“At 372 miles above the Earth, there is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.”
So opens Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity: a black screen with a few simple statements that foreshadow the gut-wrenching departure from this comfortable terrestrial reality that the film depicts. To underline the point, an incoherent cacophony of orchestral noise builds into a booming crescendo until, as the camera cuts to a stunning view of Earth from orbit, everything goes quiet. That silence holds more awe and terror than any amount of sound ever could.
In a genre already defined by such masterpieces as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13, it may seem that Gravity would have little of its own to add. After all, it is just another space crisis flick that makes dramatic use of the human discomfort with being both weightless and directionless.
The departure that Gravity represents really comes down to cinematography. Cuarón clearly lavished a huge amount of his resources on achieving perfection with first-person shot sequences. A huge portion of the film is seen literally from inside the helmets of the astronauts. This is not to say that one is perpetually disoriented by a cheap, shaky-camera effect as the actors go spinning off into the void; rather, one is disoriented by a camera position and quality of focus that give the frighteningly real impression that you are literally tumbling out of control into a starry abyss. Where Stanley Kubrick and Ron Howard wove together mind-bending and thrilling narratives, Cuarón has wrought a work of art brilliant not for its storytelling, but for its ability to suck us into a spectacular and terrifying place where all of our instincts and bearings become meaningless.
The film follows the ordeal of mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they struggle for survival in a space-scape blown to oblivion by a debris field orbiting at some 50,000 miles per hour. The story gives plenty of opportunity to reveal, in nausea-inducing fashion, the reality of maneuvering in an environment free of both gravity and air friction.
The level of detail that Cuarón and his technical team accomplish in this regard is enough to satisfy even the most hardcore physics majors and is a testament to Cuarón’s ability to seamlessly incorporate scientific realities without detracting from the visual or emotional intensity of the spectacle.
Up to this point it may appear that the scope of Gravity covers little more than 3D eye-candy and space physics, but the film reaches an emotional depth that the mind-blowing visuals belie. As a college-aged viewer, it would be easy for me to say that Gravity is about two spacefarers fighting for survival in front of a beautiful orbital backdrop, with the only real emotion being pure terror. Yet, as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear how Gravity has been able to draw $170 million in box office proceeds from viewers of all demographics. In between the exploding space stations and planet panoramas, Cuarón has managed to put together an intimate exploration of the interface between perseverance and despair, creating some small emotional warmth to counterbalance the literal and figurative iciness of the extraterrestrial setting.
This is not to say that the film’s depth is impressive; there is no denying that the focus of Gravity is on showcasing modern film and visual techniques in depicting the stark and dangerous beauty of space. What will surely prevent the film from cleaning up on awards night is the glaring lack of a profound takeaway. Though to be fair, any sort of higher theme might have gotten lost somewhere within the juggernaut of 3D visual glory that is the lion’s share of the film.
In the end, Gravity should be seen as a work of art, not of narrative. The plot is predictable and the characters, though well portrayed by Bullock and Clooney, are not particularly memorable. Yet, plot creativity and script are by no means the sole measure of a film’s sophistication and ambition.
The moments when you are so disoriented, so terrified and so lost in cinematographic wonder that you feel weightless yourself are what truly distinguish this incredible film.