Film review: Gravity (or lack thereof)

The title is ironic because there is very little gravity in the film. Well, I suppose they couldn’t have called it Vacuity (Empty space; emptiness), doesn’t really have the same ring.

This is a film that leaves film viewers and critics quite divided, most give it five stars or none.

Those who love it praise the visual effects, which are undoubtedly outstanding. However, nearly 90% of the film is visual effects and some may find this a bit much. The other 10% is plot: Astronauts find their space station is destroyed by debris, they relocate to two more space stations, one of which is also destroyed. On the way, one astronaut is lost in space. The other returns to Earth.

So, if your last point of reference for space movies is 2001 A Space Odyssey with its four parts, each with its separate but interrelated plots, you may be a tad disappointed with Gravity.

There are similarities between the films both visually and thematically. In 2001, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) must venture outside the spaceship and finds his re-entry locked by HAL, the resident supercomputer. Both medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) struggle to regain the safety of a series of space stations.

In addition to the visual references, both films explore the theme of the poised precariously between the fragile technological safety of the space vehicle and the vast terrifying emptiness of other space. The films also explore the tenuous link between men and technology and while there is no evil supercomputer in Gravity, the threat to the astronauts is also technological: the disintegration of a Russian space station whose debris is orbiting the world every 90 minutes destroying everything in its path.

One of the other thematic similarities between the two films is the idea of rebirth.

Both Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Ryan Stone are reborn at the end of the film. While Bowman’s rebirth is allegorical and mysterious, Stone’s is both symbolic and realistic. Earlier in the film, she is seen floating fetus-like in the space capsule, foreshadowing her “rebirth” at the end of the film but also referencing the final scenes from 2001.

The foetus motif in 2001 Space Odyssey and Gravity

The foetus motif in 2001 Space Odyssey and Gravity

There are also visual references to the great female heroine of the space: Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley.

The Heroine in Underwear Theme: Ripley and Ryan

The Heroine in Underwear Theme: Ripley and Ryan

The film is also a survival movie, which is a relatively simple and formulaic genre: think Meryl Streep in The Wild River, of which Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert said in 1994: “movies like this are so predictable in their overall stories that they win or lose with their details … it was constructed from so many ideas, characters and situations recycled from other movies that all the way down the river I kept thinking: Been there”.

This is partly true of Gravity and the fundamental simplicity of plot, rooted as it is in the survival movie genre, as well as references to other, better space movies, makes this movie a less than satisfying experience.

There is also a major problem with the other main character: George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, who seems to be a leftover from Space Cowboys. Kowalski is the amiable, genial, wisecracking, all-competent father figure to Ryan Stone. After his role as Lt. Frank Stokes in Monuments Men, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Clooney imagines there is going to be an Oscar award for Pompous Utterances. The scene where Clooney’s ghost visits Ryan Stone in the space capsule as she is considering turning off the oxygen supply, is as corny as it is risible. If the director had wanted to have a plot device that would pull Stone back from committing suicide, why did he not simply have her remember her daughter, whose death continues to haunt her?

There’s also a small difficulty with the character of Ryan Stone who has a Ph.D. in medical engineering. This clearly separates her expertise from the veteran astronaut Kowalski. But when push comes to shove, and with Kowalski floating in outer space, returning only for a brief pep talk, it’s Kowalski’s expertise that is needed to get the spacecraft back to Earth.

So how does Stone achieve this, she reads the manuals of course. Yes, that’s right the spacecraft is full of books on how to fly a spacecraft. With the spacecraft approaching near its atmosphere at 30,000 km/h, our heroine is reading the manual to work out which button to press. Why not start the film with her being Kowalski’s second officer (as well as having a Ph.D. in medical engineering) thus allowing her to fly the spacecraft back to Earth?

Then there’s the ending. Having splashed the spacecraft down into a lake, Stone swims out of the sinking capsule, passed a number of amphibious reptiles and finally crawls out of the (primordial) slime onto dry land where she staggers to her feet. Instant evolution, just add water. We had been given a hint of this in the early shots of Stone in the space capsule. But the imagery and symbolism of these final scenes is over the top. It is silly and pretentious to suggest, that the experiences that Stone has undergone are the equivalent of hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Compare this with the brilliant scenes in the opening of 2001 Space Odyssey where the ape uses the bone to smash the skeleton and which culminate with the ape throwing the bone in the air were it morphs into space satellite.

Well let’s count the blessings of the ending, at least with Kowalski gone, we were spared a final scene with Kowalski and Stone afloat in a life raft awaiting rescue.

One reference too far. James Bond in the life raft scenes

One reference too far. James Bond in the life raft scenes

2 thoughts on “Film review: Gravity (or lack thereof)

  1. The title isn’t ironic at all. The force of gravity where the space shuttle orbits is about ninety percent of the force of gravity at sea level. Astronauts don’t float in orbit, they are in free fall. If there were no gravity in outer space then the moon wouldn’t stay in orbit, it would just continue in a straight line into the depths of space.

  2. Your rather snide remark about the manuals on board the spacecraft was way off base. Did you happen to know that airline pilots always carry manuals with them on every system in the planes they fly. And I’m willing to bet the International Space Station has similar manuals.

    P.S. I loved the movie and bought a copy in BluRay and watched it three times so far.

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