Gravity is a gorgeously shot film, no doubt. It’s a film by a director who knows what he’s doing; there’s not an ounce of fat on that movie. It’s a thrilling piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and one that has rightly garnered praise from critics and audiences alike. It’s difficult not to see some of the criticism as internet-age contrariness. Is the film’s plot simple? Perhaps. Is it too simple? Well, that point was ably countered by that patron of upper-case criticism, Film Crit Hulk.
And yet, I came away from having seen Gravity being subtly disappointed. It’s a good film, definitely, and Cuaron does a great job – but already one or two days after having seen it, when I try to think about what I saw the images that come to mind aren’t Gravity‘s, they’re from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
Now, Sunshine… It’s a flawed film that’s almost sunk by its last third. It’s messy and confused. Yet it resonated with me to a much larger extent than Cuaron’s more accomplished, more consistent movie did. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons why I was somewhat disappointed with Gravity is this: I was immediately pulled in by the trailer, which evoked the visceral dread of floating off untethered into the infinity of space. The film itself didn’t bring back this dread, because of its structure: obviously Gravity wasn’t going to kill off Sandra Bullock, at least not before the final five minutes or so, which meant that there was little sense of risk. It’s possible for stories to solve this conundrum by involving their audience in a sleight of hand where they know a protagonist won’t die, yet they feel that they may just be wrong about that. Gravity didn’t do that, at least not for me, and I’m not sure it wanted to – its aim was to show Bullock’s character struggling and triumphing.
That’s the other thing, though: I did care about the character triumphing, but not much. Dr. Ryan Stone, first-time astronaut, works as an audience stand-in, especially in concert with the amazing cinematography (seriously, if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get an Academy Award for this, the Academy should be shot into space!), but to be honest, I didn’t particularly care about her. Part of this is Bullock’s particularly American everywoman quality: a bit like a female Tom Hanks, there’s something to calculatedly likeable about her. She works well in Gravity, but I often find her (and Hanks) bland, compared to, say, the everyman characters of Jimmy Stewart that hinted at darker qualities under the folksy niceness.
Adding to this are my issues with Gravity‘s themes: Film Crit Hulk (and other critics) liked the rebirth motif running through the movie, but I found it somewhat hackneyed and distractingly obvious. By the time we get Bullock’s zero-G fetal position and realise that the line tethering her character to various space vessels doubles as an umbilical cord, the film is practically shouting its subtext at us in IMAX-sized captions: we’re witnessing her rebirth, get it?
Sunshine is hardly all that more subtle about its themes, but it’s less single-minded – it’s more messy, as I mentioned earlier – and for me this makes the film resonate more. It’s fair to say that Boyle’s movie doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but the result is that Sunshine‘s themes aren’t as pushy. More than that, though, I cared about its characters and their plight much more than I did about Dr. Stone’s; she may be more likeable, but her likeability is largely predicated on the audience liking Sandra Bullock. Sunshine‘s characters are more flawed, more complicated, and to my mind more human. As a result, when those characters die it feels more like a loss, whereas Gravity‘s deaths were mostly forgotten a minute after they occurred.
There’s something else that Sunshine pulled off and that makes the film resonate more with me than Cuaron’s arguably more accomplished movie: both films have a metaphysical component, but Sunshine‘s goes beyond the individual level. It’s not just about the potential death of one audience stand-in, it’s about the possible death of mankind. It’s about the two directions in which playing God can go: the film’s protagonists are working on saving the sun and, by extension, mankind, while the antagonist wants to return us all to the stardust we came from. Both sides are torn between being flawed humans and aspiring to the kind of power that humans should not have. It is a shame that Boyle turns this metaphysical playground into a slasher movie, almost drowning the more interesting themes in a space-age retread of And then there were none, but the power of the filmmaking – always more disjointed than Cuaron’s, but for me more engaging in this – got to me to an extent that Gravity didn’t in the end.
Gravity is accomplished in ways that Sunshine doesn’t manage. It is the more coherent film, it gets more things right and fewer things wrong. But the things that Sunshine gets right – and even its noble failures – means that I’d rather sit in a tin can with Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Hiroyuki Sanada than with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I’m glad that Dr. Stone made it, but for me her triumpant rebirth doesn’t even begin to touch Sunshine‘s final scene, which is confident enough to be simple and quiet – and all the more glorious for it.