Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity
Dana Stevens, the film critic over at Slate, aptly articulates the primary virtue of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest work:
“Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer, the wizardly Emmanuel Lubezki, have created a screen space that’s not only 3-D but convincingly polarity-free, with no solid sense of what’s up or down, background or foreground.”
The spatial depth of the film, made more literal than my usual film experience because I viewed Gravity through polarized 3D glasses, is a sight to behold. The sublimity of space provokes a reaction oscillating between horror and awe. When we look into space, we see a starry void, and our perspective will determine whether we fixate on the flickering light or the depths of the emptiness. Thrust against this backdrop, the characters in the film confront not only the dialectical tension between the horror and beauty of space but also that of holding on and letting go. These commingling oppositions, meanwhile, can be thought of as pointing to the great human crisis, that of living in the midst of the knowledge of death. Space, when not stripped of its silent monumentality, serves as a perfect projection screen for these dramatic conflicts.
Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney’s Matthew Kowalski are the human players, astronauts who are cast adrift from their shuttle by whirling space debris. In between bouts of chaos brought on by the satellite junk, the film settles into more contemplative rhythms, though the tension never abates. Within the film, Dr. Stone serves as both a dejected mother figure–she had a daughter who, significantly, died in a fall–and as a child. Contained within various womblike spaces, at one point curling into a fetal position, and often breathing in a belaboured way, she embodies the trauma of life’s beginning and end. In a sense, the film’s whole (downward) arc can be summarized in the story of the daughter’s death. She slipped, fell, and died. This is reenacted through the film as Bullock’s character attempts to fall to Earth in the same way. She finds herself suspended in a hostile, lonely world, a kind of heaven, but pines for home. The final shots of the film, where she is washed ashore clutching beach sand, illustrates what I like to call Gravity’s inversion of 2001. Where Kubrick’s masterpiece chronicles the rise of humanity into space and its eventual transcendence, Cuarón, through his womb imagery and the figure of the mother, tethers us explicitly to Gaia, mother Earth. This is where the double nature of the film’s title comes into play. Gravity is normally thought of as that which pulls us down to Earth, making us fall. It is more properly thought of, though, as that which binds everything together. Binding and falling, therefore, are perfect themes for a film with this title to explore.
Complicating this situation is the film’s other major–and overly explained–theme of letting go. After all, when a child is born, the umbilical cord has to be cut. And you will grow weary of the constant umbilical imagery in the tim, from oxygen tubes to parachute cables, each of which has to be severed in order for Dr. Stone to stay alive. These cuts are all traumatic yet necessary to the (re)birth of Stone into real life. Through masterful shots juxtaposing Earth with the limitless reach of space, we come to long for the beauty of the blue planet. No matter the transcendent potential of the vast universe, home is still home.
At the same time, this connection to Earth is the source of the film’s undoing. Blanketed with swelling strings and buoyed by on-the-nose inspirational speeches, the characters lose their distinctiveness and instead function as stand-ins. Bullock and Clooney perform well, but the script fails them in that it tries to make explicit that which was already clear in the visuals. A harrowing stay in a Soyuz escape pod represents the film’s nadir as it laboriously ticks all the boxes in Stone’s transition from despair to renewed hope. Really, Cuarón, it’s quite enough that she has to use the landing rockets to propel herself forward, but you thought we needed not one but a few speeches to hammer the point home. The haunting imagery is frequently undone through poor sound design that, while it makes good use of the lack of sound in space for dramatic effect, tends to foreground explosive booms and astronaut chatter rather than silence. Perhaps too much silence would have been oppressive or dreadful; yet that is precisely the point.
Not every film has to be minimalistic or subtle. Those are not even traits I usually find too appealing, since I appreciate well-used excess and spectacle. On the other hand, the excesses of Gravity all work to its detriment, turning what would have been an unassuming profundity into a labored exercise. Despite these unneeded additions, Gravity succeeds spectacularly as a work of filmmaking. I am eager to write more about it, so expect additional writing in the future. Simultaneously impressive and disappointing, I am sure it will yield much productive analysis and discussion in the future.