Earth looms so large at the start of Gravity that only after a while is a small white dot at the far right of the frame revealed to be a space shuttle. The shot displays a grasp of scale for the vastness of space often lost in science fiction films, and it perfectly sets up the atmosphere for the film to follow, in which two astronauts, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), find themselves stranded in lower orbit after a disaster sends satellite debris into their ship. In space, a distance of 100km can be traversed in mere minutes, but the same speed that allows the characters to cover great gulfs to reach their next hope for survival also makes it so much easier to miss their mark and float off into oblivion.

These opening moments, devoid of space trash flechette and the threat of dwindling oxygen, are as genuinely suspenseful as Gravity ever gets. Soon after, the film enters into a series of intensely complicated long takes filled with crumpling space stations, whipping tethers and spinning bodies, a continuation of the boastful long takes of Children of Men. Yet the extended sequences of Gravity seem altogether less impressive than Alfonso Cuarón’s earlier work, the product of programming rather than blocking, and even the dance-like early shot that winds around the space shuttle as the crew repairs the Hubble telescope has such an emptiness to it that one is only primed for a hollow spectacle.

And what a trifle it is. Gravity occasionally hints at being the film it is being sold as, a bleak confrontation with death set only to the sounds of the characters’ increasingly shallow breaths as their tanks run empty. For the most part, however, it plays as a digital-age update of Apollo 13, an unflappably optimistic, relentlessly plot-driven exercise that ticks off each stage of the characters’ desperate plans for safe re-entry as its own setpiece, with camera movements and transparently fake CGI that turns each stage into its own video game level.

Indeed, first-person shots that include rendered hands waving awkwardly into frame have the look of a zero-g mod of Mirror’s Edge. The basic rundown of each of Gravity’s major moments: floating precipitously with the threat of depleted air, grasping at the surface of some space vessel, missing, panicking, then successfully grabbing onto another surface. Repeat ad infinitum, changing out only the type of craft the characters attempt to reach as they search for something that can send them home.

To break up this forward motion, Cuarón and his son Jonás chuck in thick monologues filled with such awkwardly tacked-on backstory that each dialogue-rich scene plays like a parody of bad exposition. Kowalsky loves to tell stories of lost love that he has badgered everyone with time and again, and when Stone’s air starts to run low, he contradicts his own instructions for her to conserve her breath by making her talk about her own past, which bluntly segues into talk of a lost child.

None of these moments allows a character to develop so much as hit the same dutiful marks of progression that mark the narrative’s movement. The actors spend so much time being digitized and omitted through first-person shots and whatever moments replace them with computer imagery that the dialogue seems to work to erase what little of their human presence remains on-screen.

This is hardly even a film; it’s more like the prologue of another science fiction film laboriously stretched out to feature length, or the intro to the film’s subsequent theme park ride. Children of Men, in retrospect, was a load of dazzling technical feats in service to a film that only engaged its myriad ideas on a surface level, but Gravity lacks even the sheen of thematic depth that graced Cuarón’s last film. It’s no different than Apollo 13, really, save for better digital effects that have ironically only made the distinction between reality and false imagery all the more visible.

And there’s something irritating about the manner in which the film treats Bullock’s character, someone qualified by NASA to go into space but written to be a specialist whose skill set is perfectly unsuited to the task of survival in space. It allows her character to be smart, yet utterly beholden to a man’s instructions, one of many reminders that for all the complicated CG wizardry and ostensibly visionary gloss of Gravity, it is aesthetically and structurally regressive, a film different from its thematic predecessors only in how good the effects technology is.

Grade: C-

About The Author

Assistant Editor

Jake Cole was never the same after he saw Seven Samurai as a teenager. In 2012 he completed a B.A. in journalism from Auburn University despite devoting all free time to watching and writing about movies. His reviews have appeared at various outlets as well as his main site, Not Just Movies. Jake is a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and he spends an unhealthy amount of time engaging and arguing about film on Twitter.

  • Kevin R Wright

    Alfonso does not have a brother named Jose. He does have a brother, but his name is Carlos. I suspect you were referencing Alfonso’s co-writer Jonás though, in which case you mean his son.

