Falling Down on the Job


A Review of Gravity directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Last stanza of Robert Frost’s “Desert Places”

OK, I’ll readily admit that I was modestly scared by the prospect of drifting untethered in outer space, dodging a debris shower and watching the lunar capsule and all hope for survival recede in the stratosphere. Direct Alfonso Cuaron has certainly taken full advantage of his multi-million dollar budget and cutting edge computer animation to position the audience in a place that everyone, or almost everyone, will never be. I’m certainly not expecting an invitation letter from underfunded NASA inviting me to join a team investigating whether a Robert Frost post can be interpreted differently in a gravity free zone.

So after this initial fleeting identification with the predicament of veteran commander George Clooney and “brilliant” medical researcher Sandra Bullock, I found myself fighting boredom and hoping that a preposterous alien might arrive on the scene and rescue – or better yet destroy – this wandering space ship. Clooney acts as though he just walked in from the set of Oceans 11 and carried with him his signature suave and ironic pose. He treats this life or death predicament as though it was a blob of toothpaste that floats around the capsule after being clumsily released from the tube. And Sandra Bullock is as earnest and plucky as ever, not quite Miss Congeniality but determined throughout to escape the death sentence by learning the instrumentation panels of both a Russian and Chinese module where she finds refuge after her home spacecraft is jettisoned. This is no problem for the actress who cajoled an indifferent but huge black kid into becoming a professional football player in The Blind Side. In the only moment of emotional vulnerability, she reveals to her partner that she had a daughter who died, and then it’s quickly back to reading the manuals. The ghost of the cool and self-sacrificing Clooney appears to her in a dream sequence, providing her with the jolt of optimism to shake her out of her despair. I’m not giving anything away to say that she makes it; the conclusion is there from the beginning. When her capsule burns through the atmosphere and plunges into the sea, she swims a short distance in her Zumba-ready Spandex undergarments to what looks like an uninhabited coast. I was hoping that out of the scrub brush would come some of those Somali pirates who grabbed Captain (Tom Hanks) Phillips’ boat and really give her a scare. No doubt within a few hours she’d organize them into teams for a friendly soccer game.

Amidst all of the wonderful photographs of “the big blue marble” from outer space and the 3-D simulation of weightlessness, there’s not a single idea in this film. It’s a survival film stripped to its decontextualized essence: will the escapee make it over the falls with his body intact?  Will the wounded soldier make it back to his platoon? By contrast, the very much earthbound and low-tech 127 Hours, in which a hiker played by James Franco has to literally cut off his arm to escape his entrapment by a giant boulder, ventures into the desert places of its protagonist to reveal a whole range of emotional responses to imminent death. In its unwillingness to explore the desert places of its astronaut heroes, Gravity never even gets close to the gravitas is seems to desire.  It’s just another piece of movie debris floating around in our oxygen-starved popular culture.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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