described to me as "the ultimate film-school exercise."
I'd also call this film cousin (at least in spirit) to Howard Hawks' The Thing, where efficiency and smarts are the rule, the monster is merely a problem to be solved, and the only hint of inner life on display is the sexual challenge presented to bland Captain Hendrey by the surprisingly sexy (this is Antarctica after all, where after months in that frozen landscape even a husky would look appealing) Nikki Nicholson. Hendrey and his men hunt the creature with the methodical cool of professionals, the way Clooney's Kowalski proposes solutions to problems like a professional chess player--in space the biggest issue aren't events that inspire fear and anxiety, but clearing one's head of fear and anxiety: "focus," you could hear Kowalski lecturing Stone in so many words, "is all." Stone's one act of imagination is important solely for the coolly logical solution handed to her, a gift from beyond the grave; otherwise Cuaron could have snipped it from the picture.
But then, Hawks might have cut the scene too. When Hendrey opens a door and finds The Thing standing there snarling he doesn't suddenly pause to debate the random nature of the universe, the poignant fragility of life and one's uncertain role in the flow of things; he shuts the door. Intellectual asides, Hendry must have thought, are literally beside the point here.
(Talking about asides--Gravity's finale, involving the fiery re-entry of thousands of shards of metal into Earth's atmosphere, features some of the most unpersuasive digitally-composed flames I've seen recently (not a high bar, there). To see a re-entry done properly try watching Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff--where, like Kubrick, Kaufman relies on old-fashioned on-camera tricks and pyrotechnics to achieve his effects)
Hitchcock (and Hawks to a lesser extent) did have kinky stuff going on: in Lifeboat the smartest, sneakiest, most-likely-to-survive member on board is the innocent-looking Nazi; Rope's killers are motivated by Nietzschean concepts; Rear Window questions the morality of peeping, even if it does involve uncovering a possible murder. It's possible to argue that these elements are Hitchcock's true motives for making the films, that he had something weighty and worthwhile to tell the world; it's also possible to argue these are what he'd call MacGuffins, unimportant devices designed solely to get the plot going (remember that Hitchcock regretted the killing of a crucial character in Sabotage--but only because (or so he says) it repelled the audience with its wanton cruelty). Part of Hitchcock's appeal, I suspect--part of why he's such a fascinating conundrum that resists unraveling--comes from never really clarifying his own attitude on the subject.
No, Cuaron's film doesn't offer much beyond what's there on the (admittedly well-made and exciting) surface (a subplot involving Dr. Stone and her daughter practically reeks of MacGuffinism), but I submit that sometimes surface is enough--that the visual challenge Cuaron set for himself is interesting enough. And if that affirmation doesn't satisfy you, ask Cuaron or (before him) Hitchcock, only don't expect a straight answer.