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‘Gravity’ never reaches its potential

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A woman, short-haired and weightless, folds her body up in relief. Light pours in through a nearby window, and as she floats gently in the sunlight, at once the image of a fetus in utero is evoked. The frame lingers here. She recovers her breath and then, her energy restored, she swims through the air.

Alfonso Cuarón, along with his son, Jonás, have crafted what may be the most technologically impressive film in history with “Gravity.” When James Cameron himself has nothing but praise for your cinematic achievements, you know you’ve made waves. And yet, in spite of its impressive spectacle, moments like the scene described above keep this tale of astronauts lost in space disappointingly moored to Earth.

I am happy to count Cuarón among my favorite directors. His views on filmmaking have always seemed entirely in sync with my own, from directorial ideology to aesthetic taste. I love his appreciation for the long take, as well as his gritty perspective on humanity. These elements are palpable in everything from “The Prisoner of Azkaban” to “Children of Men,” and indeed extend to his latest effort.

As with any master of film, I expected and found nothing less than technical perfection in “Gravity.” The sound design alone is worthy of an Academy Award, as Cuarón contrasts the silence of space with the very human noises of heavy breathing and nervous humming. Likewise, no visual detail is left unattended. Thinking about the film now, this may be the first movie I’ve seen where it was truly difficult to tell where the sets ended and the computer-generated effects began.

No, the faults in “Gravity” do not lie with its presentation. Instead, it is Cuarón’s own idiosyncrasies that eventually fail his space epic. His now-signature long take is the best example of this. In “Children of Men,” a seminal piece of science fiction cinema, Cuarón indulges his affection for the long take sparingly. This culminates in a scene towards the end of the film that gains much of its tension from the director’s unique camerawork.

For “Gravity,” Cuarón seems to have misunderstood the weight of such moments. While the first scene is approximately 13 minutes of uncut footage, serving as a beautiful introduction to the story and characters, the long take becomes a forced crutch in later sequences. Cuarón misses that this trick really only works once, diminishing in return with each subsequent use.

Eventually, this predilection becomes more of a ponderous quirk than a powerful tool, drawing attention to itself in a way that does not benefit the movie’s tone or message. When Sandra Bullock hovers by the window posed like a prenatal infant, Cuarón fixes the camera on her for far too long. He seems to shove the metaphor in the face of the audience, all pretense of subtlety lost.

Issues like this unfortunately take away from the stars of “Gravity.” Bullock gives an incredible performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a specialist assigned to a space mission alongside seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Clooney does his usual calm, collected and charming thing here, but Bullock really stood out to me. I’m not always her biggest fan, but the way she brings Dr. Stone to life is beautifully nuanced. Her physical presence is graceful and measured, making her helplessness in space that much more impactful. As a character she is instantly relatable and entirely human, reacting as a real person would to the catastrophe around her.

Umbilical cords are a recurring motif in “Gravity.” Attaching characters to one another, these tethers flow openly in the black of space. They dangle about in perpetual connection, yanking the astronauts toward and away from each other with force.

These cords represent an unwillingness to let go; to sever them is to free oneself and accept the present. In fact, it is perhaps Cuarón’s most important theme in “Gravity.” It is therefore ironic that the director seems so entrenched in what has worked in the past. Had he let go, weighing anchor and embracing the medium more liberally, he might have made a masterpiece. For now, “Gravity” remains lamentably stuck in the mire of its own talented creator.

Søren Hough can be reached at shhough@umass.edu.

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