All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Posing a situation or telling a story is never enough.
Even in writing a scientific tract, a history, or a documentary, when presentation of fact is paramount, some style, some felicity of expression is welcome. Style, the method and tone of telling the story, is what entertains, is what makes a narrative — factual, fictional, or fantastic — compelling and interesting to an audience.
Too often, in recent movies “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Don Jon” for two, and in plays, a recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” that is delightful but lacks texture, urgency and involvement are sorely missing.
In a plot that is a thriller, “Zero Dark Thirty” serving as the example once again, the result can be stultifying. You can watch with curiosity as a plot unfolds, but being informed is no substitution for being on edge worrying about characters and their pursuits. The current movie, “Closed Circuit,” is another that is too tame for its own good or total audience satisfaction.
Alfonso Cuaron’s potentially exciting and harrowing film, “Gravity,” about an astronaut drifting in space and needing to find refuge in a space vehicle or at a space station to save her life, is the most confusing and disappointing of the lot.
In “Gravity,” you have a woman in constant mortal danger. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, is not in a typical thriller situation. She is not hiding in a basement from a rabid killer. She is not a Resistance fighter infiltrating Al Qaeda or Nazi lines. She is a character whose peril is unique and fraught with a treasure trove of possibilities for tension, drama, and human emotion.
A scientist, a gifted medical technician to be specific, is outside an orbiting space capsule to fix a glitch that prevents key data transmission to Houston when word comes that a remote space station has exploded, and debris from it — weighty, sharp, destructive debris — is tumbling randomly through the thermosphere obliterating satellites and other man-made objects in space, adding their debris to the onslaught. Ordered to abort her activity and head immediately for safety inside her space module, Stone takes the extra split second she deems needed to complete her task and is ready to head for her vehicle’s air lock when, in true movie fashion, along comes a hulking, razor-like stream of outer space jetsam.
A brace Stone is standing on is knocked, in a torque motion, away from her module. A small object tears the belt by which Stone is tethered to the brace. Next the brace itself is detached from its fulcrum. Suddenly, Stone is free-floating in the thinnest of air, where there is no gravity, no oxygen, no shelter, and temperatures that can range from less than -140 and more than 250 degrees Centigrade based on proximity to the sun.
Adding to Stone’s plight, she is not trained as an astronaut. She has the privilege of saying she’s an astronaut, but she is a specialist included on a mission for her superiority in her academic field. In terms of space navigation or maneuvers, she is a virtual novice who attended six months of classes and did not excel in the technical or operational side of space travel.
No heroine has been in Stone’s precarious predicament. The audience should be afraid for Stone, concerned for everything about her, and wishing fervently that she finds some avenue of rescue. Tension in any theater playing “Gravity” should be at a fever pitch.
What should be does not occur in “Gravity.” Stone’s situation may be the ideal set-up for a classic cinematic nail-biter, but, strangely, the audience emerges with its manicures intact, nary a cuticle disturbed.
Cuaron sets up Stone’s impending dilemma factually. Everything I’ve reported comes directly from dialogue or subtitles that precede Stone’s calamity.
The problem is Cuaron keeps his story too matter-of-fact. Sandra Bullock’s gulping for air, announcing the insufficiencies of her space suit, and screaming for help become logical sound effects that don’t register as urgent distress or danger, both of which are, in theory and reality, amply prevalent in “Gravity” and should be the crux of the movie.
Cuaron keeps his film as cold as the outer thermosphere through which Stone is hurtling. You are aware of all that is going on and how serious it is. Gravity, as in being in a dire strait, perfectly denotes Stone’s circumstance even as the absence of the phenomenon Isaac Newton discovered makes her predicament more severe.
Astoundingly, though, dramatic tension or deep concern for Stone are nowhere to be found. You see, hear, and comprehend Stone’s danger, but you don’t relate to it with every fiber of your being the way you do, say, to bed-ridden Barbara Stanwyck’s in “Sorry Wrong Number” or blind Audrey Hepburn’s in “Wait Until Dark,” movies made when directors and actresses knew their business and could wring unbearable anxiety from one human’s dubious plight. In a plot so pregnant with gut-wrenching angst, Cuaron, also one of “Gravity’s” screenwriters, fails at making his movie even mildly taut or involving. Emotionally, the film is static. As a thriller, it is too calm and inert. Nerves that should be stretched to the point of frazzle remain steady, as does one’s pulse. “Hardy Boys” books have more suspense. Television’s “Person of Interest” incites you squirm with dread and worry by comparison.
How can that be in a story that should set teeth grinding? Why doesn’t this thriller thrill?
Cuaron and Bullock don’t hit their marks, and the reason is the director ignores devices of storytelling that have riveted audiences since Homer, or even Mack Sennett. He doesn’t create the background or tension or absolute empathy for a fellow creature’s agony (or fellow creature’s bravery) needed to make “Gravity” a model of its genre. He takes for granted the few plot details and gorgeous pictures he provides will do the more complicated, more artful work of spellbinding.
