With shockingly bad dialogue between two astronaut characters (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) in an episodic real-time plot that runs less than 90 minutes, it’s hard not to notice that, as a genre, space movies tend to drift into the nil. You notice this during the movie.
It’s not that nothing happens. Everything happens. It’s just not believable, interesting or meaningful beyond the range of the moment. Gravity, which, like its generically titled cousin Frozen, is both highly profitable and overrated based on certain compartmentalized estimates of features such as visual effects or music, respectively, achieves this effect on purpose. It even begins by depicting working in space as mundane. That’s how you know something bad will happen.
The What if… scenario delivers nonstop motion pictures of manned space mini-missions gone inexplicably wrong, from careless Russians and foolish astronauts to lost parts, tools and satellites. Gravity not only spins and magnifies the problems in Apollo 13‘s “Houston, we have a problem…” trope, it borrows Marooned‘s remote, damaged astronauts, removes Houston and replaces the archetypical gung ho astronaut with a bland, lifeless mother in space.
This might be compelling if the female astronaut didn’t also say silly things such as “clear skies with a chance of satellite debris” and “I hate space” and convey the depth of a cardboard box. Bullock’s character is not for one moment plausible as someone NASA would deem ready to go into space let alone as one who could go from inept to invincible. Clooney’s character, too, is not convincing. They are both on hand to more or less portray versions of their own well-worn screen personas. He’s slick and mildly flirtatious. She’s alternately helpless and assertive. Yet when Bullock’s first-time astronaut finally finds refuge in a space capsule after seeing carnage and being uncontrollably tumbled into outer space and faces the prospect of re-emerging into space on her own, there is no evidence of inner conflict.
The most crucial part of what moves her character to act happens offscreen. Instead, she simply does what she does. Thus, when she gets what she gets, it’s not especially involving. The action is exciting, because thanks to the effects one can sufficiently project the situation and Gravity is well choreographed. But Karen Black’s stewardess taking the controls of a 747 in Airport ’75 earns more emotional impact than anything Bullock’s highly trained scientist-astronaut does here. The character is solely defined by what the picture regards as her flaws – in particular, a lack of faith – which engages her in what’s best described as revelation through space disaster. Praise Jesus Christ or Buddha, or pray or thank the Lord, Gravity‘s magical-realist theme appears to be, and God will pull you down, through and back up again.