Gravity (2013) plays on that classic dramatic conflict – man versus the elements – exploited by Alfonso Cuarón in his Oscar-winning and visually arresting film about two astronauts lost in space. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first NASA mission, accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When disaster strikes and the satellite they’re working on is destroyed, the two are left tethered to one another, floating in space; their communication with mission control in Houston (Ed Harris) abruptly severed. Both realise that their only hope is to reach another space station.
Despite the stunning special effects from Cuarón’s British technical team and Emmanuel Lubezki’s extraordinary visuals, some of Gravity’s most memorable moments come in its quieter interludes – Kowalski’s anecdotes about his troubled love-life back home, Stone’s attempts to communicate with a Chinese station and her silent tears of frustration when she finds herself alone. Unfortunately, these lulls are few and far between. There’s so much high drama, so many problems and malfunctions to overcome and flying debris to avoid, that any suspense is killed dead. In fact, the constant state of emergency in which Stone finds herself, underlined by Steven Price’s overbearing score, can begin to grate.
Rebirth is a central theme in Gravity. The foetal position Stone adopts as she sucks on an umbilical cord of oxygen after finding sanctuary in an abandoned shuttle is beautifully echoed in the film’s closing moments. But the preoccupation of the two scriptwriters – Cuarón and his son Jonás – with the archetypal plotline of voyage and return and the astronauts’ struggle against adversity is at the expense of the story’s emotional and psychological depth. Although the film largely belongs to Bullock, her character is sketchily drawn. Stone’s back story – involving the death of her four-year-old daughter and how this impacts on her survival instinct – feels contrived, and the scene where she directs a monologue to her dead daughter is cloying rather than poignant. As a cinematic spectacle Gravity is nigh on flawless, but its narrative feels insubstantial, as though it’s been left floating in space.