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Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running time: 93 minutes
Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's groundbreaking new dramatic science fiction thriller about astronauts struggling to survive when orbiting debris destroys their space station, is visually breathtaking. But is it really "the best space film ever," as sci-fi luminary James Cameron declared? Better than Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey? Ridley Scott's Alien? Cameron's Aliens? Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris?
Three of Complex's Pop Culture critics—staff writers Tara Aquino and Matt Barone and deputy editor Justin Monroe—watched Gravity in 3D (an absolute must), then sat down to debate Cameron's claim and determine whether his hyperbole is legit or full of black holes.
Justin Monroe: IS GRAVITY THE BEST SPACE FILM EVER??? Yes and no. I think Cameron's quote needs qualification. It strikes me as being part of a larger thought that a savvy publicist truncated into hyperbole. As a visual experience, Gravity is phenomenal. Cuarón's use of 3D is the best we've seen of that technology since Cameron's Avatar, and it creates this engrossing ride that's the closest most human beings will ever get to being in space, or a proper NASA space simulator, until humanity relocates to new planets. But as a story? Not much going on. As Matt pointed out in his TIFF review of Gravity, it's essentially a one-note survival piece with some underdeveloped characters you don't really care about.
The film is at its strongest in moments that make you feel how dangerous space is, and how powerless you feel when you can't plant your feet on anything because there's no gravitational pull. In those moments, I found myself thinking about the sensation, of me being up there, not any of the characters trying to stay alive after orbiting debris wrecks their space station. It really is more like a fantastic space simulation, and those times when Cuarón flips to the character POV are perfect for that. But is that what Cameron was saying?
Tara Aquino: True, but the sparse character development worked for me. Despite being so technically grandiose, the whole film felt refreshingly hands-off. I felt like that was meant to be an entry point for the audience, a way for them to place themselves in the character. I mean, Cuarón does that a lot with the first-person point of view.
Justin: It is great in the loneliness conveyed and capturing the peril and insignificance one feels in this giant foreign environment. That's an achievement that you don't get in other space films. If we're talking story, there are plenty of other space movies that aren't necessarily as visually impressive but that have great plots and ideas: Solaris, the Alien series, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Moon.... (Definitely not Dark Star.) Does it not matter that Gravity's story is ho-hum and even schmaltzy at times?
Tara: The story is definitely schmaltzy. But it makes me think that Clooney's character was meant to be a type of Jiminy Cricket for not just Bullock, but the audience as well. It felt like such an interactive experience.
Matt Barone: That Jiminy Cricket point is interesting; actually makes me rethink Clooney's character. And, by the way, Clooney's great in the film. My biggest issue, though, story-wise, was Bullock's character's tragic backstory, with the loss of her kid. I get how that helps drive her survival, but it felt too obvious and, to a degree, manipulative. She's already stranded in space, in this dire situation—adding that extra "loss of her kid" touch felt too formulaic and forceful, in a movie that, overall, is anything but formulaic. Not sure if this just means I'm a heartless bastard, though, which could very well be the case.
Justin: For that exact reason, I think it could have been just as powerful, if not more, as a silent movie. Or as a straight-up POV space simulation where the audience is the astronaut in peril, somersaulting helplessly through space, seeing the next space station off in the distance but lacking the thrust to propel them to it.
Tara: I didn't even think of that but definitely. If it were a silent movie, I think that could make the case for being the best space movie of all time. The characters are the most detracting part of it.
Justin: Space is the most intriguing character.
Matt: Yeah, in a way we haven't seen before in any previous space movies. It's an antagonist that doesn't have to do anything.
Tara: Exactly, and that's perhaps why Cameron made that claim.
Matt: The best way to look at the film is, as Tara said, from an immersive, you-are-Bullock perspective, and in that way it's remarkable. And now that I'm a few weeks removed from seeing it at TIFF, I'm more able to appreciate it in that way. I'm definitely planning on seeing it again, perhaps multiple times, because it delivers this experience I've never had before in a movie theatre.
Justin: So, yes, it is the best "space" movie, but it's not the best story set in space.
Matt: It's such a bold statement, though Cameron's all about audacity. Personally, I'm still higher on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien as "movies," but calling these "space movies" adds an interesting wrinkle. Gravity presents space in a realistic way and interactive way that no movie has ever done before. So, in that regard, Cameron seems right.
Tara: Yes, in the purest sense of space. I agree.
Justin: Seems we're all in agreement that everyone should see Gravity, and see it in 3D, and IMAX if possible, because it's that kind of an experience. It's the closest most people will ever come to space, and a ticket costs a hell of a lot less than the education required to join NASA.