    Shoddy writing and researching only discredits your writing. You should be embarrassed.

    • http://www.moviemezzanine.com/ Sam Fragoso

      Thank you for the edit Kevin. We apologize for making a factual error.

      That said, what about this review (and Jake’s writing) is shoddy?

      Also: there was nothing sneaky about the edit. You pointed it out, and we immediately fixed the error.

      • Kevin R Wright

        I’d hate to tell you proper blogging etiquette but editing should be limited to fixing typos and grammar. To change a major error in a post without an edit note or *update* is sneaky and poor form. The most common way to handle this type of thing is to leave the incorrect text or statement there, but crossed out, while adding the new, correct text. Surely you’ve seen this practice.

        • James

          Kevin: Actually, I have never heard about that “blogging etiquette” rule, but I’ll duly note that for future reference.

          Since you seem to be up on all the blogging etiquette, maybe you can fill me in on some more rules. Is there a finishing school in the blogging world too? How about “blogging cotillions” in which young writers are presented to society? (That’s me being sarcastic about the concept of “blogging etiquette,” by the way.)

          I think each publication, site or blog decides how to handle corrections. The Movie Mezzanine site is acting in a perfectly ethical way with the way its decides to fix errors.

          A final note: If you really want to take Mr. Cole to task you should have knocked him for his clunky writing. His “Gravity” review is a slog to read through. Flabby sentences packed with so many thoughts it’s hard to navigate paragraph.

          Take this sentence for instance: “To break up this forward motion, Cuarón and his son Jonás chuck in thick monologues filled with such awkwardly tacked-on backstory that each dialogue-rich scene plays like a parody of bad exposition.” Ouch, that’s tough to read and understand.

          I think Mr. Cole meant this: Cuarón and his son Jonás include such awkward monologues to fill in back story the script feels like a parody of bad exposition.”

          And then there’s the lead. I had to read it three times to figure out what Mr. Cole was trying to say.

          How about: “Earth looms so large in the opening scene of Gravity that it takes a few moments to realize a small white dot on the edge of the frame is actually a space shuttle.”

          Just a few thoughts.

          • http://www.moviemezzanine.com/ Sam Fragoso

            Duly noted Ward.

          • Kevin R Wright

            If a website wants to be taken seriously the writers and editors should practice industry standard editing techniques. There is nothing bizarre or strange about that. If the concept of accepted standards in writing and editing is really that foreign to you, I have to assume you aren’t a serious writer or editor.

            With that said, I find it odd you deleted your last post where you completely threw the author under the bus, so I’ll share what you wrote in my own comment for clarity’s sake:

            The following was Jame’s original response:

            A final note: If you really want to take Mr. Cole to task you should have knocked him for his clunky writing. His “Gravity” review is a slog to read through. Flabby sentences packed with so many thoughts it’s hard to navigate paragraph.

            Take this sentence for instance: “To break up this forward motion, Cuarón and his son Jonás chuck in thick monologues filled with such awkwardly tacked-on backstory that each dialogue-rich scene plays like a parody of bad exposition.” Ouch, that’s tough to read and understand.

            I think Mr. Cole meant this: Cuarón and his son Jonás include such awkward monologues to fill in back story the script feels like a parody of bad exposition.”

            And then there’s the lead. I had to read it three times to figure out what Mr. Cole was trying to say.

            How about: “Earth looms so large in the opening scene of Gravity that it takes a few moments to realize a small white dot on the edge of the frame is actually a space shuttle.”

            Just a few thoughts.

          • http://www.moviemezzanine.com/ Sam Fragoso

            Again, your word choice is just a bit off. James didn’t throw Jake under the bus. He made some critical (mostly beneficial) suggestions.

            “If a website wants to be taken seriously the writers and editors should practice industry standard editing techniques.”

            – This comment suggests that we’re not a serious film site, and that readers don’t take our writing seriously.

            I’m baffled as to why you would make such large assumptions about an ENTIRE publication over a single error.

