Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is shaping up to be the best-reviewed film of the year. The bulk of the praise is going to the groundbreaking photography and Sandra Bullock’s moving performance. As the posters will let you know, everyone in Hollywood is over the moon for this film. Some have been calling it the best space film ever made. Quite frankly, I’m not so sure they got the whole point of the film. It does portray space in a very realistic manner, but it’s far from a “space film.” In fact, it’s more of a psychological drama; it just happens to be set in space.
Gravity is one of the most inspirational motion pictures to come out in some time. It hits a chord with the subconscious mind and it’s not because of the master-class of cinematography unraveling before your eyes (it does help though), but it’s because it aims to teach us something about humanity. Gravityis about that precise moment you choose to move forward, the moment you choose to let go of the sorrow that has eclipsed your life for far too long.
The plot unfolds with our two main characters in space. Right away you get to know the type of people they are. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is there to get things done and leave. She doesn’t take a moment to gasp at the beauty surrounding her. In fact, she seems kind of uptight. She wants to finish what she’s there for and get on with it.
Meanwhile, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) floats around exchanging life stories with the space station in Houston. You can tell right away that he’s a free spirit. He’s the type of person who lives every day to the fullest; a guy with a million stories to tell and not a worry in his mind. When they hear of meteors potentially shooting their way, he reassuringly tells Stone to let the guys back in Houston worry about it. Stone lives to work, Kowalski, on the other hand, works to live.
Cinematically, this contrast in character is displayed in metaphorical shots of Stone stuck to a piece of machinery not that different from who she is; its sole purpose in life is to get a job done. On the contrary, Kowaski carelessly floats around like a free spirit. Curaon manages to fully establish two characters in a matter of seconds. The fact that he tells us everything we need to know about his characters using nothing but cinematic imagery evidently shows us that we are about to see the work of an efficient master, dominating his artistic form.
In perhaps the most horrifying moment of any film this year, they get a message: “Explorer, this is Houston. Mission Abort. Repeat. Mission Abort!” In a matter of seconds, a shower of meteors hit them in a breathtakingly catastrophic sequence. The usual soothing silence of space has never been portrayed more chillingly.
Stone follows Kowalski’s instructions and detaches, ultimately floating uncontrollably into blackness. The beauty of Alfonso Cuaron’s symbolic images surprises me with each subsequent viewing. She floats uncontrollably because she is not in control of her life. Kowalski on the other hand is complete control. He comes to her rescue and drags her back to the scene.
The metaphorical journey continues as they voyage to another space station. Kowalski asks about Stone’s past and if there’s anyone back home looking up at the sky, wondering when she’ll return, and we finally understand why she seems to have given up on life. No one is waiting for her.
We learn that she used to have a daughter but lost her in a playground accident. “All I do is work, and when I get home, I just drive. I was driving when I got the call, so ever since, that’s what I do. I drive.” One can’t help but feel sorry for her. The viewer misjudged her. It’s sad how we judge people not knowing what they’ve been through and how they came to be where they are now, but now we understand when and why she gave up on living.
We get the feeling that she has been grieving ever since. Coping with grief is the most painful of all human emotions, but it’s something we all eventually go through. For how long one gets stuck in sorrow depends on the gravity of the situation (no pun intended). Grief comes in many forms, be it divorce, or the loss of a friend you once held dear. Stone is going through the worst kind of grief, the death of a loved one.
Some people never emerge out of this state of mind; they linger in it and make it their home in what ends up being a very depressing life. It makes perfect sense, why she’s been stuck in this state for so long. When we unexpectedly lose someone, it is instantaneous but long lingering. It’s just how we naturally process the emotion. You don’t lose the person in one shot, you lose the person in small painful doses over time- when she goes to bed and stops hearing the cries of her baby, when her child’s scent starts to fade awayher clothes, when memories haunt heras she drives. It’s not easy to let go of things right away, but eventually it all comes down to whether you’ll mourn the rest of your days or learn to let go and move forward.
The first time Kowalski saved Stone’s life was earlier, when he told her to detach. The second time is in another post impact scene that mirrors the first. Only this time, the roles are reversed. He’s the one about to drift into infinite blackness. We see that he’s dragging her with him and the only chance for any of them to survive is if he cuts off the rope. In other words, Kowalski saves her life again through detachment. It’s not by preventing her to float with him into space, but by teaching her that sometimes it’s ok to let go, both literally and metaphorically. “You have to learn to let go,” he says. It’s a beautiful scene.
