If there's one thing you can say for Alfonso Cuaron's “Gravity,” it's that it is a stunningly filmed depiction of life in orbit. You have to keep saying it over and over, though, because there is very little else to say about it.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a physician-astronaut on her first mission, aided by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and some other faceless players. She is responsible for installing some new kind of sensor in orbit. What does it do? We are never told. What is her relationship to the other astronauts? Did they train together? How long have they been in orbit together? We never know. We are first introduced to them all during a spacewalk which is quickly disrupted by a speeding cloud of space debris. Hundreds of chunks of space junk batter the astronauts and shuttle, sending Dr. Stone spinning of into space in her suit. Fortunately, Matt is flying a jet pack and is able to chase her down, link up, and get them both back to the shuttle. When they find their shuttle completely gutted and useless, they have to set off together, jet-packing from one orbit to the next to get to a space station that might contain a way back to earth.
It isn't that Gravity doesn't try to be more than a great-looking, action set-piece. The story attempts some character development with the revelation that Dr. Stone lost a young daughter to an accident a few years before the mission. This has apparently left her depressed, or reticent, or walled off or maybe single-mindedly driven. It's never really clear. We just know it had an EFFECT, and now it's part of what she has to work through to survive. As she does this, “Gravity” dips it's toe into Existentialism, but we are never allowed to care enough about the characters to make the philosophy matter. As far as we know, only human beings have Existentialist crises, and Dr. Stone is more a cipher than a fully-fleshed human character. The same is true for the action. There is lots of flying through space with earth in the background, bashing into space stations and grappling madly for a hand-hold, and it all looks awesome, but there never seems to be much at stake. Neither astronaut seems to care much whether they make it or not, and I never cared much either.
In spite of that, Alfonso Cuaron probably did earn his Academy Award for Best Director. “Gravity” is stunningly filmed, with fast-paced, zero-gravity action that would keep you on the edge of your seat if it were happening to characters in whom you had any investment. Sandra Bullock is as good as always, but George Clooney seems to phone this one in. In any event, neither is given very much to do.
For me, I suppose, “Gravity” suffers from its own hype. Had I come into this film without expectations, I might have been wowed. It is a pretty cool film if you just view it as a 90 minute short. As a full-length feature, however, “Gravity” lacks, well, gravitas.
3 stars out of 5