    • James

      Kevin: Cut Jake a break. Errors are inevitable when churning out thousands of words copy. An error here or there doesn’t invalidate a writer’s opinions.

      And anyway, an opinion can never be “wrong.” That is unless, you’re Sam, of course. His opinions are frequently not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Don’t get me started with that guy.

      With that said, Jake’s review is the first negative take on the film. My hope is that he’s not negative on the film just to be contrarian, which I doubt. I still can’t wait to see the film.

      • Kevin R Wright

        It’s not as if this was some small typo or error. He claimed the director wrote the film with his brother Jose. It’s just flat out erroneous. It’s difficult to take a critic seriously when they don’t even know who created the art they are criticizing.

        While I fully agree that poor research doesn’t disqualify one’s ability to critique, it does indicate to me that they aren’t a very serious and worthy of further reading. There are thousands of people writing about film in print and on the internet. I won’t be bothered to take a writer seriously if they can’t even get the basics correct. I’d rather just move on to a more thoughtful and serious writer.

        • Bob Somebody

          Except that all this just amounts to sniveling on your part. There is exactly one negative critic review on RTs, and you’ve spent a good portion of a day limply trying to discredit it.

        • Peter Mountain

          Any real person let off the hook is lucky. This is one of the most pathetically bad scripts ever in my opinion.

  • Andrea

    the film is boring and overacted performances

  • Cory

    Your face is aesthetically and structurally regressive! Quit trolling the tomatomater. This movie almost has 300 reviews.

    • http://www.moviemezzanine.com/ Sam Fragoso

      Love the nuance of your comment.

      • http://reviewsbytom.blogspot.com/ Tom Clift

        Shhh, Cory! We don’t make fun of Sam for his aesthetically and structurally regressive face. He’s sensitive about it!

  • billy the fish

    Utter crap. Accurate review – don’t waste your money.

    • MTN

      $712 million worldwide and 7 Oscars indicate many movie goers and experienced film industry types disagree with you.

      • David

        What is your point? That disagreement exists in the world? We already knew that. The majority is not automatically right simply because it is the majority.

  • MTN

    Seems odd o have this review come out of TIFF, which happened months ago. If you are a serious film reviewer why would you wait 4 months after a film is released to review it? Sounds like a bit of rival studio/competition for Awards recognition attempting to get a slam at “Gravity” before final voting. I am not buying this review at all. “Gravity” has 287 positive reviews, its the best reviewed film of the year with the most reviews and still remains the most thrilling and accomplished film of 2013.

    • http://www.moviemezzanine.com/ Sam Fragoso

      We published this review a month BEFORE the film was released in theaters. Your “4 months after a film is released” claim makes no sense to me. The publishing date is clearly listed at the top of this article.

      Apologies for any confusion. And good to know you’re not “buying this review” because there are 287 other ones that better align with your perspective.

      • MRN

        I see the date you wrote this review, now. What I do not understand is why it showed up on Rotten Tomatoes in February 2014? This is where I am getting the “4 months after a film is released” notion.

  • Frank Mondana

    While a review can’t be “wrong” (it is an opinion), it can be suspect as to its intentions. This review sounds negative simply to be contrary. This is a mistake made sometimes by critics, especially those without much experience.
    The writer usually isn’t even aware they are guilty of this but they are reacting to a piece that has been fawned over by everyone else so the critic just wants to find faults- even if they don’t exist.

    Better luck next time.

    • James McInnis

      “The writer usually isn’t even aware they are guilty of this but they are reacting…” Who are “they”?

      • HelloIDon’tCare

        The writer themselves, dimwit.

    • Bob Somebody

      I would totally agree, if the movie weren’t a giant ham-fisted turd. Let’s call it what it is: A damn good reinterpretation of Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger.

      • MTN

        $712 million worldwide indicates you are in the minority.

        • Andrew Malenda

          Argumentum ad populum.

  • georgembodziony

    It’s Kowalski, not Kowalsky. It may seem insignificant, but it does makes a difference.