This is the turning point of our main character’s psychological journey. Stone works her way into a spacecraft and takes off her suit in a hurry. As she floats inside in her bare skin, her posture resembles that of an unborn baby floating in a womb. Stone is reborn. She may not know it yet, but she is about to start a new life. When she fails to get a spacecraft to start up again, she almost gives up again. We see her crying as she communicates with “another world.” We hear the voice of a baby. Stone lets it all out; she laughs, cries and howls like it’s in human beings’ primitive nature to do so.
In the following scene, just as she’s about to accept the fact that she’ll be stuck in this state forever, we see the return of Kowalski. It is clearly a vision and Kowalski is merely her mind pushing her to do what he tried to teach her when sacrificing his life for hers. “What’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. It doesn’t get any rougher than that. It’s still a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, than you got to just get on with it. Sit back. Enjoy the ride. You got to plant both your feet on the ground and start living life.”
Eventually she decides to fight for it. She guides herself through Kowalski. Her subconscious mind digs deep into her memory of what she learnt in boot camp. She gets the thing working and as she shoots towards earth she faces her final step. “You’ll see a little girl, with brown hair, lots of knots. She didn’t like to brush it. You tell her I found her red shoe. She was so worried about that red shoe. And it was under the bed the whole time.” Stone is letting go.
The film ends with Stone crashing into the ocean. She takes her suit off once again and floats back to the surface. The ocean isn’t much different from space when you think about it, it’s uninhabitable, there’s no oxygen, and we hover in what feels like almost zero gravity. Cuaron grounds his message to our world. This could very well have worked as a tale of two people trying to reach the surface, thousands of metres beneath the ocean. The truth is, it is a psychological journey that can, and eventually will, happen to all of us anywhere, on any given day.
We see her break the surface. The mise-en-scene of the whole film has a greyish feel to it. In this particular scene, the colours are vibrant and lively. The journey is over and the future is bright. Stone struggles against gravity at first, but eventually she does the very thing her subconscious self (Kowalski) previously asked for. We see a close up shot of Stone planting her feet to the ground and moving forward.
So. Gravity. It’s all over the Facebooks and the Twitters. People are gushing. The film has garnered a strong rating on IMDb – currently at 8.8 at the time of this posting. (TheShawshank Redemption, the highest rated film on that website, is holding at a 9.4.) The box office expectations have been surpassed. The film is an inarguable winner.
Gravity marks the third film I have seen in 3D, after Avatar and Life of Pi. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to skip this review. Or, stop reading after this sentence: Yes, you should probably go see it, and catch it in 3D, too.
Now, on to business.
Some excited viewers have called the film “a masterpiece.” Adjectives like “outstanding” and “magnificent” pepper the user reviews on fan sites. Some are eagerly slapping the “Best Film of the Year” sticker on it.
It’s been a long time since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Almost as long since Alien. And, after those, truly memorable, groundbreaking films are hard to come by.
Luckily, one thing Gravity Director Alfonso Cuaron does extremely well is break new ground. In his film Children of Men, Cuaron crafts a masterful scene with the main characters driving along through the woods when a gang of revolutionaries attacks the car. The POV for most of the entire scene is from within the car – a camera on a swivel in the center of the automobile makes use of an unobstructed 360 view of the action – putting you right in the center of it.
This same kind of intense immediacy is the staple of Gravity. Every conceivable method is employed seamlessly to place the audience right in the heart of the unfolding events. In short, the effects in Gravity are just astonishing. Not astonishing like big, huge, wow – but so well-handled and woven into the drama that they never announce themselves, but only enhance the story.
This is what effects should do.
The other thing Cuaron likes to do – and, WARNING; once again, if you haven’t seen it, you should stop reading now – is to have a main character die suddenly, and without fanfare. When we lose Clooney to the indifferent tug of eternity, there is nothing gratuitous about it. He simply drifts off, and then he is gone.
(The only thing about Clooney’s death that could strain credibility is with how calmly and nobly he meets his death. However, if you figure that being incredibly calm and noble is probably a prerequisite for anyone who is going to go up into space and float around in the name of humanity, then it makes sense.)
Back to the film being a masterpiece.
