Mission to Nowhere


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Cuaron's juvenile sci-fi lacks gravitas

The opalescent object Planet Earth that opens Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity belongs to Kubrick's 2001. It's a shorthand image--evoking intellectual contemplation and wonder that Cuaron doesn't earn. Cuaron borrows it without (pardon the expression) gravitas. The phenomenon of creation dresses up a tale of survival written by Cuaron with his brother, Jonas, about a team of American astronauts (Sandra Bullock as Medical Engineer Ryan, George Clooney as Capt. Kowalski) trying to repair a space station when an intergalactic storm destroys their vehicle, leaving them stranded, floating adrift in the cosmos.

Cuaron loves the drifty part. Gravity extends Ryan's terrified effort to apprehend a space module and return to safety. Kubrick didn't use 3D technology but Cuaron, exhibiting the fan boy naivete that technological progress is equal to intellectual advance, exults in it. Still obsessed with the facile elongation of the steadicam and CGI "motion," Cuaron hurls Ryan across the screen in repetitive arcs and thrusts. She's trapped in a seemingly unending limbo of weightlessness and nothingness that is outer space--the void in which Kubrick's shimmering orb is suspended.


This continuous motion recalls the sauntering camera in Cuaron's Children of Men, the quite silly speculation on the terrors of revolution and mankind's dysfunction. That glib cynicism made Cuaron seem a hipster visionary and some of that same sentimentality remains in his Gravity conceit: He holds on to the cynical part of Kubrick's vision--the easy part--without the corresponding astonishment.


Yet, Gravity (which runs a concise 90 minutes and is certainly Cuaron's most efficient piece of filmmaking) is less cynical than it is banal. It isn't cerebral enough to access 2001's ambiguity--Kubrick's spiritual/intellectual leeway. When Ryan strips down (like Ripley in the penultimate climax of Alien), she reposes, hovering in a fetal position that'll impress 12-year-olds as profound. But reverting to infancy contradicts her fashionable though unlikely regret that she doesn't know how to pray for herself ("No one taught me," she says, although both Russian and Asian spacecraft contain Orthodox and Buddhist relics). That's Cuaron's sop to the hipster market.


Cuaron is a new brand of stylish hack, inclined to satisfy an audience whose discontent has been inculcated over the past decade of sarcasm and nihilism. Clooney appears as the bluff, hearty symbol of this manipulation; his glib, masculine reassurance is a chimera--it has a patriarchical aspect (recently lamented by critic Thelma Adams) but it's a spiritual wet blanket that's meant to counter always likable Bullock's agnostic wimpiness.


Too bad Gravity's fanboy audience is conveniently ignorant of richer space dramas like Walter Hill's Supernova and Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars which entertainingly combined psychological and visionary pondering with sci-fi agape. Hill advanced the genre with tense, erotic, metaphysical characterizations. Nothing in Gravity compares to Mission to Mars' extraordinary orchestration of passion and dread among a team of astronauts attempting to forge a lifeline in outer space. DePalma created an unforgettable, breathtaking sequence of love and loss. His great tragic humanism was more powerful than Cuaron's tepid "hope."


Cuaron plays with philosophy in a shallow, juvenile way, the same as he misuses technology?he even throws in a 3D teardrop. His teasing, tormenting style is just green-screen action; though set in space, Cuaron's Earth-bound "Esperanza" could be anywhere, nowhere.


Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair


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