  • tedbowen

    Great review! Gravity is a great technological achievement but the character development and dialogue are below average. Maybe there should be an award for casting. It seems like you don’t need a backstory if you have George or Sandra. People know their personas and like them so much that they are rooting for them and thinking the characters are one and the same.

  • Ian

    Completely agree with the essence of this review. It seems most critics are of the opinion that a good movie is all about visual effects. I saw Gravity on a plane, so am judging it on its ability to engage without the benefit of the big screen. For me, it failed dismally. In that respect.

    • MTN

      The problem is you watched Gravity on a plane. Nothing looks good on a plane.

  • quesondriac

    C-
    Really?

    Don’t trust this reviewer. This is a calculated review to present the idea that the reviewer is a rebel with independent thought, and that he will not fall in line with everyone else. But in reality, he just wants to standout from the crowd by being different using negative attention. Something that will cost him his credibility. Something that this young man does not have much of, so why not gamble with it.

    • Monterrey

      Thank you Quesondriac, amazing statement. I still enjoy Star Wars once in a while after 37 years and I don’t care about Annie Hall… you got it? Regards.

  • Larry Ferrari

    I found the bootleg to be elementary… ( good will hunting)

  • disqus_7N2pMQSHWH

    You are a pretentious hipster who is just trying to go against the grain of every single other review of this film. Yeah, you’re the only one who didn’t like it, so I’d like to think that speaks for itself. Bullock’s character was perfectly well qualified to be in space, but it was her first fu*king mission! And the reason she was supposed to be listening to the man’s point of view, is because he was a veteran astronaut. Also, considering they were the sole survivors, I’d think a rookie might want to take what her Lieutenant says very seriously in that situation. The back story of her child’s death was also given to emphasize the feeling of hopelessness that is SUPPOSED to be in the film. It’s supposed to be there because we’re supposed to feel hopeless right along with her. Not only did she have to face that to survive, she was forced to move forward. In conclusion, your review is filled with blatant misinterpretations. If you can’t successfully review a film without constantly comparing it to past work, perhaps you just shouldn’t review it at all.

    • Claude

      What are you talking about. This reviewer was one of the only ones with enough balls to tell it like it is. Movie is mediocre. Yes some visuals are nice but the movie is lame and improbable and impossible. Story line is week. I can go on for 20 minutes pointing out all the BS. I spent most of the time yelling at my screen BS.

      • disqus_7N2pMQSHWH

        Okay guy, you are not an astronaut, nor am I. All I know is, they got a lot of the details about space dead on. Might I point out that you said you can go on for 20 minutes pointing out all the BS, yet haven’t substantially provided one example. The movie was clearly designed to give the audience a sense of being completely alone, and it definitely succeeded. Then again; I feel like I’m wasting my time, considering you don’t know the difference between a statement and a question, and don’t know the difference between “week” and “weak.” So yeah, tell me again about how and why you are suddenly an expert in regard to space travel, and more importantly what exactly could be described as “BS” in the film. I will say though, I recently saw All is Lost. I originally thought Gravity got robbed of a Best Picture Oscar, but All is Lost should have been nominated and should have won. Just had to say that to everyone, because everyone should see that film.

      • MTN

        Uh huh. This reviewer is a real rebel all right. Cannot believe you said some of the visuals are nice. Nice? Oscar winning and spectacular are the appropriate descriptors. Like many action and suspense films you are supposed to go for the ride, not spend a films running time thinking whether or not every fact is completely accurate. Gravity is not a documentary on space missions.

    • MTN

      Amen. I agree.

  • worryboy

    The special effects, CGI phenomenal….deserve awards, however the movie was absurd and really pushes the impossible. Sandra goes from one crisis to the next and at the end when she at splashes down and nearly drowns I thought she would get attacked by a school of piranha, escape them, swim to shore get attacked by a lion at the waters edge only to be rescued by a hunter who turns out to be a serial rapist then………

    • quesondriac

      Gus Grissom almost drowned after he splashed down in America’s second manned space mission. Drowning in a water landing is a real hazard. And this was the one crisis that I say required the LEAST suspension of disbelief.

