By Isaac Butler
Gravity is a film about the struggle to survive that wants to fill you with the wonder of being alive on this Earth in this Solar System in the Galaxy in this Universe. It's a film that starts with a title card that tells you life is impossible in space before immediately showing you the Earth and a small handful of humans definantly, inspiringly proving the title card wrong. It's a film where, even in the midst of terror, there is awe. That awe comes courtesy of writer/director Alfonso Cuarón, a wizard with a camera firmly in command of his seemingly bottomless powers.
To judge from the reactions of most critics and nearly all of my friends, it's succeeding on all fronts, filling people with wonder at all the things cinema and life are capable of. For me, while it left me incredibly impressed, I found its hand ultimately too heavy, and thus it's survival-movie tension of terror and inspiration-- for aren't we always scared by death and thrilled by life's stubbornness in survivial stories?--never quite landed for me. All narrative art is manipulative, but each audience member also has their breaking point where they're no longer willing to be pushed. And somewhere after its remarkable opening shot, I passed that threshold.
There's a point somewhere in Gravity's second act where Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone is, as we say, having a moment in a zero gravity environment. As she does, two little small tears float off and away from her face in 3D in the bottom left hand corner of the screen briefly before vanishing. My breath stopped and my jaw literally dropped, awestruck at the simple and subtle compositional beauty of the moment. Like nothing i'd ever seen on screen. Two seconds later, in case you missed those two little drops, a huge globe of tear floats from her face near the center of the screen and holds there, almost distracting in its insistence on being seen.
There's a point much later, as Stone goes into a Chinese space station, that we see floating by a ping pong paddle. It feels like a clever little brief visual joke. Until it shows up in a shot a couple of seconds later, insistent, hovering.
There's a point much earlier, when various VO lines make sure that you know for absolute sure that George Clooney's Matt Kowalski is taking part in that honored trope of the cop who is "one day away from retirement."
There's a point where a dead body is found, and, in case you don't think it's upsetting enough, the camera focuses on the picture of his wife and child taped onto his arm.
There's a point near the end where Ryan Stone tells you the message of the movie as the music gets the loudest and most melodic it has been thus far.
There are also too many points to enumerate where something so wondrous is happening on screen, and you're happy to be alive to see it. My personal favorite is a camera shot that hovers outside of Stone's helmet as she struggles to catch her breath and then slowly pushes into her helmet from the outside, only to then turn around and become a POV shot. Or another where Stone futzes with some piece of equipment while slowly in the bottom of the screen the Earth drifts into view.
Gravity, for me, was an incredibly impressive piece of film-making that didn't quite land as a film. I don't really want to harp on this. Many of you reading this adored it, and I can see why, and I don't think you're wrong to have loved it, even if it didn't quite get there for me. What I ultimately wanted from Gravity was something sparser and more rigorous. Something with much, much less dialogue and no backstory, rather than the hackneyed one they came up with. Gravity's real achievement after a summer featuring collateral damage fests like Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness is to insert the value of human life back into mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. I wish they had trusted us enough to find human life valuable without inserting a dead child into Stone's past, just as I wish they had trusted us to see the tears at the bottom of the screen, or the ping pong paddle the first time it flew by.