Part Two: It Might Just Float Away
Now, for the more general issues with character. It doesn't start out terrible at all. A look at the early successes is in order, both for balance and to put the later failure into perspective.
The subtle hints at history early on were very effective; Bullock's character's admission of her daughter's death was unsentimental, serving as much to throw Clooney's smug therapist routine back at him. In that moment, she seems truly rounded - not tough or cold, but enduring, fully human. It's a fluke, an exception, and that is a shame.
The most powerful scene in the whole film for me took place when Bullock finally managed to reach the first airlock. After removing her suit in a palpable panic, she allows herself a moment of relieved indulgence before settling into a shell-shocked fetal position. The imagery is overt - no one could miss the subtext of the womb (and few could miss the nod to Kubrick, even in a film which is fully aware of the inevitable comparisons, and which may even be something of a response to 2001). Bullock shines here, clearly a competent actor (I didn't know this about her, most of her other fare being prima facie not in my wheelhouse). We feel with her here because she allows us to, rather than forcing or begging. That's why acting matters - it allows depth and story even without words. Here, where she is given a moment to be simply, fully human, she pulls us in and we are there, and it works. Her panic, her relief, its fading - this works not because we know she had a daughter who died, but because she is human and we are human and that's all it takes, that's all you really need for empathy to kick in.
If only someone had pointed this out and said "See? You don't have to try so hard; you don't have to be so damn specific." Cuarón treats character-writing just like plot - as a causal chain, a series of pieces of data the audience stacks up, at the top of which there is supposed to be a payoff - in this case empathy, preferably in the form of tears. Real character is more like a chord than a melody - a collection of resonances which interact, each note informing how the others are construed, overtones and ratios holding the meaning of the thing. "I had a daughter," the airlock scene - these accomplish this. Nothing else does. If this was the template the film used through to the end, it might have succeeded. Unfortunately, before the eye-rollingly trite, patently obvious ending - Redemption! Rebirth! Triumph! - We must endure all manner of painful groveling in an attempt to compel our investment.
My expectations for nuanced, human stories in Hollywood are fairly low, despite recent successes like Moon, Prometheus or Antiviral, so it takes a special kind of speciousness to be notable in this area. Alas, Gravity wins this criticism. But poor character development is one thing in a story where character is implicitly illusory, a mere utility to carry the viewer through an experience. It's one thing in a film which has any sense of what it hopes to accomplish at all. Combined with a muddled structure, an inability to make either one film or two separate films, instead making half of two films and forcing them into the same reel, poor character development is inexcusable.
Gravity is just that, though - two films smashed unceremoniously, bewilderingly, together. The first half a space disaster film, hard SF to the core, and fairly successfully so; the second an obvious and overcooked story about a woman who tries to come to terms with - fuck, it's too boring to even rehash.
The first part is successful because it deals with the impersonal so well, showing the harsh immediacy of the environment and the fragility of both our bodies and our most advanced artifacts. Hard SF of this variety may not be my favorite thing, but I can certainly enjoy it, especially if it's educational. We could argue about the wherefore of this info-gobbling experience, but I would have walked out of the theater satisfied (if harried) had Gravity been the film it pretended to be for its first act. Such a film would still fail as art, as storytelling. But at least it would be focused, within its bounds.
But that's not how things happen. Instead, without warning, the movie shifts from taut disaster-porn to overwrought tearjerker without warning or justification.
So what are we left with? A fractured film, uncertain of its identity, goals, or outlook. Half hard-SF film replete with numerous scientific inaccuracies; half overwrought, oversimple festival of feels, designed to elicit tears and filled with increasingly triumphant music, telling us without subtlety what to feel and when and how much. A seriously problematic portrayal of a female character, which it is no stretch to call sexist. Yes, the physical world of the film is compelling, creates powerful anxiety with great skill. But, unsatisfied with this mechanical success, it insists on trying to be more - and fails. Worst of all, it is a film which gives us just enough truly artful moments - subtle feats of filmmaking in which all the technical acts, the directorial, and particularly the dramatic, come into alignment - to be truly disappointing for trampling them in its mad rush to catharsis.
A final note: I've heard some talk of the film being a metaphor for depression. I won't honor such an idea with attention except to say that, if this were the case, it would turn a mere failure into an abject one, so seriously does it miss the mark in this regard. Furthermore, I’d very seriously hope the director would avoid such a tactic; given his awful misrepresentation of autism, Cuarón would do well not lend that ungraceful touch to a depiction of depression.
TL;DR - confused structure, shallow/cliche character, cheap, Speilbergian emotion-pumping, and copious sexism. Pros: Bullock is great when she's allowed to be, space junk is super scary.