      • Tim

        Gus Grissom is also the astronaut that invented the floating suit. Why does Bullock’s character take her helmet off in a smoky burning capsule that is quickly filling with water? I couldn’t deal with out stupid her character was.

        • Andrew Dahl

          Yeah her character was odd, definitely not the personality of someone NASA would send into space.

  • dan

    like the film, there are some good aspects of this review and some less good. overall the writer is correct about the script which I felt was wooden at times and in the last 15 minutes of the filmm most of the words uttered were solid oak. I think it’s a critical over reach to suggest it’s ‘regressive’ but the bottom line is this. ultimately the film disappoints, not because it’s bad but because the dialogue makes you cringe in places bringing the whole mood of the piece crashing back to earth.

  • James McInnis

    “Gravity” is engaging and utterly forgettable, like the roller-coaster ride it imitates.

  • Natalia

    This movie is not for the existentially naive.. The critique is obviously based on the bland and predictable knowledge of a die-hard Frodo Baggins fan. You want better Cgi? Seriously. Go back to college and get a Phd and get off the couch get a job in Philanthropy. Then we’ll see how your perception of reality changes.

  • Stephen

    Gravity: Not for hipsters.

  • C

    Good review. All the budget blown on CGI effects–they should have all chipped in and hired a screen writer. Same old disaster movie with almost every kind of typical adversity–fire, tangled parachute, low oxygen, flooded space capsule…..I was waiting for a guest appearance from Shelley Winters and Red Buttons and a shark attack when Bullock was underwater; the “Planet of the Apes”-inspired ending added a final fizzle to a boring, predictable film.

  • greenmonk

    I agree for the most part of this review. It was basically the same disaster movie like many before it from The Poseidon Adventure on. Persons are involved in disaster…most others if not all get killed during the story leaving a lone survivor or survivors that battle one physical challenge after another but eventually survive. Along the way the character is imbued with the bare minimum of backstory because time is money and the money shots are all in the special effects. So because they have such limited time for character understanding and sympathy they go for the jugular..like an only child killed…. to cement our investment in the character without the fuss of creating sympathy by “wasting” time with say flashbacks to earth and deeper character revelations. Sprinkle in a few wise cracks that only a suave American side kick star like Clooney can provide and the formula is complete. The only uniquely awesome aspect was the backdrop, but with all the jabbering, smashing, breathing, and those wise crack jokes, it was only fleetingly rewarding.

  • Doeeyeddame

    I did not understand what all the fuss was over this film. Totally agree with everything you said. The awkwardly tacked on backstory was the worst! And did anyone else feel like George Clooney was just a more grown up version of Buzz Lightyear?

  • Brian

    Great effects, but Sandra Bullock is whining the entire time. Not much of a story. Barely watchable.

  • Jimothy

    Good review. It’s nice to see someone not treating this as deep philosophy. It is very thinly written. I did find it visually stunning, and it has a fantastic eerie feel to it at times (mainly when poor dialogue is not ruining the spectacle) but it could have been a lot better. I think it either needed to just stay in full aesthetically-stunning-zero-sentimentality thriller mode, or it needed a longer runtime and much better dialogue to actually develop the characters. A clumsily blurted out story of personal grief does not make a backstory and does not develop a character, it just breaks the spell and makes you aware that you are sitting in a cinema listening to poorly formed dialogue.

    The cinematography and the emotional power of the premise drew me in, and will make this film stick with me for a while. I’d still say it was very much worth seeing, but I wish I’d not heard the hype first.

  • Steve

    If Cage and Heigl were the leads and gave the exact same performance, this movie would have had mediocre reviews. This is an accurate review although a C- might be generous.

  • MTN

    7 Oscar wins says it all. If the Academy had not felt self conscious and racist, “Gravity” would have won Best Picture. If this review came out of TIFF, (5 months ago) why is it showing up now? Oh, I see. February 4th. Just in time to try to sway Academy Voters. I suppose the other 291 positive tomatometer critics and $712 million in box office are wrong. Sorry you are too late to the game to drop “Gravity” from its 97% tomato meter rating or being the best reviewed film of 2013.