We may be a bit starved for truly good sci-fi. The brand new toys of computer-generated effects have given rise to a rash of sci-fi films that are big on flash and grandeur. Merits of its legacy notwithstanding, the latest Star Trek: Into Darkness, for instance, is a film with wonderful effects… that nearly put you to sleep. Elysium is just as dazzling (in a dirtier, grittier way), but the story succumbs quickly to formulaic trappings. Few sci-fi films from recent memory really reach in and do what good sci-fi ought to do: Take us to new heights emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually.
People are, after all, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these films. Their budgets soar beyond the gross national product of some small countries. We could be investing this money into schools, alternative technologies, or any number of things. Instead, we pile on the money for our entertainment. So maybe there is some social responsibility there to at least advance the culture in some way.
With Clooney gone, Sandra Bullock is now marooned on a space station. She has made her way to an escape pod that she realizes has no power. Exhausted, scared, she is calling out on the radio for help when she begins to communicate with someone from Earth. This person can’t help her (he’s just some Asian guy with a HAM radio) but she hears a baby in the background and is reminded of her own daughter, which she tragically lost some years before.
There in Outer Space, so unfathomably vast stretching out beyond her, Bullock is thinking about her child. It’s an amazing thing, and rings true, that even in such extreme conditions, the bonds we have with our children, our loved ones, are still bigger than anything the Universe can serve up.
Bullock also comes to the realization that she is going to die. She mourns herself, and that no one ever taught her how to pray for her soul. It is touching, and profound. It is enough.
Here, then, is where Gravity falls short of that lofty status of masterpiece.
Clooney reappears, and enters the pod with her, and drinks some vodka he finds, and encourages her to think her way out of the situation – to not give up. There are some landing thrusters, he says, which could propel her to the next space station, which is going to fall to Earth, and that’s where she wants to be.
But then Clooney disappears. He wasn’t really there (shocker), but was an apparition, or a figment of her imagination.
Once reinvigorated, Bullocks desultory attitude does a complete 180. She starts talking to Clooney in her mind as she rallies, introducing him to her departed daughter in the afterlife. As she presses buttons and flips toggles in a space station escape pod she thought had no power, the writers pour on the schmaltz. She continues talking to her daughter, mentioning something about how “Mommy found the red shoe, baby.”
So far in the film, everything has felt authentic. Likely a team of NASA experts were consulted in the movie making process. (Kudos for there being no sound in the film when the perspective is from Space. Bravo for the accuracy of all things related to zero-gravity. There is no cheating in Gravity.)
Yet the writing has suddenly started to spread on the cheese.
It would be enough to have Bullock rally – we don’t need to see Clooney come back and take a sip of vodka he finds beneath the cockpit seats. It would be perfectly adequate to have set-up her epiphany of what to do in order to get the escape pod powered with some bit of conversation earlier in the film. And it would have been enough for Bullock to cry for her daughter a little, and murmur to the HAM radio operator about her immortal soul. She doesn’t need to go through a second bout of tearful monologuing about how Mommy Loves You So Much. It diminishes the impact of the moments which preceded her rally. It turns the otherwise seminal film into business-as-usual.
The novelist and playwright Joyce Carol Oates said, “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”
Gravity, then, is a mass entertainment film.
It offers comfort. After all of the floating around in Space, just when Sandra Bullock has decided to give up, she has her magical moment with The Ghost of Clooney. The film has a different tone from this point on. It feels like the walls have closed in. What was riveting and authentic is now spoiled by the hand of the writers, in a give-em-what-they-want turn. Bullock, whose performance has been spot-on so far, now feels more like she’s playing the character in that movie about the homeless football player.
Morbid as it sounds, I found myself hoping that Bullock had actually died, and that her moment with Clooney was where she transitioned to the afterlife herself. And maybe something like Keir Dullea flying into eternity at the end of 2001 would happen now – we would be taken in an exciting, unexpected direction. Instead, we’ve turned the ship around and are headed for home, towards happy endings.
One last thing.
There is a strong birth metaphor in the film. When Bullock has first reached the space station, gasping for air, she pulls of her suit once the pressure has stabilized in the air lock, and she just floats for a minute. Tubes around her resemble an umbilical cord as she slowly rotates in an almost-fetal position. When she eventually crash-lands, she is immersed in water. She has to struggle through a small opening in the pod and then break the surface of the water where she takes her first Earthen breaths. Then, climbing onto the shore, she takes a few unsteady steps. The gravity is new to her, as it would be a newborn baby.
This too, is enough. This would have been plenty of an emotional core to the film without her talking to her daughter about the red shoe.
One red shoe can take the whole thing down. That’s how delicate things are out there in Space.