Film: The Orbit Kerfuffle

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: From a technical perspective, the film is beyond reproach, but I find the story rather lackluster.

Dismissive views like that used to raise my ire. In quite a few effects-driven movies, the pyrotechnics are the show. The way a filmmaker explores cinema’s possibilities, sometimes pioneering new technology in the process, often compensates for a familiar narrative. The classical techno-pleasures of, say, a saga that takes place beyond this planet’s surface, even tend to revisit their admirers in their sleep, particularly if that shopworn tale is told with conviction and full command of the medium.

Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D, stranded-in-Earth’s-orbit yarn, is such a feast for the eyes. It sweeps us off into the plight of its space-walking heroes with you-are-there verisimilitude. It forces us to look at the life-or-death stakes its characters face from a unusually visceral perspective.

And despite its impressive craftsmanship and appealing cast, the movie left me kinda cold.

Don’t get me wrong, readers. Gravity stands as a notable accomplishment in the way it uses the latest bells and whistles in the moviemaking toolbox to establish a sustained sense of dread and uncertainty. But I’d be lying if I said I kept experiencing a nagging disparity between the film’s aesthetic splendors and its perfunctory, thinly conceived survival-tale trappings.

To be sure, it’s not for lack of trying. Gravity opens with a breathtaking “shot” (actually, a combination of shots seamlessly stitched together to give the illusion of fluidity unencumbered by an editor’s scissors). We peek into a routine space shuttle mission in which medical engineer – and orbit newbie – Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, alternately vulnerable and unsinkable) is tasked with repairing an expensive piece of machinery. Shepherding the mission in what he says is final space trip is longtime vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, taking over the role originally offered to Robert Downey, Jr.).

“You’re the genius up here,” he tells Stone. “I only drive the bus.” It’s a clever line. Those are, alas, in short supply in the screenplay Cuarón co-wrote with his son Jonás.

“I like the silence,” says Stone when Kowalski asks her what she likes about going up above Earth’s atmosphere. I couldn’t agree more, space ranger. Gravity is at its most effective when no dialogue is being uttered, and Cuarón allows the graceful, increasingly ominous imagery to wash over you.

The pleasantly innocuous banter is – thankfully – interrupted when Houston (Ed Harris, in a virtual, heard-not-seen reprisal of the role he played in Apollo 13) warns them of a chain-reaction collision caused by a Russian satellite being destroyed. Prepare for incoming debris, the voice in the radio advises in the authorial tone we’ve come to expect from Harris, and you can feel yourself inching towards a mighty big drop in this cinematic roller coaster. The ensuing chaos does not disappoint. Gravity may have been shot in 2D by the remarkably gifted Emmanuel Lubezki, but the phenomenal post-conversion trumps most films that were shot with 3D cameras.

Kowalski, whose space chair is running out of juice, attempts to rescue Stone, who’s been left untethered from her umbilical cord by the sudden destruction. (If you suffer from motion sickness, you are hereby forewarned: If you plan on seeing Gravity in 3D, take Dramamine beforehand. You think I’m joking, don’t you? I’m not.) From this point on, a grim, Darwinian, not-for-the-fainthearted struggle for survival commences. If you’ve seen Children of Men, Cuarón’s absorbing near-future thriller, then you know no character is immune from demise in the Mexican director’s universe. Gravity is gratifyingly free of that film’s topical, we’re-all-in-this-together social message. Children of Men, however, also had riveting moments in between the skillfully executed setpieces. The connective tissue turned that movie into a wholly satisfying experience, despite its heavy-handed parallels to present-day unrest.

In Gravity, the lulls in between the sequences of white-knuckle peril are spent attempting to give Stone psychological complexity. There’s a void in her life, caused by personal trauma, that she hopes her space mission will fill. The Cuaróns are trying to make you care about what happens to these astronauts. The filmmakers even show Stone sporting the kind of undergarments Warrant Officer Ripley wore in Alien, a welcome if obvious reference to one of cinema’s most indelible space cowboys. It’s no go. Cuarón is able to get inside Stone’s helmet to convey her despair. As for poking inside her head, well, let’s just say turning Gravity into an orbital therapy session just lays bare how underdeveloped his heroine is. My eyes were never bored watching this elemental assemblage of visual curlicues. My head, on the other hand, kept pining for an added dimension the film, for me, falls short of delivering.

Not up to suiting up in a bulky space suit this weekend? Lighter fare at the multiplex last week brought forth a battle of the sexes in a duo of romantic comedies with serious undertones. In the testosterone corner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt serves up a brash, cartoonish feature directing debut with Don Jon, or as I like to call it, The Taming of the Douche. The former child star has turned into a versatile thespian equally at home in big budget undertakings (Inception) and edgy indies (Mysterious Skin). But what the charismatic actor wants to do, as it turns out, is work behind the lens, and the story of an obnoxious gym bunny with a gift for skirt-chasing and an addiction to online porn shows him a lot more adept at directing than he is at writing engaging characters.

The film kicks into gear when Jon (Gordon-Levitt) meets bootylicious Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who meets, nay, exceeds his criteria for doable chicks. Will this be the one who breaks his compulsion to whack off in front of his laptop and please his R-rated sitcom parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly)? Or will she try to mold him into the kind of cookie-cutter matinee idol who stars in the sappy love stories she favors when going to Regal Cinemas with her new squeeze? (Talk about blatant product placement.) She even talks Jon into taking a night class to broaden his career horizons, which is when he meets Esther (Julianne Moore) an annoying cougar who is nevertheless a fountain of relationship advice.

Gordon-Levitt doesn’t go for subtlety or understatement here. It’s clear he worships at the altar of Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aronofsky. His contribution? An amusing dose of Catholic guilt, which starts out as a clever influence over Jon, but then extends to throwing Johansson’s control freak under the bus. He thinks he’s being charming – well, he certainly can be; did you see him on Sesame Street? – but in Don Jon, for the most part, he’s being merely obnoxious. Better luck next time, buddy.

In the estrogen corner is he said/she said wordsmith whiz Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money, Please Give), who has made her most moving, most accessible film to date. Enough Said‘s premise – divorced masseuse unwittingly starts dating the ex-husband of a newfound client who’s quickly turning into a good friend – screams high-concept studio slop. The way its rendered – organic, wise, so very touching – couldn’t be further removed from chick-flick purgatory.

Holofcener’s gift for literate, piercing girl talk is on full display here, particularly when rendering the empty-nest anxiety Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is feeling now that her only daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) is graduating from high school and heading to college far, far away from her. At a party, she meets Marianne (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener), a successful poet who counts Joni Mitchell among her friends, and sweet, heavy-set Albert (James Gandolfini in his second-to-last screen role). What does she do when she eventually discovers how these two flawed, wonderful people are connected? There are no foes to hiss at in Holofcener’s universe, no pat resolutions. Only real people making the most of a cruel coincidence, and two layered central performances doing their darnedest to send you home on an emotional high. This one’s a keeper.

Enough Said and Don Jon are currently showing at area multiplexes. Gravity opens Oct. 4 in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D engagements. Am I turning into the kind of movie snob I used to despise by taking issue with the latter film’s bare-bones-and-not-always-in-a-good-way story? I’d like to think not.

About Ruben Rosario

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