  • Will

    Kind of ironic that this review spends most of it’s time repeating itself. The whole point was to be minimalist; not every film has to have ridiculously over-the-top CGI, or miles deep plot. You bleat on about the back story, when the back story is all but irrelevant to the main characters survival. Knowing more about her history isn’t going to make us empathise any more then we already can with her situation.

  • Micah J

    SPOILERS IN MY COMMENT!!!
    People that are saying this reviewer is only trying to be an independent thinker are not making a real argument. It is completely possible he has his own opinion. When I saw the movie, I was definitely impressed by the visuals, and it felt like a suspenseful adventure… but I, too, agree in many ways with the reviewer. There were a lot of details about the science of space that the film nailed, and it really felt immersive, yet a lot of filmy tropes that made it hard to believe. I cannot tell you in how many scenes the character was flying past something, trying to grab anything, and failing, only until the ‘very last grab-able object’. It must’ve happened 7 times or so. And I’m not even exaggerating, every single time it was the absolutely last grab-able object! The scene where she had to fly through space using a fire extinguisher to propel her was also ridiculous. It helped her to reach a space station that was only a dot some time before in a mere minute or so. And the space station was huge! How could a little fire extinguisher possibly push that hard and for so long? How did it not rotate her into a perpetual spin backwards? At the speed she was going, she would’ve smashed into the station at the very least a few hundred miles per hour. Yet, she magically slowed down when she got near it, for the sake of suspense. The scene where she had run out of oxygen was also ridiculous, as I know quite a bit about human physiology, and know that she would’ve definitely passed out within a minute once the oxygen levels of her suit started to fall. But no, she just felt ‘faint’ after breathing pure CO2 for, like, 5 minutes. Just enough time to get to safety! How convenient! How… suspenseful! And that scene where she started to bark like a dog? You might make the argument that, at that point, she would try anything to help herself feel more comfortable; but you can tell it’s a movie scene, and you can tell it’s an actor, and you can just feel the contagious awkwardness of Bullock trying to act the scene well. I wanted to leave the room, it was so awkward. So much fail for so many positive reviews. I honestly think it got such great reviews because it was ‘different’, and there were hardly any movies out there like it, and I highly respect that. It tried something new, and did it very well, but it tried too hard to appeal to idiots to make it suspenseful. I think if it really wanted to be new and different, it should’ve been more realistic. I won’t be won over by pretty CG.

  • Clorge Gooney

    Agree 100% with this review. Watching this film was an ordeal

  • David Franklin

    Great review. “Hollow” was exactly the word that came to mind when I watched this. Apollo 13 was far better.
    I for one don’t find space itself particularly intriguing. But the men and women who go there have my respect and admiration. Among their number are some of the finest characters on this planet. The Cold War featured an arms race and a space race – but while the arms race threatened destruction (and still does), the two space programs ended up cooperating – long before anyone else.
    Gravity didn’t have to have a happy ending. It didn’t have to have a downer ending. What it needed to be a halfway decent film, and a tribute to the real spacefarers, was for the main characters to be both real people, and authentic spacefarers. Kowalski and Stone were paper thin. I honestly didn’t care what happened to them, either way.
    P.S. I know spacefarers is not an official word for these people. But I don’t know of an official collective term for astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts, et al.

  • David

    I don’t know about the other criticisms, but the mere fact that a woman is traking instructions from a man is not “regressive” in any respect. This is a bogus complaint.

  • ca

    agree, there are so many things about this movie that were horrible

  • Mark

    just to point out how much of a try-hard this movie reviewing rebel against the grain is, kowalsky was trying to calm dr. stone down by getting her to talk about her past. any methods of trying to calm her would lessen her panic, which in turn would lead to less hyperventilating, which was the REAL root of the problem. anyone with half a brain knows that hyperventilation = excess carbon dioxide exhalation, thus filling her suit with useless gas… so yeah, the reviewer is incredibly stupid, and even if he wasn’t stupid and wrong, are you SERIOUS?!?!? you’re trying THAT hard to nitpick a detail THAT irrelevant? goodness.