It’s only natural that everyone would fall for Gravity. In fact, it’s Newtonian. And yet I find something unhappy in its success without, strangely, denying the film its desserts or holding them against it. It has been freighted with the fate of movies as a medium, as if the secret formula that draws viewers from their multitude of screens back to the Big One might be extracted from its 3-D.N.A. But I fear that cure is merely a palliative—is merely novelty. The mechanism that has ennabled Gravity to break box-office records is gimmickry. One goes in for the experience of being lost in space, and beyond its intelligence, beyond its good faith in showmanship and storytelling, beyond the obvious and extraordinary talent behind its production, one doesn’t walk out of Gravity with much more than one would stepping out of a flight simulator. Sandra Bullock’s will to survive is sweet, if brittle—like the illustration of a lesson in a self-help book. But it scans, to me, as pretext—just as I was invested in George Clooney the way one empathizes with a passionate cheerleader without really rooting for her team. When tears billow off Bullock’s cheeks, the effect isn’t angled poetically, as if to allude that even they are abandoning her. It’s just physics.
The nerdery itself isn’t unfeeling. Even in Avatar it wasn’t unfeeling. But Alphonso Cuarón isn’t the technocrat that James Cameron is; his Children of Men has to be up there with the likes of The Master as one of the best films of the last decade. He spun anxious poetry out of that what-if premise—What if the human race suddenly stopped reproducing?—but maybe he’s hamstrung by Gravity‘s “ticking time bomb” imperatives: getting Bullock to her escape pod and over the death of her daughter. There’s a real tenderness that warms that sentimental hook, but why hang everything on it when you can hang it on the loneliness of space, on the sheer gravity of being alone against the universe? The empowerment narrative literally grounds our focus; somehow, the metaphor of her emotional struggle versus her struggle to survive makes the setting of the latter seem incidental, and the result is that both seem rather more mechanical than they should. In some ways, Moon (2009)—a more modest solo space walk—seems more ethereal in my memory because its melancholy was cosmic. The blue-collar astronaut played by Sam Rockwell was lost in space in a richer, more deeply frightening way than Bullock’s mopey scientist is.