'Gravity' Is This Year's 'Avatar' and That's Not a Compliment


Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is a solidly entertaining, visually pleasing, and creatively appealing film. But it is not a great film. The premise is, admittedly, a difficult one to work around as a director. Its setting: Space. Its characters: Two. Its antagonist: Uhh, space? But even with such minimalistic restraints, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón was able to make a movie that remains thoroughly gripping throughout its one and a half hours. Indeed, the movie is a visual masterpiece, speckled with a plethora of special-effects eye-candy, from breathtaking macro shots of the continents, to tiny, spinning orbs of zero gravity flames. Much like James Cameron’s international mega-hit, Avatar (2009), Gravity falls short is in its artistic appeal.

Avatar is, undoubtedly, a chefs d’oeuvre in ocular delight. The entire duration of the movie was one captivating, visual roller coaster, with a special effects budget that made the record books. However, that’s about all it was. Its story was enervated and clichéd, with a caliber of acting that was barely above your average episode of CSI. Though bountifully rich in fantastical creatures, colorful fauna and futuristic technologies, Avatar’s plot was not something to write home about. Similarly,Cuarón's sci-fi blockbuster follows a formula of valuing style over substance and illustration over abstraction. In terms of legacy, both films will fall short of being remembered as works of art. However, one of them didn’t intend to be so artistically ephemeral. 

Cameron did not set out to create a work of art. He directed Avatar with the full intention of making a smashing blockbuster, chock full of enough huge explosions, extraordinary settings, and sci-fi goodies to draw the attention of the world’s movie-goers.  He crafted a story that had just enough emotional engagement, rising action and character development to be appreciated by nearly all levels of humanity. The good, natural world versus the evil, technologically superior corporate machine. So simple a child could understand it. In no interpretation, was Cameron’s Avatar an attempt to break new artistic ground. Gravity on the other hand, may have been just that. 

Gravity begins with a slowly panning shot of Earth, the camera moving closer and closer to the spaceship on which Dr. Jones (Sandra Bullock), Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and three other crew members are stationed. There is no orchestral score playing in the background. The radio transmission between the crew and Houston Control & Command slowly rises in volume until a comprehensible conversation is audible. This is a slow introductory scene.  It isn’t backed by an orchestra, nor does it throw the audience into a dramatic scenario they have to then quickly make sense of. Its context isn’t explained by some omniscient narrator. It's artistic, and requires a certain patience from the viewer. 

Contrast this with the opening scene of Avatar: A moving aerial shot above a dense, foggy jungle, accompanied by the narration of the lead marine telling the story on how he became paraplegic, all set over a score of tense tribal sounds. This sort of introduction engages the viewer effortlessly, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. Gravity’s introduction hints to the viewer that the movie is to be subtle, deep and cerebral, but this is not how the film unfolds. Instead, like Avatar, it is one CGI-driven, action-packed scene after another that keeps the heart beating but leaves the mind unbothered. This is all well and good (nothing wrong with mindless entertainment), except whenCuarón attempts to reengage our cortex with artistic devices. 

The film toys unconfidently with the theme of life and death. There is the long shot where Dr. Jones, after finally making it into the International Space Station airlock, floats motionless in a fetal position, with some anonymous tube floating behind her made to look like an umbilical cord. There is the faint admission of her disillusionment with life induced by the tragic passing of her 4-year old daughter. There is the monologue where Dr. Jones speaks of the inevitability of death, but questions her own persisting fear in the face of it.  And alas, the final scene where she crawls out of a serene lake, dripping wet, and must relearn to walk after her extended duration in zero gravity. These are all clearly artistic expressions. But unfortunately, Cuarón's inspired intentions are eclipsed by the non-stop visual excitement of the film and its lack of commitment in developing its characters. 

Gravity is a fine film, and is definitely one worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find. That being said, it isn’t a movie to think that much about, but instead is one to shamelessly indulge in its visual surfeit. You might feel the need to entertain the more poetic attempts of the film, but in doing so you may be embarking on a fruitless journey.  Instead, you’d be better off to leave your thinking-cap at home, bring your Avatar glasses along, and hold on tight for the ride.