It’s time to stop driving. It’s time to go home.
Glengary Glen Ross is a movie without much action. There’s tons of plot and character, but in terms of incident, it’s a little light. The Long Day Closes is a movie in which nothing much happens, though there is a lot of thematic work, and of course the character study aspect is strong. So I really don’t understand the problems some people have with Gravity. Is it a fully rounded movie with a strong sense of character, theme, plot, and action? No. It’s strong in two of those areas and quite thin in the other two. But the action and plot are really really strong. It doesn’t feel like director Alfonso Cuarón set out to make Magnolia in space and messed up so badly that we got the movie we got. No, the point here is the truly remarkable technical work which enables a few nice character and thematic moments to happen amid all the spectacle. Even more than Pacific Rim, Gravity will lose a lot in the translation to the small screen.
Cuarón is known for his long takes. Most famously, he recorded two or three of the big action set-pieces in Children of Men in long takes. I felt that those shots were remarkable, sure, but they didn’t add much to the actual story being told. Here, in the what-could-possibly-go-wrong-next genre, they really work to sell the weightless feeling and the isolation of space. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are set adrift amid a billion points of light and they tumble and twirl as one might expect. We’ve seen this on film before, notably in that other space movie, 2001, but never with such a fluid camera to match the plane-less void of space. Cuarón understands that the vast emptiness is really just an excuse to show off, and does so with aplomb. It’s a moving experience to see something realized so fully on screen. It’s the Jurassic Park effect in the big cold nothing.
Sandra Bullock has caught some flak for her sometimes yell-y performance here. A few have criticized her lack of calm in the early goings. The problem here is not with the script but the viewer. The dialogue clearly states that she’s not an expert at space travel. She’s been up here for five days and is used to spending 18 hour days in a hospital basement. That she wasn’t going totally crazy is pretty remarkable. We’ve come to expect perfection in our astronaut movies, trained by the likes of Apollo 13 and For All Mankind. These were men and women dedicated to a life of flying and space travel. Bullock is decidedly not that, so cut her some damn slack. (The same goes for Prometheus, by the way, as several lines of dialogue explain that this isn’t a crack team assembled without care for the cost but rather a hastily pulled together group of people that said yes to a crazy proposition.) The difference between her and Clooney is obvious and necessary for giving the audience a foothold in the film, somebody with a day job who happened to get the chance to go into space. And yeah, neither character is super defined or deep or multidimensional. It’s not a movie about the characters, it’s a movie about how the characters react to an insane scenario. The little that we do get of their backstories go far enough to convince me that they are real people and get me on a rooting side. It’s utilitarian, but so’s the mystery plot in The Big Sleep. A movie so technically accomplished can coast on the achievement if it delivers on that one elusive desire, the need to see something we’ve never seen before, and see it in a new way. Gravity delivers one of the best big screen experiences of the past decade.