by Christianne Benedict
Gravity (2013, directed by Alfonso Cuarón) is a technical marvel and one of the most viscerally terrifying films I’ve ever seen. It’s the very definition of a “ride” movie. Show this on the huge screen at Epcot center while shaking the audience with rumble seats and it wouldn’t be out of place. This isn’t a criticism, and if I seem ungrateful going forward for focusing on what the film lacks, I’m not, really, because for what it is,Gravity is absolutely splendid.
The film this most reminds me of is The Impossible. Like that film, the seeming miracle of what it puts on screen frequently overrides other critical concerns. Film craft is underrated in critical discourse, sometimes. Does a Fabergé egg need to say something beyond the exquisite craft of its making? I say no. A narrative film, though, makes promises, and like The Impossible, this film has dramatic deficiencies. Cuarón is smart to keep things simple, but it makes for a film that’s ultimately shallow, however broad the net of its craft may be cast.
The story is simple: a trio of astronauts are spacewalking during a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope when the Russians destroy one of their own spy satellites with a missile. The resulting debris cloud proves catastrophic to everything else in orbit, including the Endeavor, our heroes’ shuttle. Dr. Sharrif is killed instantly, but Commander Matt Kowalski is spared. He’s in a jet pack prototype, so he has propulsion even though he’s not tethered to the ship. Dr. Ryan Stone is not so lucky. She is whipped around the debris by the robot arm and eventually thrown clear of the wreck into space, untethered to everything. This is Stone’s first flight, and she’s understandably terrified by her predicament, but she manages to get her bearings so Kowalski can retrieve her. Unfortunately, when they return to the Endeavor, it’s a ghost ship. Everyone is dead. Their next option is the International Space Station, where there is a Soyuz escape capsule. The ISS, too, is abandoned, and the Soyuz is useless for reentry, having deployed its chute in the rain of debris. It’s still possible to fly the Soyuz elsewhere, though, and there is one last option in reach: a Chinese station also has a Soyuz. But the debris cloud is coming around again. Fast….
I saw the plot of Gravity described online as: “Ohshitohshitohshitohshit!” That’s probably as concise a summary of the film’s bad to worse situation as there is. This is an archetypical example of the “One Damned Thing After Another” story structure. Space, the film tells us in its opening titles, is the most lethal environment to humans that exists, and they aren’t kidding around. This is a pure survival story. It’s the sort of story that might have appeared in John W. Campbell’s Astounding in the 1940s, though it’s remarkably contemporary today. It’s barely even science fiction, given that its locations and technologies are more or less real (the Space Shuttle is even retro now, given that it was retired in 2011). Gravity has internalized a lot of the Golden Age of science fiction’s hard-nosed approach in its plotting: there’s a decision made at the midpoint of the film that’s reminiscent of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” while its heroine, is the sort of competent but green character that used to populate Robert Heinlein’s stories. All of this appeals to me. I was raised on this sort of stuff, so your mileage may vary.
The craft of creating all of this is formidable. Cuarón films in long takes, and the whole film theoretically unfolds in real time (theoretically, because there’s one sequence in the third act that could take place out of time). The opening shot is thirteen minutes long and complex as hell. It would be even more fantastic if it were entirely practical instead of being pieced together from digital elements, but it’s still immersive and vertiginous and ultimately terrifying. At other times, there’s a lyrical quality to its views of Earth from orbit, and to the languorous drifting of its astronauts, but that beauty is mocking and treacherous, too. The universe may be pretty, but it doesn’t care about you. This film manages the not inconsiderable illusion of weightlessness for everything on screen, and it’s really the first film I can think of where that illusion is seamless throughout. My partner was convinced, for instance, that great whacks of the film must have been filmed on the Vomit Comet, the plane that NASA uses to simulate weightlessness. She was shocked when I told her that none of this was filmed that way. In some ways, this film is the living end of the Hong Kong wire-fu movie.
It’s not above quoting from other films. There’s a snippet of “The Blue Danube,” for instance, while the voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played John Glenn once upon a time and was the voice of Mission Control in Apollo 13. The scene where Stone strips out of her now-useless pressure suit once aboard the ISS is reminiscent of Barbarella’s zero-G striptease. Because Stone is not even remotely a fetish figure, this is a sly critique of how blockbuster films have often seen women. This is further reinforced when the patriarchal deus ex machina late in the film turns out to be Stone’s own subconscious. This scene functions as plot, true, but it also turns the film into a quasi ghost story. There are hints of that earlier in the film, too, when Stone looks into the cabin of the wrecked Endeavor, and when she finds the body of Sharrif, flash frozen with a big hole through his head. The ISS has a creepy, Marie Celeste emptiness once Stone manages to get there, something the film could probably have punched up even more if it weren’t so consumed with rushing pellmell from crisis to crisis. This is a film where forward motion is everything. Look back and you’re dead. It’s an element on which the film’s pile-driver scariness relies.
Sandra Bullock plays Stone, and she’s good in a difficult part, given that much of her performance involves complicated special effects and wire suspensions. George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski is less of a stretch–Clooney plays this sort of character in “entertainments” all the time. When he exits the movie, leaving the screen to Bullock, it’s a surprisingly minimal subtraction. Bullock herself is mostly given panic and terror as emotional states, which she’s good at, but toward the end of the film she starts to become philosophical. The film gives her a moment of religious reflection, perhaps opting for the (untrue) notion that there are no atheists in foxholes. She’s obviously indifferent to religion prior to the events of the film, given that she flat out says that she doesn’t even know how to pray, but I’m not too bothered by this, because there’s noa priori religious belief stated for her character. I’m more troubled by the psychological baggage that the film gives her, surrounding a dead daughter and the void it creates inside her. The film becomes a crucible for this baggage, to see if it will kill her in the end. Of course, it doesn’t. All it does is manufacture an unearned emotionality. It’s unnecessary. The movie would be fully justified in its heroic final shots even if this stuff were absent.
I love the final shot of this film, though, with Stone rising up like some kind of demigod after crawling ashore. This is a deeply mythological composition, and it fits her. She’s what Icarus might have been, had he survived.