by Peter Schilling
Gravity, 2013, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
“At 372 miles above the earth
There is nothing to carry sound
No air pressure
Life in space is impossible”
So reads the opening title cards in Alfonso Cuarón’s new space epic, Gravity. And like a proverbial red sky in the morning, we can take warning that Cuarón, the storyteller, is going to be a bit obvious and ham handed here. It’s a shame, because this is a movie that could be as nearly as perfect as the director’s last brilliant effort, Children of Men. But alas, Gravity is beautiful, it is thrilling, it is incredible science, even… until it isn’t.
I’ll start off by saying that under no circumstances should you miss this film -- Gravity is not only startling, but terrifically thrilling, perhaps the first movie I could call pulse-pounding and really mean it.
While I hate it when reviewers say things like “this is what movies are all about” (for movies are just as much about spectacles like this as they are as delicate as anything by Roberto Rossellini or Yasujiro Ozu), I would however say that Gravity is definitely what seeing movies in theaters is all about. In Gravity, Cuarón shoves you into an outer space that is arresting in its most literal sense -- there are so many moments where I found myself simply awed by its beauty, and its horror. The 3-D, and being in the dark, the planet earth and space debris crashing around you, makes you feel that uneasy tingle that you get when standing on the edge of an observation deck of a towering skyscraper.
The facts: Gravity concerns the efforts of the Space Shuttle Explorer to update or repair the Hubble telescope. After only a few moments, in which we learn that Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski is a high-living, country music listening raconteur (he is in an extended dialogue with Houston over his wild times at the Mardi Gras), and that Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is nauseous and scared, space debris from a destroyed Russian satellite comes crashing into their shuttle, killing all but Stone and Kowalski.
From there, Gravity becomes the white-knuckle ride you might hope for, but even your wildest imagination cannot expect. Cuarón is a master at not only making us feel as though we’ve donned a space suit and are in peril 300+ miles above earth, but he manages, even as we spin around and around and shuttle arms and panels and debris go sailing by, to make the audience feel somehow grounded -- it is easy to film chaos, and make people confused, but it’s another thing altogether to keep us involved in the chaos while connected to the two characters we know we should care about. The visual and sound effects are seamless and rich with detail, as is the use of the score, which booms loudly and then, suddenly, falls into disturbing silence. (For some reason, Cuarón has the soundtrack blast insanely loud in spots—I’m not sure why this is necessary, but earplugs are recommended. I’m not joking.) What Cuarón achieves here is, even though virtually none of us can know of this firsthand, a feeling of the majesty and the danger of outer space.
Watching Gravity, I was reminded of an apocryphal story that I hope I didn’t just make up (I do that sometimes.) One of the space shuttle astronauts remarked in an interview how, when engaging in out-of-the-shuttle work (like repairs, installation, spacewalking), there is always something for the astronaut in question to be doing -- they can never once be without someone talking to them and instructing them on a task, no matter if it is simply going over a checklist. This is to keep said astronaut from going into a state of awe, of realizing exactly what is going on, of noticing that you’re floating over the earth, for Christ’s sake. Supposedly, a person can go into a state of mental arrest, and need rescue.
I mention this because Cuarón successfully shows you exactly how this could happen (if this is indeed true.) There are moments throughout Gravity where you almost cease to become scared or tense, and just marvel at the sheer beauty of earth from this high up. At no point in Gravity does Cuarón’s camera hover in a way that is meant to make you notice this beauty -- it’s always there, a wonderful distraction, and it makes you marvel.
Dr. Stone and Kowalski manage to break free of their own shuttle’s wreckage, and set sail, using the latter’s jet packs, to get to the Russian space station Soyuz. Cuarón has some fun communicating, ever so slightly (in what I realize is one of the few subtle points of his movie) that the debris circles the earth every ninety minutes -- meaning we can expect to see a shitstorm coming every half hour of cinema time. Perfect! Of course, the Russian station, abandoned, is itself torn to shreds. And, my God, are those shreds deadly, and gorgeous. Like the tendrils of a box jellyfish, long ribbons of… something dangle about the Russian station, a life preserver at one moment, a hangman’s noose in the next. This station provides the first step to salvation, the Chinese space station the next.
