WARNING: This review contains spoilers, including a discussion of the film’s ending.
Being stranded in outer space is a terror of unfathomable proportions for most. Beyond the purely logistic horrors of simply being out there — freezing cold, lack of oxygen, inability to tether or adequately mobilize oneself, etc. — there is an additional psychological element, usually referred to as the Overview Effect, in which an astronaut, looking back at the delicate Blue Marble that is his or her home, experiences a cognitive shift, becoming acutely aware of the fragility of not only himself, but of everything that the average human would take for granted. (I strongly recommend The Planetary Collective’s short documentary OVERVIEW, a corollary to Frank Wright’s book about the phenomenon.) The humbling effect of this cosmic perspective was neatly summed up by Bill Anders, one of the first three men to visit the moon (and a practicing Catholic whose subsequent God’s-eye-view of Earth from Apollo 8 led him to question and ultimately abandon the idea of a sentient creator), when he said, “We came all this way to discover the moon, and what we really did discover is Earth.”
Of course, in this context, the discovery of Earth could also be said to be the discovery of man’s subservience to and reliance upon the Earth and the ultimate tenuousness, temporality, and insignificance of mankind amidst the backdrop of infinity. Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film Gravity — an unqualified technical marvel by any and all standards — finds its most powerful and lasting images when it acknowledges this tension between perspective and context. In a film full of exhilarating long takes, some of the most stimulating moments are those in which the ‘apparatus’ (I hesitate to use the term ‘camera’, as practically everything but the faces of the actors was rendered in a computer) assumes a fixed position, observing bodies — human, mechanical, celestial — floating off into the limitless expanse of space. We are stardust, as the old (scientifically verifiable) saw goes, and from whence we came thus shall we return.
Cuaron, however, is a survivalist, as anyone who has seen his previous film, 2006’s Children of Men, will surely be able to attest. Set in 2027, that film depicted the nihilistic dystopia that would likely emerge on the eve of mankind’s extinction following two decades of inexplicable infertility. When a woman miraculously becomes pregnant, it is up to Clive Owen and Julianne Moore to protect her and her unborn child, the last bastion of hope for the human race. Cuaron’s left-leaning politics and right-leaning Christian allegory were a perfect fit for P. D. James’s novel, giving the film philosophical and socio-anthropological overtones which deepened what could have otherwise been nothing more than a post-apocalyptic road movie. In Gravity, however, these elements are an uneasy fit and its religious allusions as well as its attempts at backstory and character motivation feel more like concessions to convention than essential parts of or edifying additions to the narrative.
That narrative is, by design, rather thin: medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are conducting repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope when debris from a Russian satellite impacts their ship, killing the other members of their crew and leaving them adrift in space without the means to return to, or even contact, Mission Control (personified by the voice of Ed Harris). The ensuing fifty minutes, in which Stone and Kowalski must somehow reconnect in zero gravity and make their way toward a neighboring space station, are, quite simply, stunning. Cuaron keeps us floating through space along with his protagonists, wisely using long takes not only to build suspense, but to circumvent the issue of how to intelligibly and coherently create a sense of geography around people and objects that are constantly spinning inside a directionless vacuum. Cuaron does occasionally use POV shots which put the audience directly into Stone’s helmet, but he doesn’t — and needn’t — rely upon them. The extended takes and weightless ‘camera’ work function in tandem to create an aerial ballet between the screen and the spectator; Gravity is one of the few films to truly merit the 3D treatment.
This first hour, however, is not quite perfect. Cuaron and composer Steven Price — perhaps underestimating their audience — often put music where silence would better serve the film and its mounting suspense. Gravity wisely eschews the George Lucas technique of completely ignoring the laws of acoustical physics, opting instead to let all of its collisions and explosions play out without accompanying sound. Cuaron pulls his punches, however, allowing Price to score in the vein of Jerry Goldsmith’s work for Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Mickey Mousing the action with the soundtrack. Additionally, for all his efforts to establish the ‘camera’ as a theoretically physical and logistically viable point of vantage, Cuaron makes an egregious mistake in a particular sequence that sees the apparatus travel through Stone’s helmet, placing us temporarily in her perspective and taking us back out again in a single movement. Cuaron wagered that the appearance of contiguous motion would trump verisimilitude; it is a bet that he loses, breaking the emotional and spatial continuums as he tries to maintain that of the temporal.
Nonetheless, these two relatively minor flaws do little to tarnish the thrilling spectacle of the first two acts. Clooney and Bullock bring with them their on- and off-screen histories, which help immensely to fill in where the script lacks and to smooth out where it falters; their innate charisma makes us care deeply about characters whom we hardly even get to know. Asked to perform with only their faces and voices, they excel at the task at hand, blending seamlessly with their CGI environs. One particular shot stands out: that of Stone, having finally reached an abandoned space pod, visible through its window as it floats high above the Earth, crested on one hemisphere by the sunrise and on the other by the Aurora Borealis. The ‘camera’ slowly pulls back, Stone and her rickety vessel receding into the vacuum, her home directly below but practically unreachable. Like that of David stranded underwater in the penultimate sequence of A.I., with the object of his journey mere feet away and yet unreachable, this image is both visually and philosophically breathtaking and would be a perfect ending for the film (and it was, in A.I.‘s case, how Stanley Kubrick had originally intended it to end). However, also like A.I., Gravity presses on, sabotaging itself in its quest for a happy ending.
Now, Gravity is of course a major Hollywood production by a major Hollywood director featuring two (three, if you count Ed Harris) major Hollywood stars. There’s probably a rule somewhere at Warner Brothers that you can’t kill Sandra Bullock, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she miraculously survives the ordeal. What is surprising, however, is the mixed message sent by the film’s final act which stands defiantly in contrast to both logic and the drama which precedes it. It’s been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but having Stone — who professes to having never prayed before in her life — suddenly find inner peace knowing that her new (and newly deceased) astronaut friends will be meeting the daughter she lost at age four on the other side of the pearly gates carries the dual stench of both McKee-ist Hollywood resolution and didactic religious proselytizing.
Even more offensive — and, quite frankly, downright puzzling — is how Cuaron stages Stone’s return to terra firma. After landing in the water, Stone extricates herself from her escape pod and swims to shore. The camera stays on the ground, close on her hands and feet as she falteringly pushes herself up, slowly readjusting herself to Earth’s — wait for it — gravity. Once she is upright, the camera neither cuts nor follows her eyeline; instead, it tilts slowly upward from her ankles, casting Stone as a giant astride the Earth, framed only by clear, blue sky. When Cuaron finally cuts to a shot that shows both Stone and her geography, Stone is so heavily and exclusively foregrounded amidst an impossibly deep focus that her slender frame appears to dwarf even the mountains. It’s a great piece of survivalist mythologizing through mise-en-scene, but is that really the moral we should take from a showdown with the infinite indifference of space?
Gravity posits itself as an amalgam of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Open Water, an interstellar melodrama of shipwreck and survival unfolding in, more or less, real time. Unfortunately, Cuaron takes only the technical achievements of the former, relying on the tone and themes of the latter, grafting his truly visionary spectacle onto a regrettably cliched and morally conflicted story. Although it is a vastly superior film, it reminds me of the disappointment I felt with Prometheus last year (and, to point, with Inception two years prior to that): here is a film that progresses the visual language of cinema while at its best merely upholding and at its worst regressing its most basic narrative conventions. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a marvel because of its commitment to expanding both the visual and narrative capabilities of the cinema. As great a film as Gravity is, it succeeds on only one of these grounds; perhaps if it was more philosophically sympathetic to mankind’s limitations, it could have surmounted some of its own.