Bullock is Cuaron’s victim. She shows her mettle in one scene when she does a stream of conscious prayer in an offhand, resigned manner. At that moment, and only for that moment, you fall in love with Ryan Stone, an affection you should have developed when you first see her puzzling out what’s wrong with the faulty transmitter. Aside from that scene, Cuaron casts Bullock as adrift as an actress as Stone is in outer space.
It isn’t that you don’t like Stone or don’t want her to live. Bullock makes her character likeable. It’s that you watch her dilemma and admire her, or fear for her, from a distance. You watch, but you don’t live what she is experiencing. This eliminates the “there but for fortune” element so key to good storytelling and establishes an indifference that is leavened only by your innate curiosity about how everything turns out. Objectivity reigns when pure fellow feeling and honest concern should dominate. You want Stone to succeed, but you don’t care about her enough to break a sweat on her behalf or to share her discomfort and uncertainty. You witness it. That’s all.
Maybe “Gravity” suggests early and often that all will work out, but predictability or even assurance that a character will prevail is not an obstacle to tension or empathy. You know from history that the Declaration of Independence will be signed, yet the musical “1776” makes you wonder if the characters on stage will take the same action as the geniuses in Independence Hall. Tension and suspense have to be created. Cuaron regards them as given, and his movie plummets languidly from thermosphere to troposphere because of it.
“Gravity” had so much potential, it is sad to see Cuaron squander it and take Sandra Bullock down with him.
Going back once more to Homer, stories that last though centuries have two basic things in common. They center on an individual human being, taking care to keep figures in his or her life interesting as well, and they move you to root vigorously for that individual or, if rooting is not possible, share the incumbent joys and pains of his or her narrative journey.
Cuaron’s script, written with Jonas Cuaron, his son, goes awry when it fails to introduce the audience fully to Bullock’s Stone in a way that would make her parallel to Sigourney Weaver’s characters in the “Alien” movies as a woman you want to protect (or believe can fend for herself) and see victorious.
We learn much about Stone, some that evens adds sympathy, but we don’t really meet her. The Cuarons confine the exposition to a light conversation Stone is having with another astronaut, played by George Clooney, as they go about routine work. Seeing Stone train for going into space, and perhaps watching her struggle with science and technology out of her field of expertise, may have been wise. Certainly, watching her and Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, going through a routine day around or in the space module would have helped. Devices like that would move Stone deeper into our consciousness and affection, so that when something happens to her, we respond as much to the “who” as to the “what.” The Cuarons basically concentrate on and confine us to the “what.”
Stone’s talk about herself is matter-of-fact. Perhaps if she expressed more feeling about what had to be terrible incident in her life, more empathy could be created for her. Again, Cuaron makes the error of thinking that knowing a fact automatically triggers an emotional reaction to it.
Nuh-uh. His movie is a 100-minute testimony to how wrong he is.
Clooney’s Kowalski comes off as more charming than Bullock’s Stone, but again, his story is told is a shorthand that makes his fate in “Gravity” one more incident that goes by without the slightest uptick in audience heart rate or concern. I’ve been in enough audiences to gauge when a crowd is absorbed in an entertainment at an intense gut level, and the group seeing “Gravity” with me was as generally unmoved as I was. Nowhere in the auditorium did I sense nervousness or tension. But then Clooney’s part seems more like an addition to give folks one more character to consider than a flesh-and-blood being who matters greatly to “Gravity’s” overall story.
Cuaron justifiably adores the landscape provided by Andy Nicholson, Mark Scruton, and Rosie Goodwin. The Earth, remarkably large and beautiful, the stars, shining in clusters all around, the sun in various positions, and objects in space all register with a quality that keeps “Gravity” a visual treat.
Bullock’s Stone has to stand out more in all of that splendor. Much of the time she is a speck in the corner of a shot. Her size and position, relative to the universe depicted, Earth looming attractively in all backgrounds , could be a fitting philosophical symbol of all our places in time and space, but Cuaron is not that cerebral or interested in images beyond the visual effect they provide.
We hear Bullock and listen to her report oxygen levels of plea for help in a void where no one but the audience can hear her, but we don’t see enough of her to embrace her vulnerability. Again, it remains an matter-of-fact, intellectual point instead of a human, emotional one. Bullock goes through her character’s motions well but never makes Stone personal enough to make the audience crazy about her or to engender deep affection.
Snippets we learn about space, astronauts, spacecrafts, and the cooperation of nations in the heavens have some interest, but it is the passing interest of a conversation and not the engaging interest that might make “Gravity” compelling.
I know Cuaron, Bullock, and “Gravity” have garnered mostly favorable reviews, but I was bored more than I was involved by the movie.