Let’s pause to nitpick scientifically, shall we? Though Gravity has a ton of scientifically wonderful moments -- the silence in space, the incredible details of the insides of the space stations -- there’s a bunch of weird stuff, some of which is forgivable, some not. For myself, I can ignore the glaring mistake that has astronauts grumpy, namely, that the Hubble, Russian satellites (which created the debris), the Russian and Chinese space stations are all on the same orbital plane (they're not). There’s also a moment where one of the characters is reaching out and grabs another, who is drifting away. “You have to let go,” the one says, or he’ll end up pulling the other to doom… which actually makes no sense because in space once you’ve come to a stop there’s no momentum to keep you going. The one could let go of the other they’d just hang there.
But those are truly nitpicks, because, well, who cares? This is fiction. More troubling is the fact that Cuarón and company go through so much work to create a scientifically accurate (to a degree) film, and then have Bullock’s Dr. Stone literally make one escape by saying “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” and then pressing a button, which works perfectly for some reason, and which really denies all the work of training she is supposed to have undergone.
But here’s where we see the larger trouble with Gravity: Bullock’s Dr. Stone is, really, a fucking idiot. Oh, she’s tough, make no mistake. From the opening moments where she’s sick, to the endless backstory that is totally irrelevant to the plot -- her child died and she’s a loner -- Dr. Stone makes no sense. You have to give some credence to the type of person NASA puts into outer space, and Dr. Stone’s motion sick, nervous, defeated, and depressed mother-of-a-dead-child is not that person. Stone panics throughout the movie, breathing heavily (Kowalski, the seasoned astronaut, councils her against this much too late, and besides she doesn’t stop, using up oxygen like a frat guy chugging a Foster’s.)
And besides: why? Like the opening title credits, which give us filmgoers in 2013 information that we really already know (Life is impossible in space? You think?), so, too, do screenwriters Alfonso and his son, Jonás, gild the lily. This is crushingly disappointing, considering how adept Alfonso was (with his other screenwriters) in handling backstory in Children of Men. There, Clive Owen’s character also had a child that died -- it was mentioned once, then alluded to, and Owen wore his grief like the ratty grey overcoat he donned throughout that incredible film. In Children of Men, his grief matches that of society’s.
Here, it is as though the Cuarón’s do not trust us to feel for Dr. Stone unless she has some tragedy in her past. This is the case throughout Gravity -- one of the astronauts at the very beginning is killed, and when Dr. Stone looks at him, a photo of the man with his family floats up, because apparently we wouldn’t care about him unless he had a wife and kid.
Clooney’s Kowalski is also pretty ridiculous, his country music and endless yammering a cheap way of telling us what kind of a guy he is. This is a damn shame, because Cuarón, at first, seems to think the tragedy of this space walk is enough -- we don’t get the back story as to why they’re out in space, no sense of the mission itself or even the other astronauts (as opposed to the examination of the mission in Apollo 13), and that’s just fine -- well, then jettison Stone’s backstory, please, because it drags and makes no sense, besides.
Cuarón also decides to step into spiritual territory, with a silly aside with Bullock’s Dr. Stone talking to herself, lamenting that “no one taught me to pray” (perhaps the silliest line I’ve heard all year), and making each space station escape pod have a little religious icon in full view. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that it’s a bit much.
I might have preferred, too, concentrating on one station, and maybe seeing Stone work her way back to earth, rather than, well, you’ll figure it out. But moving from set piece to set piece, from space station to space station, Gravity starts to get routine, fatiguing, for every conceivable thing goes wrong the way things always go wrong in, say, a video game -- the circling of the debris every ninety minutes (coincidentally, just as she manages to land at each space station.)
All this is a shame because Gravity is a startling motion picture, and one that I have to recommend. I’m not a fan of 2001 and its empty navel-gazing (nor its very limited imagination about the future), so I don’t miss the supposedly complex ending of that film, against which Gravity is going to be forever compared. I’ll take Cuarón’s brief (Gravity is just over 90 minutes) though profoundly stunning jaunt into the heavens any day. Would that the screenwriter of Children of Men had been as economical and respectful of his audience.