Up until the 2014 Academy Awards, I had no interest in seeing to see Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s film about a botched mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. Something about the presence of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock just said “mainstream Friday night date film.” But after it did so much better than Her and American Hustle at the Oscars, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
So what’s the fuss all about?
Gravity is without a doubt an exciting and well-made movie. The visuals are stunning. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do an excellent job in their roles as astronauts Ryan Stone and Matthew Kowalski. Gravity pulls us into the drama of Ryan Stone’s struggle to get back to earth so well that I never even stopped to ask if the film was scientifically accurate or not.
That being said, my Inner Teabagger is curious. Why was Lone Survivor, a very similar and probably better film, shut out at the Oscars? Did “liberal” Hollywood have trouble with its far-right-wing politics?
Say what you will about Lone Survivor’s reactionary, pro-war agenda, at least it wears its politics on its sleeve. Because it’s an attempt to justify a war crime, one that wasn’t in fact committed, Lone Survivor is more than just a visceral, heart pounding tale of one soldier’s escape from Afghanistan. It sets up a moral dilemma. Should the Navy Seals execute an Afghan prisoner after he discovers their position? Or should they let him go and put themselves in danger? They choose to let him go. From my point of view it was the right choice, but from Lone Survivor’s point of view it was the wrong choice, one that got Americans killed.
For Gravity, it’s all about the spectacle. It’s magnificent spectacle. But at the end I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just watched a 90 minute trailer. Cuarón pumps up the adrenaline to 11 right from the beginning and keeps it there almost to the last frame. What I suspected about Gravity turned out to be true after all. It’s a mainstream Hollywood date movie. It’s a well-made version of Transformers. It’s a roller coaster ride that doesn’t leave you with very much to chew on when it’s all over. What was it about? you ask. Not very much, you conclude.
Consider the characters of Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone and George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski Kowalski is believable as an astronaut. He’s got nerves of steel. He’s a little crazy. He likes being in space. If he dies, that means he died doing what he likes doing best. Sadly, Cuarón kills him off halfway into the film. It’s a noble act of sacrifice, but it gets rid of the stronger of the two characters. We’re left with Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone.
The problem isn’t so much Sandra Bullock as it is the script. Bullock does an excellent job, but her character isn’t a believable astronaut. First of all, we never get the sense that she really wants to be in outer space. You don’t get chosen to man (or person) the space shuttle unless you really want it, and want it bad. Bullock is a Doctor. Her character would have made perfect sense as a NASA employee in Houston. But what’s she doing fixing The Hubble Telescope? Yes, she’s a “medical engineer” but the idea of what exactly she’s doing is never quite elaborated. Then there’s her training. Once again, you don’t go up on the space shuttle until you’ve worked through every potential issue so many times that acting on it is more like instinct than conscious behavior. So why does she have to consult the convenient “Soyuz for Dummies” manuals conveniently left lying around in English once she boards the Russian space station? Finally, there’s Ryan Stone’s personality. She’s suffering from unresolved grief over her daughter’s death in a playground accident several years before. Surely NASA would have figured that out and either helped her work through it or gotten someone else for the job. In Gravity, she’s the sole survivor. So when she loses heart and briefly considers killing herself, the only life she risks is her own. In reality, she would have been a weak link who put the whole crew in danger.
The effect is oddly sexist. We, along with Ryan Stone, miss Matt Kowalski’s comforting, patriarchal authority. Ryan Stone, soccer mom in space, passively leans on Kowalski’s ghost as sure as the audience leans on Cuarón’s direction. Unlike Lone Survivor, Gravity doesn’t bring us along on the mission. It straps us in for the ride. Indeed, Gravity squanders even its potential as a recruiting tool for NASA and the space program. Once Ryan Stone makes it back to earth, we’re happy for her. We never want to go back to outer space again, even in a movie.