More successful as delirious cinematic exercise than emotional survival tale, Alfonso Cuarón's highly anticipated Gravity possesses a vast space between the quality of its virtuoso technique and its trite screenplay. Embarking into space on her first mission, a slightly nervy Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is assisting in the installation of data and just becoming acclimated to her clumsiness in a cumbersome space suit. As she works on the outside of their spaceship, a bolt comes loose and she uses all her strength to grab at the floating object, sighing, "I'm used to a hospital basement where things fall to the ground." She's joined by seasoned, retirement-bound astronaut Matt (George Clooney, as alternately goofy and confident as ever), who tosses off stories of Mardi Gras in 1987—juxtaposing the casual layman banality of everyday conversation against the distractingly beautiful multi-miled view from space—as well as self-esteem-boosting pep talks. The data Ryan is installing, however, isn't uploading correctly and, as Houston in the command center reports, a collision has left bits of a satellite hurtling through space and, possibly, in the direction of Ryan, Matt, and another astronaut (cue the groan-worthy line "clear skies with a chance of satellite debris"). Danger, of course, is imminent, and Cuarón delicately calculates and disarms the audience in the opening moments with a placidity that will soon be absolutely shattered.
It's no coincidence that Cuarón developed his quasi-existential space opera with IMAX 3D in mind, as the film's most compelling aspect—its sensory overload—is derived from the dimensions and shaped arc of the IMAX 3D screen rather than the flat characters who appear on it. Given the film's clear-eyed lensing, immersive long takes, and impeccable sound design (evocatively playing off the horror of deadening silence), Cuarón and his technical collaborators wield the tool of cinema more as practitioners than storytellers. The set pieces and scenes of destruction are aptly dazzling and dizzying, capturing a low-oxygen feeling and causing the audience to blink their way through a relentless smattering of machinery bits flying at their face. Gravity is indeed a landmark achievement of some sort, harkening back to a time in the history of cinema when a film was an "event" and the disparity of spectacle over substance was respectable.
Cuarón may prioritize his aesthetic choices over his words, but even the visual storytelling—highly successful, such as the case with a jellyfish-shaped parachute on a Russian station, when it's not on the nose—occasionally veers into the risible. Upon Ryan's entry into a spacecraft after a particularly tumultuous spin through the stars, Cuarón pushes the imagery of a rebirth. Ryan sheds her heavy suit and, weightless and balletic, unfurls into a cradled fetal position in midair; as framed, a ribbed tube dangling behind her stands in for an umbilical chord. It's not the only suggestion of a rebirth for the character, but it's the most obvious. Bullock attempts to sell her character's lost-in-space angst as well as Ryan's earthbound anxieties, but despite the close-ups and monologue-driven moments, both her and Clooney are undersold by the dialogue (in a moment of desperation, Ryan utters, "Nobody ever taught me how to pray").
Despite the infinite background, the film's structure provides for very limited storytelling—simply applying an old-hat Hollywood tale of overcoming adversity without allowing personal baggage to discourage tenacity. One of Gravity's opening title card reads "Life in space is impossible," and by extension it's true of the possibility of Cuarón developing truthful thematic heft: bound by his exploration of technique rather than vital, narrative depth. The gut-wrenching, immersive elements in Gravity are almost above reproach, but ultimately, the experience of watching Ryan grab for objects in space is more compelling than her grasping for significance in her life. It's all effect and little affect.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5—15.